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Inventing Food Systems for Tomorrow

A Conversation with Chicago Sustainability Leaders 

Did you know the food choices you make today could impact the future of our planet? Have you heard about inventions right here in our city that could move us toward a more sustainable system? Amazing innovations are happening today in the ways we consume, package and dispose of the food we eat, and you can learn all about it from three local sustainability leaders who are changing the landscape of Chicago’s food systems and beyond.

pictured L-to-R


Amy Francetic [Moderator] Founder and Managing General Partner, Buoyant Ventures
Jason Feldman Co-Founder, Green Era Sustainability
Thomas Jonas Co-Founder and CEO, Nature’s Fynd
Neema Pourian Director of Engineering, Marks Design

Recorded May 25, 2021.

About the Panel

Amy Francetic [Moderator] is founder and Managing General Partner of Buoyant Ventures, a new venture fund in Chicago that aims to invest in digital climate solutions for energy, transportation, agriculture, and the built environment. Her career spans over 20 years of high technology entrepreneurship, private equity, and research. Amy previously founded and led Energize Ventures, a $165mm venture fund that invests in digital technologies that optimize energy equipment and infrastructure. She oversaw the Fund’s investment activities and operations. She also co-founded and served as CEO of technology accelerator Clean Energy Trust, which has invested in dozens of early-stage clean energy companies across the Midwestern US. She remains involved and now serves as Chair of its Board of Directors. Amy also held roles at private equity firm MVC Capital, helping to open the Chicago office, and at Stanford Research Institute where she worked on an early version of the voice recognition technology that became Siri. Earlier in her career, she was co-founder and CEO of a consumer technology company that was funded by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, and that she sold to the Danish toy company, Lego Systems. Amy also helped fundraise for mobile gaming company, GluMobile, on whose board she served until it went public on the NASDAQ.

In addition to the Clean Energy Trust board, Amy serves on the Advisory Board for the WISER Institute at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In 2020 Crain’s recognized her for the third time as one of Chicago’s Top 50 Technology Leaders. In 2019 she was honored by Streetwise as one of the “20 Most Inspiring Chicagoans.” In 2015 she was an Emerging Leader at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs. In 2014 she was awarded the Corporate Citizen of the Year Award from the Executives’ Club of Chicago, and Leading Woman in Technology from the Illinois Technology Association. Amy is a regular lecturer in energy and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago’s Law School. She has a BA from Stanford University. Amy lives in Lake Forest, IL with her husband and two teenage daughters.

Jason Feldman is an entrepreneur and environmentalist committed to working on solutions to address today’s most pressing environmental, economic and healthcare issues. He is co-founder of Green Era Sustainability. Green Era develops facilities that provide communities with a sustainable waste management solution by converting inedible food waste into renewable energy and nutrient-rich compost and fertilizer products to support urban agriculture expansion. He was awarded the Keep Chicago Beautiful Urban Agriculture Vision Award and the American Institute of Architecture Chicago SustainABILITY Leadership Award. Mr. Feldman is a frequent speaker on sustainability and has spoken at venues such as the University of Chicago Booth School, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the EPA Brownfields Conference, and the Institute for Regulatory Policy Studies Conference regarding Energy Policy Design: How Energy Policies are Creating New Ideas & Alternative Products. In addition to co-founding Green Era, Mr. Feldman has over 20 years of industry experience, having help found and led a number of successful entrepreneurial companies.

Thomas Jonas is Co-Founder and CEO of Nature’s Fynd. Nature's Fynd is a groundbreaking food tech company born out of NASA-supported research on extremophiles from Yellowstone National Park. The company’s novel fermentation technology produces a sustainable source of complete protein using only a fraction of the resources required by traditional agriculture. Thomas was previously president of two business units of MeadWestvaco, overseeing 15 operating plants around the world with annual sales over $700 million. A French-born global executive, he’s held senior leadership positions at Rio Tinto, Alcan, and Pechiney. Thomas graduated from the prestigious international business school HEC Paris and also served as an officer in the French Air Force.

Neema Pourian is Director of Engineering at Marks Design. He collaborates daily with his team of engineers and the design team at Marks to create beautiful, on-brand and sustainable packaging solutions for the agency’s global brand partners, such as CVS Health, Target, Motorola, 3M, PepsiCo, Chevron, and Reynolds. Neema values relationships with manufacturing partners, seeking to understand what is possible today and where opportunity lies for something better. He achieves this through applying creative problem solving to ensure design intent is carried through implementation.

With a background in Mechanical Engineering, Neema has a BS from Louisiana State University and a Masters from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before joining Marks, he was a Principal Development Engineer at Mars Wrigley creating global packaging solutions and new business platforms for the Innovation Design Team. He also served as a Development Engineer at Pactiv, working on the Hefty Brand and sustainable foodservice packaging for clients including Starbucks and McDonalds.

Panel Q&A

The panelists respond to questions from the livestream:

Will this gas be as harmful as the one we are using now?

Jason Feldman: No, Green Era will be producing renewable natural gas from organic waste which will have a negative carbon footprint.

The biggest challenge I see would be the logistics of collecting the material. The previous presenter talked about the low percent of plastic recycling despite years of availability. How do you plan to create a food capture process that is efficient and utilized?

Jason: Green Era will be working with existing waste haulers to divert organics from landfills to the Green Era facility. Green Era will depackage material to make it easy and efficient to divert organic waste.

Neema Pourian: Ideally food companies will shift from petroleum-based plastics to plant-based renewable compostable packaging in the future such that the packaging can be composted alongside the food.

When will urban farming campus be active and in use?

Jason: Green Era anticipates opening in Q1 2022.

Can some unused high rise office space be used for food production?

Jason: Yes.

We hope you all have visited the urban agriculture exhibit at the MSI showing farming in skyscrapers. Where does technology like this play into your contributions to food technology?

Thomas Jonas: Vertical farming is a great option to use a small footprint in order to produce food in dense urban environments. Skyscrapers could theoretically be repurposed for that goal, but it is easier and more cost efficient to use warehouse space, parking lots (especially if car sharing increases) or underutilized manufacturing space.

What is the best way to go about starting to compost food waste at home, living in an apartment here in Chicago? Are there neighborhood compost sites/bins to drop off food scraps?

Jason: Vermicomposting is great for urban dwellers. There are a variety of private compost haulers that service the Chicagoland area. This will greatly expand once the Green Era site opens as it will provide a local site to recycle organics.

Do you foresee that Nature’s Fynd products being used as animal feed?

Thomas: Initial commercialization will focus on human food.

Do you offer educational outreach opportunities for field studies or visits to your organizations? I have taken student groups to “The Plant” but heard it is no longer open.

Jason: Urban Growers Collective offers training and site tours (due to COVID-19, all farm tours have been temporarily cancelled). Green Era will also offer tours after the facility opens next year.

What percent of what we put into recycle bins actually gets recycled?

Neema: It really depends on the material and the municipality being considered. Looking nationwide, the EPA has detailed information that can be found at this link. In the realm of containers and packaging, paper and paperboard are around 80%, followed by steel (e.g. soup cans) around 75%, Aluminum around 35%, Glass at 30%, and finally plastic around 13%. Plastics with resin code 1 (PET, soda/water bottles) and 2 (HDPE, laundry detergent bottles) are the most recyclable plastics and have recycling rates in the high 20s.

How can we become a part of the Green Era composting plan if we are not in the city of Chicago?

Jason: Have your local hauler or community reach out to Green Era directly to request service. Email info@greenerapartners.com

Jason, why do you feel large-scale composting should be handled by business instead of city or state government?

Jason: Waste/organics hauling is handled by both municipalities and business, so it is important that we engage both.

What is best option to compost inside (type of composting that is easy to do for newer folks just starting to do this) when living in a small space? Then to turn it into soil for garden, etc. Any suggestions for reading or websites?

Jason: Vermicomposting is great for small spaces and beginners. There are a number of great online sources. I’d suggest Googling “vermicomposting.”

Will the Green Era facility also recycle used cooking oil and grease from meats?

Jason: Yes, Green Era can take all types of food waste.

How do you deal with Mylar food packaging waste?

Jason: It will be removed from the organic material during the depackaging process.