3 Keys to Help R&D Teams Prioritize Sustainability While Pursuing Innovation

This is a guest post by Jackson Cummings, research and development engineer at NanoGuard Technologies. Every day, businesses run into big problems. When those issues threaten profits or long-term viability, companies spend significant resources to solve them. In this high-stress environment, tunnel vision can easily creep in and produce myopic and unsustainable solutions. For a…

Photo courtesy Jackson Cummings
Photo courtesy Jackson Cummings

This is a guest post by Jackson Cummings, research and development engineer at NanoGuard Technologies.

Every day, businesses run into big problems. When those issues threaten profits or long-term viability, companies spend significant resources to solve them. In this high-stress environment, tunnel vision can easily creep in and produce myopic and unsustainable solutions.

For a solution to improve the world instead of a company’s bottom line, it’s vital for startups and mature businesses alike to view product implementations from 30,000 feet. That need is especially pressing in my industry of agtech and food science, where decisions can have major impacts that reverberate up and down the entire ecosystem.

Like many, I joined the industry with the goal of increasing the global food supply while improving food safety and quality. To do this properly, my business must follow regulatory guidelines (think the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, European Food Safety Authority, etc.) and be aligned with our customers’ good manufacturing practice specifications. Like any tool, it can be misused — and that’s why buyer education and cooperation with regulators is essential for our and countless other Midwestern companies’ success. 

The Staying Power of Sustainability

One of the main reasons we’ve gathered so much commercial interest is because companies are demanding cleaner decontamination technologies now more than ever. Our gaseous surface treatment does not leave treatment-related residues the way chlorine- or ammonia-based treatments do. And because we aren’t limited by the shadowing effect, a shortcoming of ultraviolet irradiation and pulsed light treatments, the potential applications of our technology are endless. Electricity and air are the only feedstocks required for our natural, green solution to food pathogens, contaminants, and waste.

There are many other innovative startups in this space. Apeel comes to mind. The company created a special coating for fruits, extracted from fruits, that suppresses external microbe growth and makes certain products last up to three times longer. As a complementary post-harvest surface treatment, we share their mindset that we cannot rely on pumping more chemicals into ground and water systems in attempts to increase yields. The topsoil depletion caused by excessive spraying is unsustainable and actually reduces yields in the long run. Both Apeel and my company focus on protecting food that’s already been grown rather than letting it rot and go to waste.

The vertical farming sector could also really change agriculture through local, controlled plant growth on minimal acreage. There is still a lot of maturation required for the industry to go mainstream, especially regarding energy efficiency and water use. But if it’s sustainably optimized, it could bring a lot of good to the world by being less vulnerable to climate conditions and pests than conventional agriculture. If local communities can operate a system and control their own food production, they could rest assured knowing exactly what they’re feeding themselves and their families. 

Designing for the Future

It wouldn’t be particularly surprising to hear that a major crisis such as the pandemic had diminished the collective demand for sustainability in favor of immediate solutions, but it turns out the opposite is true. When a survey from BCG investigated the pandemic’s impact on global consumer perceptions surrounding environmental issues, 90% of respondents reported they were as or more concerned about the environment since COVID-19, and almost 95% felt that their own actions would be important to reduce waste, fight climate change and preserve the natural world.

I’ve spent lots of time in research and development, and I know engineering a product that balances innovation with sustainability is no easy task. For anyone working toward this worthy goal, I have three pieces of advice that have helped me along the way. These suggestions lead to holistic, sustainable innovation:

  1. Take care of yourself by prioritizing your mental and physical health.

Your quality of life will dramatically improve if you keep this in mind. Similarly, the quality of your work will also improve, and you’ll be a pleasure to work with. A healthy company is comprised of healthy individuals, and recent research also suggests that 93% of entrepreneurs who took part in a program to prioritize their individual well-being felt their newfound self-awareness practices could boost their business’s success.

  1. Describe issues to colleagues of different technical backgrounds.

Stumped by a difficult problem or concerned about a potential outcome? A biologist’s line of thinking generally differs from a chemist’s or physicist’s, and different specializations of engineers bring distinct perspectives to the table. The hardest problems require comprehensive solutions that take all scientific disciplines into account. Literature searches are extra helpful if your company is small — an hour in the library can save a month in the lab.

  1. Work from shared values. 

My co-workers and I have the same fundamental objective: To provide the world with a safe, reliable tool that can improve the entire food supply. This altruistic mindset encourages cooperation toward something bigger, and I would encourage any startups to articulate and prioritize their own driving force.

First off, the startup’s leaders must make it clear to potential hires what the ultimate goal of the company is. You can facilitate this with a thoughtful online presence and a robust job description that focuses on the growth of individuals toward a bigger picture. You want to hire ambitious individuals who want to actively help the company succeed from day one — not people who have boxed themselves into paycheck-seeking in a restricted comfort zone. 

Quality employees are everything when you’ve only got enough money for a handful of people. Employee longevity is also crucial for businesses to grow sustainably, so build your team wisely. Lastly, I suggest fostering priceless team synergy with occasional company meetings. These meetings can serve to realign everybody with the current status of the bigger picture, and they also offer individuals the chance to present their latest results, garnering respect and useful input from the rest of the group.

Everyone has the responsibility to use their talents, abilities, and limited time to improve the world. This can be done regardless of your specific occupation. However, agtech and food science startups must be especially careful to consider the bigger picture, because everyone and everything needs food. After all, life is connected through the food chain. On top of that, environmental sentiment continues to increase for good reason, and consumers are making more mindful decisions about which companies to support with their dollar. If a company doesn’t have a sustainable environmental outlook, it’s not going to last. 

Jackson Cummings is a research and development engineer at NanoGuard Technologies, a company that prevents food and feed waste and improves food safety by eradicating harmful pathogens through its “airilization” technology. Airilization utilizes energized air to safely kill harmful bacteria, mold, fungi and viruses without thermalization. Jackson holds a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Notre Dame.



Sign up to receive daily updates in your inbox.