By Brett Brohl, Managing Director of the Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator
Food Tech. It is a startup category that continues to expand in definition and interest. A constant stream of new entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations have emerged in the space over the last 12 months. As we move to 2022, we expect this growth to continue because the opportunities in the space continue to grow in importance and urgency.
Even if you think your only interaction with the food industry is when you eat it, I guarantee that the recent trends in Food Tech are currently impacting your life. Supply chain and labor challenges have undoubtedly affected you recently, sustainability and health are topics that are unavoidable; and whether you know it or not you have been a part of the alternatives movement.
Labor, supply chain, sustainability, human and animal health, and new alternatives are the five pillars of our 2022 Farm to Fork Food Tech thesis. The technologies solving these problems often span many, if not all of these pillars from digital platforms to robotics to biotech and like every year there will be new innovations we haven’t thought of that will blow us away!
This is our fifth year working with Cargill and Ecolab to help early stage founders working on huge ideas that have applications into the food world. From the beginning we have talked about our interest in the “messy middle” of food and over the last 18 months we have watched enterprises begin to more rapidly adopt technology across their entire supply chains. The food system continues to need innovation and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some of the best entrepreneurs in the world tackling these massive challenges.
The continued tightening of labor markets has far reaching implications. Most consumers may only think of labor when we experience long wait times at our favorite quick serve restaurants or shortened hours because of staffing. But labor issues are actually at the heart of many of the largest issues facing the food supply chain. From production to manufacturing all the way through transportation, labor shortages are having a dramatic impact on the end consumer. Not only are these issues affecting shortages but they also have direct implications on pricing and quality. It’s a huge problem to solve. Here are a few specific areas of interest within the labor bucket:
Compliance & Training - High turnover and untrained labor forces are a reality. Tech that can train or help monitor and manage compliance are in demand.
Acquisition & Retention - Interest from top of funnel through the hiring process and into employee retention.
Automation & Efficiency - Robotics and other automation tools are the long term solution to the labor crunch. How do we make the labor force in place more effective and fill seats that humans don’t want to fill?
Ships stuck at port. Not enough truck drivers. Factory downtime. Commodity price fluctuations. Reduced menus & product availability. Sustainability pressure. Employee health and safety concerns.
All of these have created a bit of a perfect storm for the food supply chain! It is actually surprising that there hasn’t been more disruption to what were the “normal” expectations of consumers two years ago. These issues have shone a brighter spotlight on significant opportunities for entrepreneurs to drive adoption and trial more quickly than I have ever seen. Here are a few specifics within supply chain:
Redundancy & Optimization - Food is one of the most difficult things in the world to move. It is perishable and heavy.
Net Zero - As long as consumers continue to demand this it will be felt throughout the supply chain.
Safety & Security - Of both the food but also the humans involved, from harvest to retailing.
Smart Manufacturing/Modular Manufacturing - Why ship food when you can manufacture closer to demand centers?
Food Service & New Dining Formats - How do end consumers get their food? Has Covid changed the food service industry forever?
If you are making the food system more efficient you are naturally making it more sustainable. We have made several investments in impact driven organizations over the last 4 years and continue to believe that there are massive opportunities for entrepreneurs that are making the food supply chain more sustainable. This is the largest trend in food, and it is why so many experienced entrepreneurs and investors are entering the food vertical. As you will see from some of our specifics below, not all of the opportunities to drive a sustainable food system are obvious but they are all interesting and impactful:
Water - The food system is a huge consumer of water. Reduction of use, water health and water processing are all in scope.
Animal management - Animal based protein is not going away overnight. Efficiently managing animals can have a dramatic impact on the reduction of their footprint.
Bioenergy/Biomaterials - This is broad. Plastics to energy, there is a tremendous amount of opportunity to leverage food waste streams.
Human & Animal Health
This isn’t all about food as medicine! There is a tremendous amount of talk about personalized diets, and health claims of new ingredients. While we have invested in this space, it is the less sexy side of Human and animal health that has our interest in 2022. Lets get specific:
Clean Safe Food/Water - Food & water safety have been a consistent area of interest for us. Unique revenue models in this space are especially interesting.
Cleaning & Sterilization - Unique ways to represent cleanliness to consumers. Monitoring & compliance. Unique ROI stories in cleanliness & sterilization.
Antimicrobial Surfaces and Solutions - From barns to restaurants!
If we played word association with “alternative” my very unscientific guess is that 99% of people would say “protein.” There is so much more out there than alternative protein. From lipids to pest control alternative methods to our current systems are abundant. The alternative protein space is already large and growing quickly, the total alternatives space is massive. More specifics:
Novel Ingredients - We mention lipids in the preamble to this section but this category is broad!
Pest control - According to some sources 20% of food is contaminated or consumed by rodents. There has to be a better mousetrap.
Picks & Shovels - Throughout history entire support industries are always created when there is world changing innovation. It is going to happen in the alternatives space.
Things we haven't thought of yet
Safe to say this is the largest bucket but we love moonshots.