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Spotlight On:

MilkRun

What's the Story?

Farmer Julia Niiro founded MilkRun to save her community in Portland, Oregon as 90% of America’s small farms face extinction, which means our ability to directly purchase from our food producers faces extinction as well. She is utilizing technology and sustainable practices to bring back the original home delivery model used by farmers to supply their local communities (the days of the milk man). Though it’s only available in Portland right now, MilkRun is working on starting up in Seattle by the end of this year before eventually expanding to Austin and Denver.

How are they different?

Other food delivery companies are simply picking up items from a grocery store (or dark store) and delivering it to your house. That model utilizes the problematic industrial food distribution system, and adds an extra step on top of it. Less than 10% of the profit from the food you buy in a grocery store goes back to the farmer who grew it. With MilkRun’s model, 70% of the purchase price goes directly to the farmers (30% goes to MilkRun), and you always know exactly where your food is coming from.

What inspires us?

Everyone benefits from MilkRun’s system. Farmers who genuinely care for the Earth and the mouths they are feeding are rewarded for their work, and consumers get to put quality food on the table with a transparent, stress-free process. Plus, they only work with small farms who support natural and sustainable practices. All animal products come from farms that are both Animal Welfare-approved and Global Animal Partners-certified (GAP), which ensures animal welfare from ranch to processor.

Q&A

Julia Niiro

Founder, MilkRun

Farmer Julia Niiro received firsthand experience of the negative effects  brought about by mega-industrialized farming as 90% of America’s small farms face extinction and huge corporations take over while pushing profit over people and the environment. Delivery vehicle emissions contribute to the largest source of air pollution in the United States with 1,500 miles being the national average distance they travel from farms. And those farms receive less than 10% of the profit from the food bought. Niiro knew a radical distribution system had to be created, which brought her to founding MilkRun, a website (app coming soon) where customers fill up their virtual basket shopping locally-sourced, quality groceries coming directly from farms in the area.  The farmers receive 70% profit and that 1,500-mile driving distance is cut down to 35 miles—a 97.7% decrease in delivery vehicle emissions if every major city participated. Since starting up less than two years ago, Niiro has grown a full distribution system catering to more than 3,000 customers in Portland, Oregon, and is now expanding to other cities. She believes that “local food should be readily available to everybody,” and she only works with small farms who follow natural, sustainable practices with Animal Welfare approval and Global Animal Partners (GAP) certification. The MilkRun model is pairing today’s technology with the milk man days of the past when households were supplied directly by their food producers.

It sounds like it takes a lot of precise coordination to make this work. Can you describe the process of getting an order from website to doorstep?

Customers can fill up a virtual “basket” on the MilkRun webpage (we’re working on an app), then select delivery for Tuesday or Thursday. Once the order window closes, our farmers, bakers and butchers bring their goods to a micro-depot. From there, MilkRun staff aggregates the products to fulfill customer orders. It takes precise coordination on our end, but for MilkRun customers it’s a very simple process. You shop the aisles of our online grocery store then the food arrives at your house.

How are you managing this without delivery or subscription fees?

Because we’re able to cut out the middleman driving food 1,500 miles across the country, we’re able to pay farmers more for their labor and take a much smaller cut than distribution companies traditionally do. We have less people in the supply chain taking a cut of profits as the food passes through their hands on the way to your grocery store. Today, less than 10% of the price of the food you buy in a grocery store actually goes back to the farmer who grew it. We developed a system where our farmers get 70% to our 30%. Without the burden of an unnecessarily complex supply-chain bogging us down, we can cut out delivery and subscription fees. Local food should be readily available to everybody.

The farthest your food goes from the farm is thirty-five miles. The national average is 1,500 miles. Why is local more environmentally-friendly?

Locally grown food creates important economic opportunities, provides health benefits, and helps to reduce environmental impact. It also brings the community together and gives people an opportunity to make a difference.

Pollution from vehicles is the single largest contributor to air pollution in the United States, and cars and trucks combined emit one-fifth of the country’s total air pollution. Imagine the positive environmental impact if every major city cut down 1,500 miles of food delivery to 35! That would be a 97.7% decrease in delivery vehicle emissions. It’s hard to imagine but it’s totally possible. In fact, the name MilkRun is a logistics terms and its very definition is the most effective way to most goods, with the least handling and cost. It turns out the milk man had it right for a long time. 

What’s most rewarding about this work?

It’s rewarding to have the ability to solve a problem that directly affects people I know. It’s my community, my neighbors, my business, the people I admire. This was an idea built from within, born out of solving a problem faced by myself and my community. It’s pretty amazing to see people I admire use MilkRun, people who inspired me to work on this project in the first place. Mark Payne, a fifth generation hog farmer, who is just doing the most amazing work, shook my hand and said, “Thank you for helping me put food on peoples’ plates.” He’d only been able to sell his pork to restaurants before and MilkRun made it possible for him to put local pork directly in the hands of people who wanted it, but didn’t have access before. Helping people like Mark, and the rest of my community is what’s rewarding about this work.

Do you see this as a way to do away with the mega-industrialized farms?

It’s hard to say if we’ll see mega-industrialized farms disappear completely within our lifetime, but if we don’t change the way food is currently distributed, locally grown food will disappear. 90% of the small farms in America right now are facing extinction, and farmers who care about their soil, their land and their communities are often at the mercy of huge corporations pushing them down and paying less-than-adequate wages for their labor. If mega-industrialized farming becomes our only option for food, we’ll have no more farmer’s markets, no more CSAs, no more farmers who are stewards to the land. Without radical new systems like MilkRun, the only options for food will be from huge corporations pushing profit over people, and we just don’t want to live in that kind of a world.

What sort of response are you having?

It’s been a hugely positive response! There are two perspectives that really matter to us—the producers and the customers. For producers, they’re excited that we’re able to offer them not only a fair wage but another marketplace from which to sell what they make (people like Mark at Payne Family Farms). From the customer side, the feedback has been nothing but encouraging. We’ve heard from so many households that now have access to the amazing food growing around Portland about how much it means to them. We live in an area with abundant food resources that haven’t always been available to everybody, but now they are. As for hard numbers, they speak to the enthusiasm people have for MilkRun’s concept—our total monthly order count since coming out of beta in December 2018 (until April 2019) is up 300%. Monthly sign ups in the same time frame are up 500%. It has been incredible thus far.

I just returned from a trip to Detroit where we are discussing launching MilkRun. To hear of the need from a city like Detroit and the farmers of Michigan was incredibly validating. They are in even greater need with less access to markets than a city like Portland. To hear their food waste and farm income issues was staggering, but hearing their need and openness to our platform was exhilarating to say the least.

How are the animals treated on the farms you work with?

MilkRun has a close relationship with our sister company Revel Meat Co and all of our meat comes from their facility, which is one of only two remaining USDA meat processing facilities in the state that works with independent ranchers. It’s both Animal Welfare-approved and Global Animal Partners-certified (GAP), which is an international certification that ensures animal welfare from ranch to processor. 100% of the small farms that support MilkRun use natural and sustainable practices when raising their animals like pasture rotation and regenerative processes, and focus on animal welfare. Everybody at the Revel facility has been trained and tested to provide as little discomfort as possible in their practice. They never use electric prods or any tools for moving animals other than naturally herding them at their own preferred (usually walking) pace. Revel is a low-stress, low-anxiety facility that works with MilkRun because they support over 60 regional producers that are extremely value-aligned and earnest in their practices. This is the alternative to factory-farmed meat. And we feel good about it! It’s part of why I started MilkRun, by seeing the demand and need for more humanely treated and sustainably raised meat in the market. There was a lack of access to meat from these sustainable facilities and farmers, so we had to find a way to make it work.

Do you have plans to roll this out in every state?

Though it’s only available in Portland for now, we hope to be piloting MilkRun in Seattle by the end of this year before eventually expanding into Austin and Denver. This is a new model for food distribution, but it really does work in favor of both farmers and customers. We don’t have the whole country mapped out quite yet, of course, but if we can assist small farms countrywide the way we’re able to do here in Portland, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work. This model is designed to work in any community that has local farms nearby, which we all have.

So many of these sorts of food delivery companies are struggling. What makes MilkRun different?

The simple answer is that MilkRun is not a tech approach food delivery company, so we don’t face the same struggles that those companies face. We are designing a new model for local food systems enabled by technology and yes, part of that process is the home delivery of your goods, but the overall function is fundamentally different. While current food delivery companies are adding additional layers to an already bloated supply chain, we’re removing them. Food delivery companies are simply paying someone else to go to a grocery store (or dark store) to pick up your order and deliver it to your house. With that model, you still have the entire industrial food distribution system in place—you’re just adding one more step before the food gets to your door.

We built MilkRun to extend the original home delivery model used by farmers to supply their local communities before the 1970’s USDA secretary pushed a “get big or get out” policy that fundamentally affected local farming. Before then, food wasn’t priced based on global markets and the costs of shipping 1,500 miles by brokers and distributors, who have no interest in the value chain. We’re trying to help small farmers get back to their roots—growing food and getting paid a livable wage to do it. Goodness knows they deserve that.

Today, the only way to buy food direct from a local farmer is at a farmer’s market or CSA, and that’s one of the key contributing factors to America’s small farms going out of business. They no longer have a viable business model that can compete with major retail chains. We asked ourselves, “What if they could simply list their goods online, see local pricing data, and then deliver their goods to conveniently located small aggregation hubs on their way into the city each week?” We would handle order assembly and last-mile delivery.

The answer to that question is this: we can save small farms. This model allows 70% of the purchase price to go to the farmers (30% goes to MilkRun). In some cases, we’re even able to pay farmers to deliver directly to customers which means they make an additional income as a driver, doing the sort of rounds they would already do. MilkRun is the only platform handling the end-to-end management in this way, and its positive effect on our local farms is already visible.

Real revolutions and innovations, especially in something so powerful as the industrial food complex, can only be disrupted from the inside. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re farmers who live in a community suffering from distribution and logistics problems every day. We wanted to make things better for ourselves and everybody around us, and chose tech to help us solve this problem. To even know what problem you’re trying to solve with food distribution, you have to have the community support you. It’s not easy to earn a community’s trust but we did because that community is already our community.

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Spotlight On:

Seed

What's the Story?

Ara Katz and Raja Dhir founded Seed out of a mutual fascination with the microbiome and the question of how bacteria could improve health in all living things. Their main product, the Daily Synbiotic, is a combination of clinically-verified, naturally-occurring probiotic strains, and a new class of patented plant-based, non-fermenting prebiotics that has shown significant improvements in gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and dermatological health.

How are they different?

Seed’s strain bank, academic and manufacturing partners, screening technology, bio-fermentation processes, testing protocols, and formulation process are entirely their own, and are not found in any other probiotic product on the market.

What inspires us?

Seed’s cutting-edge discoveries—like their packaging that includes compostable mycelium trays; home-compostable oxygen and moisture protection pouches; and dissolvable, edible (!) corn foam insulators—have the potential to forever change the trajectory of human and planetary health for the better.

Q&A

Ara Katz

Co-Founder + Co-CEO, Seed

38 trillion microorganisms (mostly bacteria) live in and on our bodies, and the genes held in these microbial cells make up what is referred to as our microbiome. Seed’s team of scientists, researchers, doctors and innovators—helmed by Co-Founders and Co-CEOs Ara Katz and Raja Dhir—are discovering how microbiome science can benefit human and planetary health. They believe that we are a microcosm of the earth’s ecosystem, and that the bacteria living in and on us is connected to all other living things. Seed’s main product, the Daily Synbiotic (sold in male and female formulations), is a combination of clinically-verified, naturally-occurring probiotic strains, and a new class of patented plant-based, non-fermenting prebiotics sourced from Indian pomegranate and Scandinavian chaga mushroom and pine bark. The strains have been studied in 23 human clinical trials thus far with outcomes showing significant improvements in gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and dermatological health.

Seed’s revolutionary efforts stretch far beyond the human body as they explore the many powerful uses of bacteria from a plastic-eating kind that can break down and degrade polyethylene to soil-based bacterial strains that increase growth rates of agricultural plants. They are even striving toward restoring honey bee populations with their probiotic BioPatties, which have begun field testing in Canada and California. And the eco-friendly packaging, which took almost a year to create, is ingenious.

Katz says, “Sustainability shouldn’t be proprietary. If we can encourage other companies to join in setting a better standard, the payoff for our planet will be enjoyed by all.”

Your background is in business and technology, not science and health. What led you to co-found Seed and become passionate about the microbiome?

I have always been passionate about health and science despite what my LinkedIn says. I always knew I would end up in health, but I certainly didn’t know it would be this way.

I actually met my co-founder, Raja, while I was pregnant. My pregnancy and breastfeeding experience, paired with our mutual fascination with the microbiome (especially its impact during critical windows of an infant’s development) prompted the question, ‘How can we set a child up for a healthy life?’ One question led to many around the possibilities of the microbiome—how bacteria will improve the health of ourselves and our planet—and culminated in a shared vision to begin Seed.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about human health since you started Seed?

For centuries, we have been operating with an understanding of only 50% of ourselves. Think of all the choices you make in a day—what to eat, what to drink, what to order at a restaurant, what groceries to buy, when to sleep, whether or not to get a dog or take that Advil or antibiotic. Health is a compounding of these minute daily choices, but for a long time, we were oblivious to and failed to consider that they impact the 38,000,000,000,000 microorganisms that live in and on us. Understanding the microbiome means a new opportunity to know your body and the mind-blowing, game-changing revelation that to do health is to care for your whole self, not just your human part.

What are the biggest misconceptions about bacteria, the microbiome, and probiotics out there right now? What is Seed creating that differentiates it from other brands in the probiotic field?

The biggest misconception about bacteria: all bacteria are bad.

Of the trillions of bacterial species that exist, we now know less than 100 pose a pathogenic threat to humans. Most are harmless (commensal). Many are beneficial (mutualistic). Among their many roles, they digest our food, regulate inflammation, and synthesize key vitamins, metabolites, and neurotransmitters.

The biggest misconception about the microbiome: we know what a healthy microbiome looks like.

We don’t actually know what a healthy microbiome looks like, and we may never. Each of our microbiomes are as unique as our genomes or fingerprints. However, scientists have discovered specific markers of health, like diversity of species. To ensure the health of your inner world, ask—are my bacteria working optimally with my body to perform the functions critical to my health? How can I support my microbiome in the daily choices I make? Is the antibiotic my doctor just prescribed absolutely necessary? Am I nurturing the 38,000,000,000,000 within with the food I’m choosing? Should I be incorporating probiotics and prebiotics into my daily routine? The study of the microbiome radically redefines self-care. Where we once thought ourselves fully human, we now know we are in fact superorganisms—walking, talking ecosystems; half human, half microbial.

The biggest misconception about probiotics: fermented foods are probiotic.

‘Gut mania’ and an under-regulated category has put consumers ahead of the science. The result: a saturated industry comprised of beverages, foods, and even shampoos and mattresses that don’t meet the globally-accepted, scientific definition of probiotics: ‘live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host’ (authored by a joint United Nations – World Health Organization Expert Panel chaired by our Chief Scientist, Dr. Gregor Reid, in 2001). Just because something contains live microorganisms, doesn’t mean it satisfies the definition. You might have ingested some bacteria, but do you know which strains? In what quantities? Have they survived the acidic journey through your digestive system and landed in your colon? Have those strains been studied, in those quantities, to actually do something in your body? Many fermented foods and beverages may be nutritious, not to mention very tasty, additions to your daily diet—but they are not necessarily reliable sources of beneficial, effective bacteria (aka probiotics).

In this category rife with confusion, we’re working to reclaim ‘probiotics’ for science with a pipeline of scientifically-validated products for the various areas and life stages in which microbes can impact health. We combine human clinical research, proprietary technology, and innovations in biofermentation, formulation, stabilization, and testing to set a new standard in precision and efficacy.

Many of our probiotic strains are exclusively available in the United States for the first time, while our patented prebiotics are sourced from Scandinavian pine bark, chaga mushroom and the skin of Indian pomegranate. Our testing goes far beyond what’s required, adhering to the highest global regulatory standards—EFSA (Europe) and FOSHU (Japan).

Our strain bank, academic and manufacturing partners, screening technology, biofermentation processes, testing protocols (including Simulator of the Human Intestinal Microbial Ecosystem—SHIME, flow cytometry, whole genome sequencing, untargeted metabolomics, and a proprietary screening platform built on intellectual property exclusively licensed from The Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School), and formulation process are entirely proprietary and not found in any other probiotic product on the market.

How is individual human health related to planetary health, from your perspective?

Bacteria shows us that everything is connected—that the choices we make extend beyond our body, to our earth. For us at Seed, human health and planetary health are one and the same so sustainability isn’t ‘important,’ it’s table stakes.

We also founded SeedLabs—our ecological R+D—arm to develop novel applications for bacteria, partnering with kindred innovators to solve some of the biggest problems facing our collective home.

Our first mission: save the bees. We recently announced our probiotic for honey bees—developed to counter the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides and to reduce American Foulbrood Disease for honey bee populations. This ongoing research is led by our Chief Scientist, Dr. Gregor Reid and SeedFellow, Brendan Daisley, who have identified probiotic strains that increase immune resilience through a pathway that insects use to adapt to infection, heat, and other stresses. Delivery via Seed’s probiotic BioPatties™ shows immense potential in improving survival rates and restoring honey bee populations around the world. Field tests have begun in Canada and California. The results are promising and the development of an aerosol spray-based product is also underway.

For someone just discovering the world of probiotics and looking to better understand the role of bacteria in our bodily functions, what’s the first step to take and the most important way to nurture wellness?

Before even considering probiotics or prebiotics, it’s important to understand the foundation of our work: the microbiome. It’s the collective genetic material of all the microorganisms (mostly bacteria, but also fungi, protozoa, and viruses) that live in and on your body. The majority reside in your gastrointestinal tract, primarily in your colon or ‘gut’, but many live in other ecosystems of your body like your mouth, skin, vagina, and armpits. They constitute approximately 50% of you by cell count—an invisible, but powerful half. There’s almost no function in the human body that our bacterial symbionts and their metabolites aren’t connected to and scientists are constantly discovering new associations between our microbiome and our health.

In the coming years, bacteria will touch almost every aspect of our lives—as microbial science advances, new applications of microbes will continue to emerge. The future of probiotics is bright in restoring, programming, and sustaining the health of ourselves and our planet.

As for the first step to take: eat more plants (a study by the American Gut Project found that those who ate more than 30 plant-types per week had far more diverse microbiomes than those who ate less than 10 plant-types.)

One of Seed’s tenets is a commitment to sustainability. How is the company making sure it is as sustainable as possible?

 We think in systems and sustainability in the pursuit of materials that are not just earth-friendly, but can leave a beneficial footprint. Collaborating with experts in bacteria from around the world, we are working towards biomaterials and unique applications of up-cycled waste as an alternative to plastic.

Each component of our sustainable refill system is designed to protect our Daily Synbiotic and be environmentally responsible. The system begins with a Welcome Kit, which includes your glass jar and complimentary travel vial shipped in a compostable mycelium tray. Each subsequent monthly refill ships in a home-compostable oxygen and moisture protection pouch, which is further protected by a compostable and dissolvable corn foam insulator, which you can also eat (it’s delicious)!

We recently launched international shipping to serve more humans around the world. But international shipping has heavy implications on global warming and climate change. It represents 87% of total CO2 emissions from ships and planes each year and if treated as a country, it would be the sixth largest emitter worldwide. So we launched with a Sustainable Transport Program to encourage and incentivize overseas customers to sign up for 90-day refills instead of 30-day standard ones. Less shipping means less impact, and we give them free shipping as a thank you.

But there’s always room to do better—we continuously iterate and innovate across our supply chain, packaging, and shipping to be kinder to our planet. 

Besides a consumer probiotic, Seed is also developing products that focus on areas like cardiovascular, oral and dermatological health. How does the scientific approach to particular systems differ from the current market product?

Bacteria are everywhere—by addressing the different microbial ecosystems in various areas of your body (and often, by proxy of the gut), we can make impacts on skin health, oral health, vaginal health, cardiovascular health, and more. Consumer innovations are the beginning—our Seed Health portfolio targets some of the most pressing and pervasive conditions where bacteria can become or replace the primary standard of care and represents the full potential of probiotics as living medicines.

Seed takes many dynamic measures to ensure it’s packaging is as sustainable as possible, including offering an open-source network of sustainability partners. Why did you decide to take an open-source approach with your resources?

Our packaging was a very big challenge that took almost a year to assemble and we are continuing to iterate it even today. We overcame this through first principles questioning, design thinking, user experience design, gut instincts, and calling everyone on the internet we could find around the world.

But we believe that sustainability shouldn’t be proprietary. If we can encourage other companies to join in setting a better standard, the payoff for our planet will be enjoyed by all.

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