Over the last two years of Techstars Farm to Fork, in partnership with Cargill and Ecolab, my team and I have had the privilege to meet with more than 1500 founders, work with thought leaders and investors in cities all over the world, and invest in 19 amazing teams tackling major issues in the food system.
And believe me, challenges in the food system seem to become more and more pronounced every day. We need to become ever more innovative if we are to safely feed the world’s growing population.These challenges have serious implications for the planet and everyone on it. Rather than letting these issues bring me down, I let them fuel our work and drive my excitement for the opportunity to work with founders that are tackling some of the globe’s biggest challenges.
On that note, here are some themes across the food system that I am watching closely in 2020:
Robotics & Automation
From farms to restaurants, it is consistently becoming more difficult for operators to find and retain employees. In the food space robots can fill this labor void, increase automation and drive efficiency. Additionally, the further adoption of smart robots will drive consistency in the ability to capture and record data. This in turn will have a positive effect on the food safety and traceability movements.
Employee Safety, Compliance & Efficiency
As I implied above, labor is top of mind for any operator in the food chain. I am specifically interested in entrepreneurs that are solving big issues in the areas of compliance and employee safety and driving efficiency across broader work forces. These innovations do not need to be specific to food & ag for us to be interested. But innovators in this space should be thinking about the food supply chain if they aren’t already.
This has been a common theme throughout the first two years of our accelerator. We continue to be interested in companies working to make the food we eat safer. From diagnostics and testing to prevention to shelf life extension, there are a variety of ways to make an impact in food safety and we want to help these entrepreneurs go faster.
Biotech is a new focus for us in 2020. For the first two years of the program, we were largely focused on the digital transformation of the food system. This year we will expand into an arena that is new to our program but is a segment that has exploded over the last several years. While there have been many leaps made by food-focused biotech startups over the last few years there is room for more. We are interested in the more obvious areas of biotech & food: proteins, lipids, food enhancements, etc. However, I am even more interested in the suppliers that will help drive the already exploding food-biotech industry forward sustainably, safely and efficiently. If you equate the biotech movement to the gold rush, I want to invest in Levi’s, not just the miners.
“Farm to Fork” is broad. In 2020, I want to drill down and focus on what I refer to as the “messy middle,” essentially everything that lives between the farm and the retailer. The “middle” is historically fragmented but now with many players and interests converging, new cost and complexity are entering the system. Innovations could include developing logistical efficiency, creating new ways to finance the supply chain, or making manufacturing more sustainable. I am excited to meet with founders working on efficiency, sustainability, and traceability in the “messy middle.”
Every startup pitches a data play these days! In food it is no different. If you are a data company we are interested if you have a unique way to collect data, democratize data, or leverage data to create differentiated products; or if you are collecting/utilizing data for edge computing. Raw data is quickly becoming commoditized in the space. We are specifically interested in companies that are coming up with unique ways to productize data.
While these are six core areas of our 2020 thesis, it is impossible for me to cram everything of interest into one short document. I anticipate several investments will be vertical agnostic platforms that have a market opportunity in food and I will certainly invest in phenomenal entrepreneurs disrupting things in categories that don’t fall into one of these core areas. Just to list a few additional themes I am watching:
- Water Tech
- B2B2C – Adding Value to Customers
- Trading/Fintech Innovation
- Pest & Rodent Control
- Packaging Innovation, with an emphasis on the role of plastics
- Animal Wellbeing
One of the benefits of investing in food tech is that many of the startups have a natural positive impact on the planet. We will continue to lean in with and intentionally invest in impact & sustainability focused founders.
Entrepreneurship is borderless. We have worked with diverse founders from all over the world that are solving global challenges, and we will continue to look for companies that are innovating across the globe and solving problems for diverse regions.
We’re looking for world changers, teams that can affect that future of our food system. I am excited to get to work with the next class of Techstars Farm to Fork Founders. If you are tackling these challenges or know someone who is, let us know about it by applying today!