Q & A with Sustainable AgTech Innovation Center’s Edward Silva

Q & A with Sustainable AgTech Innovation Center’s Edward Silva

The Sustainable AgTech Innovation Center (SATIC) supports the commercialization of clean and sustainable agricultural and food technologies. Established through an United States EDA i6 grant, the Center strives to fill the gap between sustainable agriculture and food innovation and real world application in order to enable a greater and more sustainable capacity within the agricultural and food system. Food Tank was fortunate enough to have a conversation with the program coordinator of SATIC, Edward Silva. Silva studied international agricultural development at the University of California (UC) Davis and has a production agricultural family background. 

Food Tank (FT): What sparked your interest in and passion for sustainable agriculture?

Edward Silva (ES): I grew up on an almond ranch in California’s Central Valley and spent a lot of my summers working on the farm. While challenging, I learned a lot about how farms work, and how they can improve. I remember my dad always tinkering in the barn to build replacement parts to different pieces of equipment for the farm, which by U.S. standards is very small.  Whenever this happened, I would always think, “Why don’t we just go buy that piece at the store?” It wasn’t until much later when I came to understand the hard work small-scale farmers do to build technology that works at their scale and price is usually their attempt to run a more sustainable farming system.

I took this interest to the UC Davis where I studied International Agricultural Development and minored in Technology Management. The connection between small scale technology and agriculture really intrigued me, and drove me to get involved in different projects related to agriculture. After graduating and engaging in different agricultural programs abroad, I began my work at the University of California, Davis Sustainable AgTech Innovation Center. It was here that I really began to truly understand the theory and practice of actually building, scaling, and implementing agricultural technology that could truly create a more sustainable food and agricultural system. This understanding was reaffirmed through my participation in the International Thought For Food Challenge, where myself and a team of colleagues submitted a solar powered solution (Henlight) for small scale farmers and won. It was this platform that really compelled me to think and engage even further in the connectivity between food, agriculture, and global food security.

FT: When did you become involved with Sustainable AgTech Innovation Center? How would you describe the organization and the work you do?

ES: During my time at UC Davis, I spent a lot of timing learning about the many different departments, efforts, and research going on with regards to food and agriculture. I became very impressed with the breadth of work and the innovative approaches I saw. After graduating in 2012, I kept a pulse on food and agricultural activity going on at UC Davis and came across an opening for a program coordinator for a newly started initiative, the Sustainable AgTech Innovation Center (SATIC). Now in this position, I am charged with supporting our seed fund recipients and providing entrepreneurial training to researchers involved in food and agriculture. As a center, we help to build entrepreneurial capacity within food and agriculture in researchers and others on campus who may otherwise not utilize that perspective.

The organization is in partnership with an institute for innovation and entrepreneurship here at UC Davis, and seeks to help bridge the gap between more innovations in food and agriculture that pose more sustainable solutions, with real world and commercial applicability. Over the last 2 years, we have given out nearly 20 seed grants of about US$25,000 each to teams of researchers with an innovative technology/solution that can improve our food and agricultural sector. Such innovations include evapotranspiration measurement devices, rapid milk spoilage analysis devices, value added products from waste streams, and even building better markets for goat cheese.

FT: How has Agtech grown/been received in the sustainable agricultural community thus far? Are you seeing an increase and continued support?

ES: From what I have seen, Agtech has become a more prominent field of interest both for the university and external investors. The global challenges are clear in terms of a growing population demanding more food from less land, and, I think this is causing people to really examine our food systems, and the technology that is supporting them. We like to say that a problem well defined is a solution half solved, and thus having clear, large, and evident problems is a big driver for entrepreneurs and researchers to develop solutions in this space of agriculture, usually through the form of technology.

Additionally, universities and business competitions around the world are opening centers and institutes focused specifically on food and agriculture, and I think this is a clear sign of the increased need, and thus support.

FT: How would you describe the Youth 20 (Y20) Summit you attended this summer. What came of the forum?

ES: The Youth 20 Summit, as part of the G20 Summit, was an incredible experience and truly a global experiment. It brought together over 120 delegates between the ages of 20-30, from over 25 countries, to Sydney, Australia for 3 days to discuss and deliver a communique to the leaders of the G20. The communique contained recommendations and priorities that represented the perspective of global youth, and ultimately the heirs of the policy decisions to be made at the G20. With multiple topics to choose from, I was focused on Sustainable Development, with a primary interest in food security and building agricultural capacity. One of the driving themes in this space, amongst multiple countries, was the loud call for more entrepreneurial capacity building for food and agriculture. The Y20 delegates made it very clear that in order to build a food and agricultural system that was truly sustainable, we needed to ensure that there was a group of people incentivized to take on the large challenges. This group is clearly entrepreneurs, and it was rewarding to see my global counterparts agree. Overall, it was an incredible experience and quite an honor to be chosen as one of four U.S. Delegates to participate.

FT: Do you think agricultural technology could help improve the economic viability of sustainable agriculture?

ES: Yes, I do. I think this is especially true when that technology is built at a scale that is accessible by small-scale farmers. Farmers at this scale are engines of economic growth for rural areas around the world, and when they prosper, the communities they support do so as well. Yet, many times for these farms to prosper, they need access to new technology that can help them expand their production while not harming the limited land, water, and resources they may have.

Currently, I am the co-founder of a start-up called Henlight, and we develop small-scale solar technology for pasture-raised, poultry farms. This simple ag-technology will and has helped farmers use less fuel, produce more food, and also save time. Beyond the greater amount of food they can offer communities more consistently year round, they can now spend the extra time doing other activities that will lead to greater economic viability of their operation. Fortunate for our generation, there are groups like the Thought For Food or Food Tank to deliver a platform for the heirs of our hopefully more sustainable food system to actually have an impact and contribute.

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