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Revolutionizing Food Innovation with AI

Ethan Watters | June 4, 2024

Impact | The Originate Initiative

Technological advances are both here and on the way, and they can be harnessed by innovative thinkers.

For insight into how generative AI is affecting the food industry, Hormel Foods asked journalist Ethan Watters to delve into this evolving technology. Ethan interviewed Steve Gundrum, chairman and chief AI officer of Mattson, capturing his insights into this field and taking a closer look at their technology. References to specific companies, stores or products do not indicate endorsement of them.

The last three decades have brought radical technological advances in the business world, including ubiquitous computer technology, automation, always-on communication and internet connectivity. According to Steve Gundrum, chairman and chief AI officer at Mattson, a Silicon Valley-based food innovation firm on a mission to transform the food industry through creative solutions, we are facing yet another technological inflection point. In his view, artificial intelligence may be more impactful than all the changes that have come before.

Nothing comes even close to what we’re going to experience with AI. The arrival of AI changes everything.

Steve Gundrum, chairman and chief AI officer, Mattson

“Nothing comes even close to what we’re going to experience with AI. The arrival of AI changes everything,” says Gundrum. “In only the last couple of years, the economic model of access to information has been utterly disrupted. We now have instant access to such a vast amount of knowledge at low cost. This will be the most transformative technology we’ll experience in our lifetime.”

Gundrum has spent over three decades at Mattson helping food companies develop concepts formulating products, and testing prototypes for new products. In the last few years, he’s been exploring the frontiers of generative AI, engaging companies on how these new technologies are best used. He has recently entered a partnership with Hormel Foods to help its innovation teams explore the creative capacities of generative AI.

This AI Is Different

While AI in various forms has been around for over a decade, so-called generative AI systems based on complex neural networks have only been in widespread use for a couple of years. These systems, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Anthropic’s Claude and Google’s Gemini, have the ability not just to access billions of data points in the collective consciousness of AI for useful patterns and information but to serve as creative tools.

Not long ago, developing such a system for any single company would have been cost-prohibitive. Since the launch of ChatGPT in 2022, however, pretty much everyone, from students to CEOs, can access these generative AIs for reasonable fees. But the fact that everyone can use a generative AI system (you just have to fill in a box with a prompt, after all) doesn’t mean everyone is truly using this new tool to its full potential. Using generative AI systems, Gundrum points out, isn’t like using Google search.

Anyone can log onto ChatGPT or one of the dozen other AI engines and prompt it to create a list of new food products. But it takes some technical chops and knowledge to coax an AI to create something useful. Using a generative AI system in an unsophisticated way is like casting a line randomly into the ocean. You might get lucky, of course, but chances are that you’ll come up with nothing of value. To land the big one, you need an experienced guide with deep knowledge and specialized techniques. Gundrum is taking that role for the Hormel Foods Originate team as they explore the uses of this new technology.

Mattson’s Secret Sauce

Although Gundrum helps clients create tools they can use every day, his favorite way to introduce clients to generative AI is ProtoThink AI (a cloud-based AI enhanced collaborative ideation process) and in real-time, hands-on brainstorming sessions he calls Food Studio AI. During these sessions, Gundrum introduces clients to Leo AI agent built on top of various large language models and designed specifically to accelerate the ideation process for food-industry professionals.

In addition to Leo, Gundrum has created AI personas to represent consumer segments or professional expertise. AI personas can be created to represent a target consumer such as a working single mother or a buyer for a quick serve restaurant. These AI agents can give instant feedback on a product idea. Alternatively, if you have a question about sourcing and regenerative agriculture, you can create an AI persona with the knowledge of a PhD agronomist with decades of experience to answer your questions.

“The speed of innovation in these AI-aided sessions is so fast,” he says. “Our AI models don’t just help you to generate bigger new products, they can create designs of the packaging and pictures of a meal on the plate. These sessions are like watching a plant grow in a time lapse.”

But the future isn’t just about AI, Gundrum says. “I encourage people to think of these AI agents as a thought partner. My saying is RI plus AI, meaning you need real intelligence and artificial intelligence. The more experience and knowledge you have on the human side, the better the output from AI.”

Some people who have experimented with AI have noticed that it can sometimes provide inaccurate answers. Gundrum notes that this sort of AI hallucination can scare people off. “Thank goodness it can hallucinate and do something like dreaming,” he says. “There is no creativity that is born of just pure logic and facts.” The value of generative AI systems, in other words, is that they don’t work with the clockwork precision of traditional computers. The process Gundrum describes isn’t as simple as asking a question and getting an answer. The process is iterative, where ideas are finetuned through long conversations with AI.

Right Time Adoption

Having worked with dozens of companies, Gundrum has noticed a general reluctance among leaders in the food business to adopt new technology. He recalls having an email address for seven years before receiving his first electronic missive from one of his clients. “For years, I gave out my email address, and clients would say, ‘What is this?’” he says. “I’d explain, and they’d say, ‘OK, I’ll fax you.’ The food industry has not always attracted people interested in technology.”

With the Hormel Foods team, he’s found a much more eager partner — no surprise given the company’s history. Every generation of Hormel Foods leaders has faced a critical turn in technology. The plants and facilities the company built over the decades have been cutting edge, filled with equipment and processes unique to the industry.

As former Hormel Foods CEO Richard L. Knowlton recounted in his memoir, the company developed leadership that continuously “embraces technology, change, and the enigmatic vagaries of marketing in a rapidly changing consumer marketplace.” His mantra: “Don’t wait for a new concept, a new technology, to suddenly ‘arrive’ and alter your world.” Prospering required, he wrote, “being at the technological forefront of the food business.”

Knowlton led the company during the 1980s and early ’90s, a remarkable time of change in computer and automation technology, not to mention the sudden widespread use of an entirely new cooking device: the microwave. Bringing outside partners to the table was critical to adopting all those changes. The same is true today with one difference: the speed of technological change has accelerated.

“Working with partners like Mattson is critical to staying at the cutting edge of technology,” says Nate Smit, enterprise lead for breakthrough innovation at Hormel Foods. “We have incredible team members in-house, particularly on our engineering team, but having a partner that can lead us into a technology as promising and complex as AI is invaluable.”