AgTech: Just Another Buzz Word?

In the past 12 months since moving to Silicon Valley, I have been hearing the word “AgTech” quite a bit.  Initially, my reaction was, “just what we need, another new buzz word.”  But I believe this trend is a noble one that will likely continue to be around for a long time to come. Technology in the agriculture space, I believe, is an important one due to the real world problems that we are facing.  The silver lining here, at least for me, is that this is a great example of where technology is being used to benefit humankind and the planet.
Recently I attended a talk about AgTech hosted by Keizai Silicon Valley.  At this talk, 3 start-ups talked about their products and shared ideas about how we can address some of the real world problems in the food industry.  Here are short snippets about each of the start-ups:
Zippin:  As they proclaim during the talk, this small start-up has the bold aspiration to banish standing in line—for good—with their AI check-out technology platform.  This solution is already being deployed by some retailers such as Amazon Go.
Byte Foods Provides retailers with a smart vending kiosk solution that allows them to offer fresh food, including perishable items in a vending machine.
Yo-Kai Express: Provides a fast gourmet restaurant in a box.  This service can be set up in a factory, mall, or in a company’s office.  Regardless of setting, end-users can enjoy quality gourmet ramen in less than 45 seconds.
Some of the key take-aways that I captured from this talk include the following:
  1. There is a seismic shift happening at retail — consumer demand is driving by convenience more than any thing.
  2. Today’s vending machines are not designed for fresh foods which also represents a real business opportunity for the AgTech industry.
  3. We may need an additional 70% more food to feed 10 billion people by the year 2050.
  4. A popular word in the industry has become “sustainable food”  The mindset here is increasing the resiliency, productivity, and profitability of food.

Certainly AgTech is an area that I am not knowledgable about but it is precisely that reason why I am glad that I went to this talk.  One key point this talk reinforced is that we all have a role in doing the right things now to ensure our food supply is used responsibly.  Rather than focusing on increasing food production — due to the 4th point above — we  should first ensure we are maximizing what we produce today by minimizing waste.  I believe that this sentiment was shared by all of the panelists at this talk.  

So, if you have not heard about AgTech, well now you know.  This will likely be around for a long time to come and companies that truly invest in solving food sustainability will benefit in result (and, just maybe, mankind, too).  

Coming (back) to America

Perhaps I have to get use to this but a lot a people have asked me if I miss Japan or if I have experienced reverse culture shock.  My answer to both questions is a resounding “YES” but it got me pondering about how different things have become here in the states.  Indeed it is natural to want to highlight the political climate, technology, fashion, and other social trends but many of these are a given byproduct of time.  Some of the most obvious changes are the shared economy —  Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, and Turo are some of the biggest services in town that have changed how we live, work, and play. But it got me thinking, what else has changed, good or bad?

Some immediate “good changes” that come to mind include my observation that people are more environmentally-conscious than I remember.  To help cultivate this environment mindfulness, people are encouraged to bring their own bag when grocery shopping.  After living in a country that is very environmentally-driven, I appreciate this.  Somehow though I keep forgetting to bring my own bag and I consequently end up spending money on paper or plastic but someday it will click.  Note to self — keep a bag in the trunk of the car.  

Another big change that I have uncovered is home entertainment.  It is easier to cut the cord than ever before with the many online streaming services out there like YouTube TV, Hulu, and Netflix.  In the past it was literally impossible especially if you watched sports but now you have sophisticated options.  As someone who has been vocal that people should watch what they want when they want to, I’m happy to see that there are more options out there with high quality content.  Note to self — Check out Hulu content.  

I would be remiss to not mention sports.  Having moved to the Bay Area, it is virtually impossible to not hear about the Golden State Warriors and their marquee players like Stephon Curry and Kevin Durant.  And the Golden State Warriors are good, very good.  I remember when they were the bottom of the barrel in the league but now they are not only world champions but also a true dynasty having won 3 championships in the 4 years.  Moreover, their style of play has changed how basketball is being played all over the country.  Note to self — master the three pointer.   

But what seems to be overshadowed by the good are the things that are not so good.  When I was here back in the early 2000s, people seemed more engaged and less distracted.  People are too consumed and somewhat controlled by their cell phones everywhere: in their car, in the restaurants, at home, and in the office.  This has been a sobering reality that I am hopeful will change soon but I’m not going to hold my breath.  Note to self — be an example for others.  

But perhaps the biggest observation that I have after returning back to the states is that the gaps between haves and have nots seems to be widening. After living in Japan where everyone seems to have a fighting chance to make a working living, I have been saddened by how expensive it has become in the Bay Area.  The cost of living has always been an issue in places like Silicon Valley but I never thought it would come to a mind-numbing point.   This is something that needs to be addressed by not only policy makers but also tech companies as we are on an unsustainable trajectory.    Note to self — remain hopeful and vocal.  

Naturally I could probably keep on writing about my observations but I will refrain for right now.  While I am still adjusting to the American lifestyle, it’s been a very interesting and an informative few months.   A lot has remained the same but inevitably  a lot has changed both for the good and for the bad.  It is my hope and my working hypothesis that the good will be far greater than the bad for my family.



Baseball is Getting Personal Again

From August 24th through the 27th , Major League Baseball will be introducing the 2nd Annual Players Weekend to baseball fans nationwide. If you are already a fan of the game then I do not have to tell you how successful this event was last year. Regardless if you love the game or not, it was a great example of how a little unconventional thinking and risk-taking together can create something wonderful in the process.

A Quick Description

Players Weekend is when fans are given a closer look at the personality of each and every baseball player on every team. Each player is allowed to wear a nickname on the back of their jersey for 3 consecutive games. Also, each player can wear a “tribute patch” on their sleeve that acknowledges someone or a group of people who they have great appreciation for helping them reach the Major Leagues. These two factors alone could be characterized as the genius of Players Weekend. Because of this, fans are able to get a personal complexion of almost every player on the field. This is coupled with colorful uniforms that are exclusively designed for the weekend. Moreover, players are allowed to wear colorful socks and kleets and unique bats — of their choosing — that would not normally be allowed in any other game.

Why I knew it Would be a “Hit”

I knew that Players Weekend was on to something special by watching how my wife reacted to the game. On most weekends we would have my hometown team, the Minnesota Twins, come into our living room. On most days depending on the score she will tune in and out over the course of 9 innings but during Players Weekend, my wife’s attention was acutely focused on the players. She was intrigued by the colors of the uniforms and the imaginative nicknames. Because of that, we had unchartered conversations about the players and their personalities the very first time. For example, Ervin Santana‘s — a Minnesota Twins pitcher — nickname was “Magic.” As we listened to the broadcasters we learned at the same time that Ervin (correct spelling) was a prolific baseball and basketball player in his home country, The Dominican Republic. And, it so happened to be that his boy idol was Earvin “Magic” Johnson. We also learned that Ervin’s real name was actually Johan but he changed it to Ervin to avoid confusion with another famous Twins pitcher who had the same first and last name. Without question, this conversation and mutual intrigue of the players that my wife and I had was singlehandedly catalyzed by this inaugural Players Weekend.

The Power of Being Personal

What Major League Baseball and the Major League Players’ Association did was a teachable reminder that organizations — no matter their industry, size, or location — should never stop to reimagine how to connect with customers in meaningful and untraditional ways. In this example, MLB focused on the product (i.e., the players) and made the overall platform (i.e., the game) experience much more personal in the process. By doing so, they were able to uncover new customers and deepen the loyalty of existing ones. It is because of this that I commend the MLB for their willingness to take a chance on this a year ago. I look forward to seeing this continue and only get better for years to come.

Delta’s Most Recent Announcement

Recently, Delta announced plans to prioritize comfort with a “refreshed Boeing 777.”  As highlighted in their official press release, they will be making significant improvements to each of their seat segmentation categories: Delta One, Delta One Premium Suite, and the Delta Main Cabinet.

From what I have read online, this created quite a stir in the industry as it was unprecedented for an airline carrier — especially a major one — to prioritize customer comfort.

My immediate reactions to this announcement:

  1. It’s about time!
  2. This is a great reminder that organizations must be customer first.
  3. As customers, this is something that we should come to expect.

For Delta to make this bold statement underscores that they are putting the customer first.  As we all know, when flying overseas for 10+ hours, every extra inch that we can get we would welcome with open arms.  For Delta to take this big step sends a message that they are focused on providing a quality experience all of their customers who fly on this aircraft (albeit at different levels depending on the area in the cabinet).

We often think that a customer first organization is one that provides simply a great service or fantastic product but it does not stop there.  Regardless of industry, product, or service, the customer experience is wide and deep and organizations have to think creatively end-to-end as well as listen to the voice of the customer.   By doing so they will be able to identify pain points that they can then prioritize.  Focusing on the ones that significantly impact customers’ decisions to buy is the key.  This is fundamental not only to foster customer loyalty but because it’s just good business practice.

Time will tell if this customer first strategy will be a source of differentiation for Delta but for now, I believe they are a role-model in the industry.

Design Thinking is…Thinking

I attended a Design Thinking event hosted by the Keizai Silicon Valley association in Mountain View. It was a fascinating discussion about how design thinking can (and should be) used as a engine to spark innovation with Japanese companies. During his presentation, Aki Koto-san (a Partner at WiL), talked about Suzuki Motors as a use case who recently embraced this way of thinking.

Many know Suzuki as the makers of motor bikes but they also manufacturer wheel chairs. In an effort to ignite creative thinking and innovation, Suzuki sent a few of their engineers to the Valley to embrace Design Thinking as a way to reimagine wheelchairs. There approach included the following:

  • Interviewing 150 Elders
  • Volunteering at a Wheelchair Store
  • Using a Wheelchair in Real Life Situations

The 3 engineers also lived together and ultimately came up with new ideas that were empathetic to wheelchair users. We do not know exactly what the team conceptualized but, as Koto-san shared, Suzuki Motors approved their idea.

I look forward to seeing what Suzuki will be bringing to market. But, more importantly, I hope that other companies in Japan will take notice. Design Thinking is all about thinking in the right way to not only solve problems but to FIND problems that we did not know were there.