Bernhard Kowatsch: Transforming the Future of Proteins
This episode is part of the Transforming the Future of Proteins series, where we explore the work of XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion, a global incentivized competition that challenges innovators to reinvent alternative proteins.
Bernhard is the Head of the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator, which he created in 2015. The Accelerator sources, nurtures and scales start-ups and nonprofits working to achieve Zero Hunger, as well as running accelerator programs for external partners such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Humanitarian Grand Challenge, and other UN Agencies.
Alex Shirazi (00:03):
Thanks for joining us on the Future Food Show. This episode is part of the transforming the Future of Proteins series where we explored the work of XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion, a global incentivized competition that challenges innovators to reinvent alternative proteins. On this episode, we’re excited to host Bernard Cova. Bernard is the head of the United Nations World Food Program Innovation Accelerator, which he created in 2015. The accelerator source nurtures and scales startups and nonprofits working to achieve zero hunger, a term that we’ll dive deeper into, as well as running accelerator programs for external partners such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, humanitarian Grand Challenge, and other UN agencies. Bernard, I’d like to welcome you to the Future Food Show,
Bernhard Kowatsch (00:57):
Alex. Such a great pleasure to be here and be able to share some of our thoughts here from the World Food Prom Innovation Accelerator.
Alex Shirazi (01:04):
Amazing. Well, first off, tell us a little bit about your background.
Bernhard Kowatsch (01:08):
Well, I originally started my career in private sector in actually management consulting, building businesses for large scale corporates like in in industrial goods and technology. And then, you know, a bit over than 10 years ago, joined the World Food Program and built up the internal management consulting team. Created a startup that’s called Share the Meal. It’s actually still the world’s most successful fundraising app. And then about seven years ago started the World Food Program Innovation Accelerator, a global accelerator for social impact.
Alex Shirazi (01:41):
Wow, okay. And, and I guess for those that are listening, can you give us an overview of the World Food Program in general?
Bernhard Kowatsch (01:49):
Absolutely. The World Food Program is the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger. So wherever you hear in the news, the United Nations is delivering food, whether it’s in Ukraine, Sudan, in Afghanistan, or in Cambodia. It’s the World Food Program. And this is done by actually in 120 countries and territories. World Food Pro, on the one hand saves lives in emergencies, but also changed lives like for, for instance, sustainably ending hunger on like working with smallholder farmers, connecting to market access or fortifying food so that people actually eat a healthy diet. So like there’s school meals programs, so like it’s actually quite diverse, but with this topic and with the vision to end global hunger.
Alex Shirazi (02:36):
I see. And you know, I was reading this term Zero Hunger and I think it was, is either in the World Food Program literature or somewhere else. I mean, of course zero hunger is very direct term, but maybe can you tell us a little bit more about kind of what that term means and maybe what it means as a goal?
Bernhard Kowatsch (02:56):
Yes. So hunger right now on this planet should be a topic of the past. The, and the unfortunate truth is we are actually going backwards right now. There’s 828 million hungry people on this planet. And you know, over the last 30 years we actually have made lots of progress already, like 30 years ago it was more than a billion people. And now unfortunately what has happened the last six years is because of conflicts, because of climate change and also now inflation, we see that the number of hungry people is going up again. And I think like hunger is means that somebody cannot live a healthy life because they don’t have enough calories on a daily basis to do that. And you know, I just believe that every child on this planet should be going to bed with a full stomach, like not going to bed hungry. And there’s actually not food on the planet right now, but there’s multiple reasons why, you know, there’s still hang on this planet and it should be that way.
Alex Shirazi (03:57):
And I’m excited to kind of dig into some of the solutions that the startups at XPRIZE feed the next billion challenger coming up with to, to fight that. But we’ll get into that into a little bit. Tell me more about the innovation accelerator. When did it start? How do I guess organizations, teams, or startups get involved and how does it operate?
Bernhard Kowatsch (04:18):
So we kickstart our Inno World Food Problem Innovation Accelerator in 2015, and with the mission to identify support and scale this disruptive innovations to end global hunger. And it’s both like in the, in the space of emergent response, making that more effective so that every dollar you donate actually is more effectively spent and officially, and on the other side, like how can we actually remove the necessity for world food problem to exist? Like there should be businesses that should be solutions that sustainably address things like nutritional needs, providing healthy foods for people and so on. And so when everybody can apply to us, as a matter of fact to our website innovation.wp.org, on the one hand people can check out like some of the startups or nonprofit innovation that are there, but you can also apply. And then typically we then select the 10 best teams out of every call for applications.
Bernhard Kowatsch (05:17):
And then with them, we actually invite them to do a one week training program, which we call Innovation Bootcamp with the pitch event. And then afterwards the best teams again go into accelerator phase where they receive up to $100,000 of grant funding. So equity refunding, hands-on support through our team and connections to our world food program, field offices, and other external partners. So it’s not just that it’s, well, it’s a random accelerator. No, it’s about how can you actually design, test and scale some of the innovations you have in developing countries for people who are currently hungry. And then again, the best teams go into the scaling phase. And this is where Well, food Pro is uniquely positioned with being active in 120 countries and territories. Of course, like we have boots to the ground in any of those countries.
Alex Shirazi (06:07):
We’ll put the link in the show notes, it was innovation.wfp.org. Can you give us an example of some of the startups or solutions that have been in the program and maybe have implemented or are out in the market?
Bernhard Kowatsch (06:21):
So maybe one example that is relevant also in the, you know, food space we’ve been supporting different, like, you know, social businesses, but also for profits are now, I’ll name one which is called sku. What they’ve developed, they’ve developed an IOT device for small millers and the, the problem that they’re tackling is essentially malnutrition with vitamins. So like in a lot of cases where p when people don’t have enough disposable income, you, you cannot afford a healthy diet. So like what’s the next best thing is actually fortifying staple foods. So foods that you eat every day, you may know this from like, you know, corn flakes or cereals, that they are enriched with vitamins and minerals. So saku does the same thing with Mae Flowers in Africa and doing this in remote parts of the country. And by doing that, they’re able to essentially fortify the maize flower and buying bags in bulk in a sustainable business model. So it doesn’t cost any more for the end customer. And they’ve reached over 5 million people already with 45 maize Flo in Tanzania now expanding to Kenya, which is, I I still think really, really exciting to see like, you know, it’s sustainably growing. And at a certain point, you know, maybe everybody will have access to, you know, healthy foods and like not be suffering from vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
Alex Shirazi (07:41):
Wow, that, that’s interesting and a very good example. I think it, it also shows you that we do need a lot of different types of solutions at play here.
Bernhard Kowatsch (07:50):
No, absolutely. And I, I think this is also where for some solution it could be a nonprofit innovation or an internal solution inside the World Food program where, you know, typically we are looking at you know, when the business world looks at like what’s the value of a company? For us, the question is like, how many people are positively impacted? And by the end of last year, like all the innovations and startups combined, combined have positively impacted 37 million people already and they’ve raised 200 million of grant funding. So just goes through show there is an opportunity there doing good and also still starting with something like, you know, technology startups and make a big difference.
Alex Shirazi (08:32):
Wow, okay. Yeah, that’s a, that’s a definitely a different way to look at roi, 37 million people impacted. That’s great.
Bernhard Kowatsch (08:38):
Absolutely. And I, it like this is where of, of course there’s still a big journey in front of us, but I think with more support, more ingenious ideas, and this is also where I, of course, XPRIZE is coming in, you know, some of these opportunities or some of those startups can make a real difference and like even in the area of alternative proteins, like this is an area that could make a big difference.
Alex Shirazi (09:01):
So let’s actually talk about xprize. How did your team first get involved with the XPRIZE feed? The next billion challenge?
Bernhard Kowatsch (09:09):
So the XPRIZE has been a partner of the World Food program overall for several years actually, including for the Elon Musk funded global learning xprize where World Food Program actually did the testing of the tablets and like where it was about like teaching kids reading, writing and math on tablets. So, and that, that has happened like always a couple of years back. So like it was an existing xprize. So, and ever since a couple of colleagues and I, we were actually engaging with XPRIZE on like, okay, what about if we do something about global hunger, what about if we do something like providing food or agriculture? And actually, so through the years, this is where we’ve been engaging also through the process with the experts trying to find like, okay, where could one of those moonshot challenges be? And so since the early prize design, I was actually personally involved in like the feeding the next billion X prize. But then I’m also right now on the so-called advisory board for this,
Alex Shirazi (10:11):
We know how the, the teams benefit from going through the, the challenge and potentially winning the prize. Right now we’re hosting the, the different finalist teams. But I guess I wanted to ask you, you know, aside from being able to have a product that could potentially reach a billion people, what other types of impact could the challenge bring? Whether that means inspiring other teams, maybe benefiting some of the, the others involved that maybe didn’t make it to the finals. What other types of impact could something like the feed the next billion challenge have?
Bernhard Kowatsch (10:46):
For me, what I find exciting about XPRIZE is the combination of seemingly impossible goals with ingenuity of individuals and people committing to actually tackle this. And it’s something that oftentimes gets overlooked when it’s like about innovation, about technology. You know, how do you actually find the best solutions oftentimes is, you know, some of the principle like open innovation, you do a challenge, you actually get the word out first of all about the necessity that there is a problem and we need to find something. And at the same time it should be somewhat achievable through technology or innovation to actually get there. So it shouldn’t be ridiculously hard necessarily, but it should be very, very challenging, like a really moonshot. And I think by running a challenge with prize money, it has attracted quite a number of startups, nonprofit innovators to actually put their ideas forward and also inspire them, you know, maybe they didn’t compete in the challenge, but then they see, oh, well this could actually be an interesting one and it helps create this demand for some of these, you know, the laying the groundwork and that now of course in a field that is growing already, but I think if we can push it further, it would be really, really relevant.
Bernhard Kowatsch (12:07):
Specifically when you think about alternative proteins, like we know that having a diet that is more diversified and healthy and at the same time good for the environment, this is some of the levers that we will have to pull, including make it affordable for developing countries. And this has been one of my biggest asks to teams in particular where it’s like, okay, it’s great you’re producing a product for the US or for developed markets, but what about developing countries and how to make it affordable for also people who otherwise don’t have, you know, the, the luxury to actually eat these types of proteins.
Alex Shirazi (12:45):
Absolutely. I, I’m getting just inspired, like talking about, you know, what this could bring and the different types of solutions that are available, but I wanted to pick your brain as an expert in the field, what technologies are you most interested in that you think will come about over the next 10 years, maybe something that’s currently in r and d, maybe it’s related to XPRIZE feed the next billion, maybe it’s not. What types of technologies are you kind of excited about now that you think will make an impact?
Bernhard Kowatsch (13:13):
What is interesting is that some of the technologies that are now making an impact are possible because of like base layer technologies, right? Like, so like think about cloud computing, think about mobile phones, think about artificial intelligence, which now all of a sudden we are seeing breakthroughs all of a sudden and we’re, you know, maybe it wasn’t the most obvious thing for everybody, but like now it becomes obvious. It’s a, it is a little bit like thinking about like what could actually happen and so on and so forth. And like, and I think particularly then when you think about engineering products or food nutritional optimization solutions, I, you know, I think about a world where if everybody on this planet has access to nutritious food, it’s affordable, it’s locally sourced, it’s environmentally friendly and like, you know, maybe there’s a technology that actually tells you what you should be eating, which is optimum optimal for you and even for you personally. And it’s not just done for like, you know, very wealthy people, but also like in developing countries maybe, you know, in a future like that, why should that be impossible?
Alex Shirazi (14:24):
I love that and, and I like, especially that it’s not necessarily a new food technology, it could be like an IOT or a hardware technology, it could be a software technology. There are many ways to, to address this problem, which, which is exciting.
Bernhard Kowatsch (14:38):
Alex Shirazi (14:39):
So for those who are listening to the call that, that are either interested in starting their own startup or maybe they’re a researcher looking to make change, what advice do you have for them interested in kind of making the jump and getting into entrepreneurship?
Bernhard Kowatsch (14:57):
So the first piece of advice is always to be open for feedback and at the same time have a vision for what you want to achieve. And I, I think this is can’t be overstated where like typically when people wanna found something, you really need to be very passionate about that problem that you’re trying to solve and like love the problem, but at the same time love the solution that you’re trying to build. And that’s like kind of, that’s the first part of it. The second part of it is also well try to make sure that you learn early and you learn fast, which has to do with how can you actually get feedback on your idea on your product. And at first this can sometimes be hard because like you are exposing ideas that are half baked to people and then you’re getting harsh feedback, but, you know, look at this as feedback that is gonna help you improve. And like, if that’s happening, I think that’s great and like, and I think the, the other aspect of course, like step number one always has to be, you know, trying to find somebody who is on the journey with you. So it can be a co-founder, initial team members, investors, partners, because, and this is where sometimes it is a sad part of entrepreneurship, you might have the best idea if nobody’s believing in you, you may never be able to realize this vision and dream that you have.
Alex Shirazi (16:16):
You always hear about, you know, getting a thousand nos before you get your your first Yes. Right? And so I guess that that’s very good advice because we, we do have to kind of learn to, to deal with harsh feedback because you know, if you’re passionate about it, you can definitely make a change.
Bernhard Kowatsch (16:32):
Well, and it, but it also depends on like whether you have some level of knowledge or gravitas or experience in the topic as well. Whereas like, I think this is one of the challenges when you wanna change, you know, I dunno the industry or you wanna do something else, it’s like, what is it that you have gravitas in? What is that you have experience in? Like maybe you can do that. Like if you’re an app developer, maybe you do the app development, but you find somebody else who is like knowledgeable in nutrition or vice versa, right? And I think this is an aspect of having a team and having a strong team for, you know, entrepreneurship. Like, you know, it actually doesn’t matter as much what the initial concept is as strong team will actually make something good out of it.
Alex Shirazi (17:18):
You know, you can get in touch with Bernard on LinkedIn and you could learn more about the World Food program at wfp.org, the innovation accelerator at innovation.wfp.org and we’ll put those links in the show note. Bernard, do you have any last insights for our listeners today?
Bernhard Kowatsch (17:36):
So I I I would just say like if, if you are excited about creating change in the world, like I think there’s so many opportunities and like, you know, sometimes these, you know, these opportunities can be small, right? It could be something like, well you want to avoid food waste, therefore, you know, you’re buying like maybe one item at the grocery store less or at the market and that’s why how you’re avoiding food waste. Maybe it’s like, I dunno, you change how you eat and like you just change one meal a week. Or like, cuz I’ve co-founded the fundraising app Share the Meal. I mean, with 80 cents you can feed a child for a day, like with one tab on your smartphone. So it’s the share the meal app. Like, you know, th these are kind of very, very simple things that anybody or nearly anybody can do. But then, you know, maybe if you’re an entrepreneur or if you work at a corporation or a tech company, you know, there’s also opportunities that you have there. And like, I think these are sometimes these overlooked opportunities where it’s like, how can we use the power that we currently have to really change the world for the better? And like I think if some people take action and say like, okay, I’m gonna change this one thing together, we can actually have a meaningful impact.
Alex Shirazi (18:49):
I love that. And I’m gonna download the share the meal app right now.
Bernhard Kowatsch (18:53):
Wow. Wow. Thank you so much. And look, this is where I think the power of community comes in, right? Like, you know, you might be one person sharing a meal, but then you know, many others might join in.
Alex Shirazi (19:04):
That’s great. So Bernard, thank you so much for being a guest on the show.
Bernhard Kowatsch (19:08):
Thanks so much, Alex, it was a pleasure to speak today.
Alex Shirazi (19:11):
This is your host, Alex, and we look forward to seeing you on the next episode.