The Food Lab at UT, which recently launched an early-stage business startup competition, the Food Lab Challenge Prize, received more than 120 registrants for its first-time event. The competition, encouraging innovation in four categories within the global food system, drew interest from throughout Texas, plus Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Georgia and California. As of the September 30th deadline, 62 teams submitted their summary business plans, a requirement to be considered among the top 20 finalists. The Food Lab will award $30,000 in prizes when winners are announced at the Food Challenge Showcase Day on February 14, 2015. The business competition is open to anyone, anywhere, from undergraduate students to serial entrepreneurs. 


The Food Lab’s academic partnerships with Startup Aggieland of Texas A&M, FoodSol at Babson College and MIT, led to a high number of student applications. The majority of teams, student and otherwise, were from Austin and the state of Texas. Entries were evenly spread across three categories, with the category of Healthy Eating pulling in the most entrants. Other competition categories include Inputs and Production; Processing, Packaging and Safety; and Storage and Distribution.

A wide range of business ideas were submitted, from building vertical farms to using robots to produce food. However, entomophagy, eating insects for food, was a popular theme in the category of Healthy Eating. “I was a bit surprised in the interest, even a passion, among many of the student applicants in the movement to eat more insects,” said Robyn Metcalfe, founder and director of the Food Lab at UT. “Eating insects isn’t a new idea – people in certain parts of the world have long eaten insects for nutritional value as well as taste. However, we’ve seen a big push in this edible category as it relates to alleviating hunger and providing an alternative source of protein.”

The Food Lab is in the process of reviewing each application and narrowing the field to the top 20 teams who will be notified on November 1st. The top 20 will then be paired with industry mentors who have expertise in various areas of the food business, from agriculture and nutrition to venture funding, technology and food packaging. Mentors and teams collaborate until February 14th, 2015, when each team will pitch its business idea before a team of judges. The event will be open to the public.

Showcase Day for the Food Lab Challenge will take place at the Norman Hackerman Building on the University of Texas campus. The Food Lab has gathered an impressive list of judges thus far including Elise Golan, director for Sustainable Development at the United States Department of Agriculture; Caleb Harper of the MIT Media Lab and founder of MITCityFarm; Martin Berson, founder of Snap Kitchen; Elizabeth Winslow of the Sustainable Food Center and David Palmer of Startup Aggieland, to name a few.