Bringing Entrepreneurial Energy to the Nutrition Field

The Friedman School’s Food and Nutrition Innovation Institute aims to increase equity, sustainability, and health in the ecosystem of food, agriculture, and wellness

The food, agriculture, and healthcare industries are immense segments of our economy with an outsized potential for impact—not only on healthier living, but also on sustainability and equity. Since 2020, Katie Stebbins has been executive director of the Food and Nutrition Innovation Institute at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. From her vantage point, she sees huge potential dividends in fostering radical innovation in those industries.

Recently Tufts Now sat down with Stebbins to get her take on where the biggest opportunities lie, and how the institute is stimulating conversations and research, while training a new generation of experts to cultivate a robust, science-driven ecosystem of food, agriculture, and wellness innovation and entrepreneurship that increases equity, sustainability, and longevity for all.

How does your background—which isn’t in healthcare or nutrition—contribute to your current role?

I started my career as an environmental planner for the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, and then became the executive director for the Holyoke Innovation District before joining Governor Baker’s administration as the Commonwealth’s first “Tech, Innovation and Entrepreneurship” assistant secretary. Later, I was vice president of economic development and chief economic development officer for the University of Massachusetts’ five campuses. I’ve also launched two startups. Through these roles, I worked on community health, economic development, and urban planning, each of which touched food and nutrition in some way.

Through this work, I have honed my skills in building innovation ecosystems, an economic development model focused on systems change through technology-focused solutions. Food and nutrition are complex related systems that benefit from this model. Layered into this role is the chance to collaborate with and learn from the incredible expertise and creativity of the faculty all around me at Friedman, and at the other schools at Tufts. I’m learning so much from them.

What brings you to the Friedman School?

Health care and food are huge two industries in need of innovation and entrepreneurship.

As both a part of Tufts, and also the only freestanding school of nutrition in the United States, the Friedman School, the Food & Nutrition Innovation Institute is in a unique position to convene academics, medical experts, industry leaders, and government officials to focus on ways those two industries can help people lead lives that are both longer and healthier.

What in your view is the interplay among food, longevity and the environment and sustainability?

Longevity to me means living a long life as relatively disease-free as possible. We need to optimize our food supply simultaneously for longevity, equity, and the environment.

For example, avocados are a superfood that research shows deliver multiple benefits to our body systems. So, the market for avocados expands, but avocados are water-intensive to grow. Farmers discover they can make more money growing avocados rather than oranges, so they shift from growing oranges to avocados. This puts tremendous demands on a scarce water supply. Almonds, another superfood, have a similar effect. Market surges on foods that are ‘good for us’ have the potential to harm the environment. We need to address those competing imperatives.

Agriculture is also home to some of the dullest, dirtiest, lowest-paying jobs. This is where synthetic biology becomes interesting as we focus on both the environment and equity.

How is your program working with the food and healthcare industries to encourage innovation?

We have a council with more than 90 members from for-profit and non-profit organizations, including startups, in the food and health care fields. Our council convenes at regular intervals to hear from Tufts experts, government experts, and to share information from members’ own organizations. 

We are teaming up with one of our council company members, Nestlé Health Science, to start what we are calling Innovate Forward: The Longevity Challenge. The challenge is a competition focused on cognitive, gut, and metabolic health. The goal is to identify new, innovative ideas percolating in startups focused in those areas, and to provide winners of the challenge with up to six months of mentoring and a year’s membership on our council so they can get help from people at Tufts and from industry to develop their ideas.

Where do you see the biggest opportunities to have an impact on longevity?

Longevity is focused on maximizing time spent feeling well, versus feeling ill. With this goal in mind, I think the biggest opportunities for innovation are in at least three areas.

First, a focus on the microbiome and its relationship to all our organ systems, but particularly the gut and the brain. The second area is artificial intelligence. Obviously, AI is booming and on everyone’s mind these days. But using artificial intelligence can help us more rapidly understand the tremendous amount of data being generated about the microbiome and nutrition’s effects on the microbiome and how the microbiome is in turn connected to certain diseases and to being healthier. We will be able to learn so much faster and act on that information so much more quickly with the help of AI.  

A third area is precision nutrition. That’s an approach to developing individualized nutritional recommendations based on a person’s genetics, their microbiome, metabolic profile, health status, physical activity, dietary patterns, food environment, as well as their socioeconomic and psychosocial characteristics. Precision nutrition can help answer the question “What should I eat to be healthy?” It recognizes that what is healthful for me may not be quite the same as what’s healthy for you, and that what I should be eating evolves over time as my health and my diet change. 

What specific innovation do you see emerging in the precision nutrition field?

There’s a lot of consumer interest in individualized products, and a lot of advances in technology and research about how different foods affect people differently. Wearables, sensors measuring blood glucose and other biomarkers, smart pills measuring what’s going on in your gut microbiome, and other devices generate additional mounds of data.

There is a lot of excitement about the future of these efforts to help us better understand at an individual level what each of us should be eating to live longer and healthier. We also need to make sure the evidence supports the claims of products that we hope will help us personalize our nutrition to live healthier lives.

How are you working with students across Tufts to stimulate innovative thinking?

We have a Seeding the Future Lab that attracts students from many of the schools at Tufts, including Engineering, Arts and Sciences, the Fletcher School, and even the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, to present problems and potential solutions around food and equity. We work with the students using human-centered design to develop and test solutions. Council members offer students real world feedback on their ideas.

Projects our students are working on include developing an app to help low-wage, food-insecure people working in grocery stores a way to buy soon to expire food at discounted prices. We were approached by students who wanted to ensure that people who work around food all day can afford to buy food and feed their families.

Another project is focused on developing food packaging labels for healthy and sustainable foods that would be particularly attractive to millennials and Gen Z’ers. A third team is focused on helping empower female farmers in Kenya to grow and sell foods that would reduce anemia in their communities through seed biofortification.

A fourth project was done in conjunction with Johnson and Wales University in Providence. We called it J-WU (jay-wu) @ Spring Break. Students spent four days at culinary school, learning flavor profiles and food chemistry. We talk about making food with less salt, sugar, and fats. But let’s face it: salt, sugar, and fat taste good. They are frequently needed at some point in the cooking process to make the foods we eat taste really good. J-WU @ Spring Break gave our students the opportunity to learn more about when it’s OK to substitute and how to do so in such a way that the substitution will still retain the flavorfulness of meals.

Our students are really amazing. This real-world experience is helping them better understand not just how innovation happens, but how it can increase the health and longevity of people in the U.S. and around the world and how they can serve as change agents and leaders in the process.

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