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How Gil Shalev Of Equinom Is Helping To Address The Growing Challenge Of Food Insecurity

Truly disruptive technologies take time to develop. As much as we crave a shortcut, there are no quick wins. But my team deeply believes that Equinom will change the future of food and will make plant protein a major, accessible source of nutrition to the world.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis of people having limited reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. As prices rise, this problem will likely become more acute. How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who are helping to address the increasing problem of food insecurity who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve this problem.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Gil Shalev.

As founder and CEO, Gil Shalev is the visionary, entrepreneur and driving force behind Equinom, a company on a mission to cultivate plant-based ingredients that are truly better for people and our planet. Shalev oversees the strategic direction of Equinom, and is responsible for accelerating global expansion and leading fundraising efforts to scale up the organization. Shalev sees better, naturally bred plant-based ingredients as an important, sustainable and pragmatic solution to our global health and climate crises.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Growing up, I was always very attracted to nature, even if I didn’t realize at the time it would be a major part of my life’s work and passion. I was always playing outside, and as I got older, I got into traveling. At first, I thought I would take the obvious and ideal path: go to university, finish my first degree, and go become a farmer. However, in Israel in order to be a successful farmer, you must come from a lot of money, and unfortunately this was not the case for me. I decided to instead pursue my path in education and continue schooling to study breeding. It was around the time of pursuing my third degree — where I was working with my professor to open a breeding company specifically for roses — that I started to recognize the much larger opportunity space when it comes to breeding. After completing my third degree in roses, I then moved on specifically to tomatoes, and the big ‘unlock’ continued to come to me. I felt there was an opportunity to explore different varieties of crops we already breed in order to help create a more sustainable food system. And thus, Equinom was born. Thinking back to my childhood, this is something my family really could have benefitted from — a reliable, sustainable, and secure food system. It was a sprinkling of different seeds and experiences versus one particular moment over my upbringing and education that eventually led me to create Equinom.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Two years ago, in the middle of Covid, I got a call from Sigal Meirovitch, the Director of Protein Research and Development at Equinom. Sigal told me, “We made it.” She had just received the result from an external lab that confirmed we had successfully created the pea protein with the highest protein content through dry fractionation ever — a world record at 65% protein content. We both knew immediately that those results would change the way the world eats. For Equinom, it was a once-in-a-lifetime milestone — the breakthrough that seems simple but would ultimately lead to a major change. After five years of pea breeding and another three years of breeding technology development, we had evidence that our approach was leading us to an important outcome.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

After receiving my Ph.D. in plant genetics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Agriculture, I applied my knowledge as a rose breeder. I eventually moved onto breeding tomatoes, where I had a unique experience learning about the natural potential certain crops can have. With a single seed, I had the revelation that we can create new varieties of crops with technology. This experience motivated me to start Equinom in order to apply technology to mother nature to create a better food system. The overall lesson is that while going down one path, there may be a hidden opportunity woven within. In my case, being a breeder brought me to pivot because I felt there was even more we could do to improve the current food system as we know it.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Curiosity is key. Did you know that 70% of the world’s food comes from 12 crops? There is very little variety in our food system today. Maybe you’re familiar with heirloom tomatoes, and you understand that in nature, tomatoes aren’t perfectly round, bright red, and sweet. They have lumps, they can be tiny, and the taste varies wildly from species to species. The same is true of every crop that we have commoditized — peas, corn, all of them. One of the animating forces of Equinom is the desire to recapture the incredible diversity that nature once provided us. Every leader should approach their work with curiosity rather than assuming the way things are is the best way.

Adaptability is part of the reason why I founded Equinom. Earlier in my career, I found that I had spent years pushing tomato breeders at my work to adopt new technology and genetic varieties. I came to realize I had become something of a middleman — I wasn’t breeding tomatoes, creating new varieties, or developing technology. But by being adaptable, I realized I had a unique experience working at the intersection of breeding and technology. Today, Equinom is at the forefront of using technology to enhance and speed up natural breeding, and I’m glad I had the chance to feel like I needed to adapt.

Having a strong sense of cooperation is an essential trait for a leader. By that, I mean leaders stand to gain so much by seeking partners rather than opponents. Our work at Equinom is to develop game-changing plant-based ingredients, but we are also just one part of the global food system. Without partners in the fields growing our seeds, and without food companies who are excited to use our ingredients, we can’t change anything. And rather than dictate to food companies that “this ingredient is better so you should use it,” we work with them to identify the traits that would make a better ingredient for their foods. We don’t need to match the expertise of food companies in knowing what their consumers love, and they don’t need to match our expertise in quickly developing specific ingredients — we can each provide our unique value. That’s true no matter what business you’re in.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you describe to our readers how your work is helping to address the challenge of food insecurity?

Our food system is not designed to feed 10 billion people, a milestone our planet is on track to reach in 20 years. The problem stems from the fact that I mentioned earlier, 70% of the world’s food comes from 12 crops. Of those, only a few varieties are grown at commercial scale, and those were originally optimized for use as animal feed, not human food. That’s why most of the food we eat requires heavy processing — it was never grown to maximize taste or nutrition.

To make food nutritious, companies are forced to use chemical-, energy-, and water-intensive processing. Beyond not being environmentally friendly, the world just can’t build enough processing plants to provide nutritious food to 10 billion people.

Our approach at Equinom is to start from a better source. What if the crop — a yellow pea plant, for example — was naturally bred to be so nutritious that we didn’t need to process it in the same unsustainable way? So we use two key assets — a vast vault of seeds from tens of thousands of different species, and Manna™, our proprietary AI and machine learning platform — to identify the best combinations of seeds that we can then crossbreed for the perfect plant.

To simplify, imagine Manna™ is like an online dating app, and its job is to look at the millions of possible combinations of seeds in the seed vault and determine which seeds, when bred together, would have the ideal mixture of high protein and nutritional content, disease resistance, and taste. We aim to find the perfect matches.

By breeding seeds that meet the needs for use in food without any intensive processing, we eliminate the bottleneck of expensive processing facilities and increase the availability of high-quality ingredients for use in foods that you love. We’re not only making ingredients for healthier, more nutritious, tastier food, but we’re also making the food system more sustainable and less reliant on heavy processing.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I am proud of my team for being my companions on a long journey of development — 10 years already. Truly disruptive technologies take time to develop. As much as we crave a shortcut, there are no quick wins. But my team deeply believes that Equinom will change the future of food and will make plant protein a major, accessible source of nutrition to the world.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share a few things that can be done to further address the problem of food insecurity?

The key to improving our food system is partnership. No one company can change it alone. Because every part of the system is so interwoven — growers with processors, processors with food companies — the only way we can make a change is by moving together all at once. The only way we can encourage everyone in the food system to make a change is by making it profitable to do so.

In our vision of the future food system, the costs that are saved in processing are shared with food companies. The risk growers take on when they grow new crops is minimized by direct partnership with food companies, so growers know that their crops will be purchased. There’s a way to incentivize every player, and ultimately we all win when we have better access to affordable, nutritious food.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address the challenge of food scarcity? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

There are so many organizations doing great work to help fight food insecurity — Feeding America, No Kid Hungry, and Rise Against Hunger come to mind. But one that really stands out for me is World Central Kitchen, a Los Angeles based food relief organization. They support communities in need specifically in times of crisis, but they take it a step further — they don’t just provide the ingredients for meals, they cook them. They recognize that food isn’t just survival. Food is culture and it creates shared experiences. We cook for the ones we love. Growing up in a family that experienced food insecurity, cooking together or sitting around the table and sharing a meal was something I really valued. I really connect with WCK’s mission and their human-first approach.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

Absolutely. I’d love to see local government get more involved in creating a more sustainable food system. By simply requiring local food producers to distribute a certain percentage of their crops or vegetables to local grocery stores, retail stores or restaurants, we could make a huge impact on creating a more reliable, sustainable and resilient food system at the regional level, which will impact our global food system as well.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Agility is key: When starting a company, you’re going to experience new challenges every day so embracing the unknown and remaining agile is important.

You don’t need to have all the answers: I quickly learned that there were so many areas where I was not the expert. I’m a breeder and a scientist at heart, but I’m not an expert at running a business. Accounting, marketing, sales — these aren’t my areas of expertise. So I built a team of rockstars who excel where I fall short.

Trust your gut: There are a lot of uncertainties in running a startup. True innovation comes from new ideas and new thinking, and there’s no blueprint for success. You will encounter a lot of situations where you need to trust your gut to lead you in the right direction — follow it.

Own up to your weaknesses: language has always been a barrier for me, but as soon I was honest with myself and those I encountered in my career path, I stopped seeing it as a barrier and made sure it motivated me even further to the things I was really good at.

No vision is too big: it may be expected that entrepreneurs are big dreamers, but I think it’s important. Don’t be afraid to set visionary targets and think as big as possible. It’s these ideas that have the power to have true change.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I envision a future where the majority of our diets consist of plant-based food, sourced from nature. A world where plant-based food doesn’t need to be pigeon-holed as ‘plant-based’ because it just becomes the norm of our diet overall — delicious, sustainable, and nutritious food to feed our planet. I encourage people to challenge themselves to go plant-based for a week, plant their own vegetables and experience truly fresh ingredients from the earth. These small steps can have a huge impact, and encourage someone on the path to eating more sustainable, affordable and nutritious foods. I hope we can create a food system that establishes food security for all, regardless of socio-economic status.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow my work through my LinkedIn and platforms on the Forbes Technology Council and Entrepreneur Leadership Network. On Forbes, I will be sharing my expertise being a CEO / Founder, and specific insights to the food industry, and how Equinom will be changing the future. If you’re looking for inspirational anecdotes of my journey from breeder to CEO, check out my Entrepreneur page. Also, follow along on the Equinom website, and our social channels on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook to stay up to date with exciting company news.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

How Gil Shalev Of Equinom Is Helping To Address The Growing Challenge Of Food Insecurity was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.