Mars, Incorporated and UC Davis Launch Innovation Institute for Food and Health
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Mars, Incorporated and UC Davis Launch Innovation Institute for Food and Health

Before joining the UC Davis MBA program, Jennifer Hebets was an international economic development consultant who spent the eight years working for various institutions in Washington, D.C. and across Latin America dedicated to promoting equitable, sustainable economic growth in emerging economies.

The importance and the complexity of cross-sector collaboration to solve major issues in food and agriculture is no stranger to me.

The 40-year partnership between Mars, Incorporated and UC Davis is a prime example of the amazing outcomes when actors from diverse perspectives and skill sets rally around a common cause.

These collaborations can be complicated to implement and communication between the seemingly different “languages” of academia and business can appear convoluted. However, I am more convinced than ever that the only way to achieve large-scale, lasting solutions is through equally large-scale effort. For me, this partnership was a major factor in my decision to attend UC Davis. It’s an honor for me to take part in these exciting events this week.

Mars, Incorporated and UC Davis Launch Innovation Institute for Food and HealthUC Davis and Mars are showing the world the power of cross-sector collaboration in solving some of today’s most complex and pressing issues. This week marked a significant milestone as the launch of the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health that will seek solutions to global issues in food, agriculture and health.

“What a broad scope!,” you might be thinking. I had the same reaction when reading the agenda before the event. After listening to the many distinguished speakers, it could not be clearer just how inextricably linked these issues are. With a planet expected to reach nine billion people by 2050, we need to be thinking about how we will ensure an equitable and just quality of life for all of the planet’s inhabitants. Put simply: How will we make sure that all of these people are healthy and have enough food?

Mars, Incorporated and UC Davis Launch Innovation Institute for Food and HealthThe event kicked off with words of welcome by the host Harold Schmitz, chief science officer at Mars, who is part of our community as the Ciocca Visiting Professor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School of Management. His passion for the Mars–UC Davis partnership infused the auditorium with a sense of excitement and hope.

One of the welcome addresses I enjoyed most was from Pamela Mars, technology committee chair at Mars. Pam is a member of the Mars family, and she clearly embodies the company’s five principles: quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom.

Mars, Incorporated and UC Davis Launch Innovation Institute for Food and HealthThis was the second time I’ve had the privilege to meet a member of the Mars family. Last month I attended a small meeting with Victoria Mars, the chair of the board of Mars. On both occasions, I have been impressed with the Mars family’s—and by extension, the entire company’s—genuine dedication to generating positive impacts on society through their business. This perspective goes far beyond the concept of corporate social responsibility or charitable giving.

To me, Mars’ decades-long history of making strategic investments in solving pressing issues demonstrates that they “get it” as a progressive, forward-thinking company and steward. This is a company that understands at its core that in today’s global marketplace, generating positive impact for all actors touched by the firm’s activities translates to real competitive advantage. For Mars, this means that bringing smiles to the faces chocolate lovers everywhere is equally important as ensuring dignified livelihoods for the thousands of smallholder farmers in Africa who produce the cacao beans chocolate is made from.

Pam’s keynote mentioned several significant milestones in the 40-year partnership with UC Davis. In the 1990s the partnership yielded ground-breaking research on the cardiovascular benefits of cocoa. Which means: YES, cocoa is good for you!

In 2010 the UC Davis-Mars partnership—led by the renowned researcher and newly minted Mars Fellow, Howard Shapiro—pioneered the sequencing of the cocoa genome. This was a major breakthrough that would lead to much-needed research on improving yields and disease resistance of the cocoa plant. Such scientific breakthroughs are a critical step on the path toward ensuring that cocoa farmers in poverty-stricken regions of the world be able to improve their production practices and increase income.

Mars’ cocoa sequencing project gave way to a new initiative to sequence more than 100 plant varieties referred to as the African orphan crops. These represent some of the most important staple food crops in Africa as well as some of the least-researched plant varieties on the planet. Increasing knowledge of these varieties will open the door to significant improvements in yield and nutritional value.

You can catch up on the day’s events here at the livestream.

Check out the Twitter feed from the event as well with #globalfood #ucdavismars.