Tech Byte: Food Tech

Food Technology describes how technology can improve agriculture and food production, supply chain, distribution and consumption. It’s a rapidly-expanding field that has the potential to combat hunger and environmental issues, and with a new grant from the Economic Development Administration, Clark Atlanta University will soon be leading the city’s food tech innovation pack.

The University received $400K as part of a $15 million investment grant from the EDA’s Regional Innovation Strategies Program which will fund its STEM urban farming project: CREATE. The historically black university is one of only 35 organizations (out of 215+ applicants) to receive RIS funds and the first Southern HBCU in the program.

“Project CREATE will support entrepreneurs in using STEM technology and innovations to build healthy local food systems along with collateral entrepreneurial ventures in Southwest Atlanta,” says Clark Atlanta president Ronald Johnson. “My team and I understand the value of community collaboration on the Westside and I decided to approach the Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Truly Living Well and the United Negro College Fund.”
CREATE will utilize the expertise of these three non-profit organizations, from their research experience to the urban farmers’ network, and help transform local food systems in southwest Atlanta and beyond. For the duration of the three-year long grant, CREATE will host five cohorts of 10 entrepreneurs each from four project partners — including students from the Atlanta University Center and TLW community volunteers.

“Urban farming is booming in Atlanta and across the country from Boston to Detroit to Portland, Ore.,” says Johnson. “However, the development of tech-related agro businesses in this sector is somewhat lagging. Both the EDA and CAU recognize the need to develop and grow a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem in Southwest Atlanta, especially in light of the new stadium and all of the commercialization and gentrification of property that is coming to that neighborhood. This a natural fit for the ecosystem we seek to develop.”

According to Johnson, CREATE will initially focus on three urban farming innovations: A high-powered mobile self-flushing portable water filtration system developed at Clark Atlanta University; an efficient biofuel conversion system that converts used cooking oil into biofuel; 15 high-volume three-dimensional (3D) printers using PLA, metal, glass, ceramic and other highly durable materials.

The program will assist cohort entrepreneurs and urban growers in product testing, business strategies and ultimately, help them implement their new food tech innovations in their communities. Innovations may include purification units to clean city and storm water for agricultural use, miniature biofuel heaters for raised beds, and farming hand tools and water-level sensors for agricultural use.

“As ‘stewards of place,’ we have an obligation to outreach to the community around us, to ventures already supporting the community like TLW and to historic groups like the Russell family and their prolific entrepreneurial track record not only in the Atlanta African-American community but in similar communities throughout the U.S. Add the mission of UNCF in support of HBCUs and this all fits very naturally,” says Johnson.

Clark Atlanta University will also provide educators from their Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development, as well as professors in the Computer Science, Engineering and Entrepreneurship programs, as resources for program participants.

“We hope to be a model for other HBCUs and communities who can collaborate to develop sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems capable of growing entrepreneurs, providing jobs and bringing disadvantaged neighborhoods into the innovation,” says Johnson.

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