UMass Amherst Joins Partnership to Develop Sustainable Food Products

Big Idea Ventures chooses university collaborators for $125 million Generation Food Rural Partners fund
Food science major Matt Sheiman develops a plant-based burger.
Food science major Matt Sheiman develops a plant-based burger.

AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst is among nine institutions chosen to collaborate with Big Idea Ventures to help develop and commercialize new, sustainable food products and agricultural innovation that will fuel economic development in rural communities, the New York City-based venture capital firm announced Tuesday.

In January, Big Idea Ventures launched the Generation Food Rural Partners (GFRP) fund, a $125 million target fund that aims to accelerate the commercialization of groundbreaking, university-developed intellectual property involving “the new food space.” North Carolina State was the initial collaborator.

In addition to UMass Amherst, the other new collaborators are: Louisiana State University, Oregon State University, Penn State University, Purdue University, Tufts University, University of Hawai’i, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

“We’re honored to welcome these universities to the GFRP consortium,” says Tom Mastrobuoni, chief investment officer for Big Idea Ventures. “The research being conducted at each of these institutions spans our three areas of focus: food, protein, and agriculture innovation. Our team is excited to start building new companies based on technology being developed by some of the world’s best and brightest.”

The UMass Amherst collaborators will be researchers in the College of Natural Sciences food science department – a world-renowned program that is ranked No. 1 in the U.S., according to the 2020 Global Ranking of Academic Subjects and prior rankings.

The department, which has the oldest academic food science program in the country, features internationally recognized faculty members, including three food scientists consistently named among the world’s most highly cited researchers.

“Big Idea Ventures is a good match for us,” says David Sela, associate professor of food science and director of the Fergus M. Clydesdale Center for Foods for Health and Wellness. “We’re into sustainability; we’re into innovation; we’re into real-world solutions; and that’s where our interests align.”

The center brings together scientists, educators, government policy makers and industry executives from around the globe to identify solutions to food-related health issues. Some of the research focuses on the solubility, stability, color and other properties of plant-based protein.

“We’re looking to understand the structure of these food products so we can make them tastier and more economically beneficial for the consumer, as well as provide an option for folks looking to optimize their health and performance,” Sela says.

Another major research theme in the center involves the impact of new food products on the human microbiome. “We’re looking at how these plant-based proteins are cycled in our microbiomes, how they are able to utilize that source of nitrogen that impacts our physiology, our health and wellness, and ultimately our homeostasis,” Sela says. “We’re so used to looking at things in context of meat, but now we have to take a look at what’s going on with these plant-based meat substitutes. Do we see the same sorts of impacts to our nutrition through the microbiome?”

Big Idea Ventures will open “venture centers” to work with the universities to identify and evaluate new developments with the strongest commercialization potential, and the fund will then invest in new companies formed around the groundbreaking research. These new companies will be headquartered in rural communities near the collaborating universities.

“We believe GFRP will drive additional research and encourage entrepreneurs to establish their companies near our venture centers in rural America,” Mastrobuoni says. “Food traditionally comes from rural communities and this is one way to help those communities grow economically.”

Sela says the GFRP collaboration will speed new discoveries to the marketplace by supporting research and funding start-up companies. “We’re looking forward to innovating with them over the course of what we do in our laboratories,” he says. “At the end of the day, we want to see that in the marketplace, and this will enable us to get there.”