Techstars + Ecolab Innovating for Impact

May 07, 2024

By Sarah Bain, Managing Director of the Techstars Future of Food Powered by Ecolab Accelerator

Applications are open now. Apply here.

The global food system is under increasing strain as the world’s population grows. This growth puts significant pressure on every part of the food value chain. Leveraging technology and innovation is essential to meet the rising demand for food while also promoting sustainability and equity. Techstars, in partnership with Ecolab, now in the seventh year of our program, is investing in startups tackling these opportunities within the food system.  We are particularly interested in startups building innovative solutions to improve food production, processing, distribution, and consumption. 

The world of food tech continues to evolve across the food value chain, with more entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations getting involved every year. The Future of Food Powered by Ecolab Accelerator thesis has evolved alongside this industry growth. This year, we are excited to work with entrepreneurs solving the most significant problems across the food tech ecosystem. 

Our accelerator is especially excited about startups building in five key areas this year: Restaurant and Retail Technology, Food Production, Labor, Supply Chain and Logistics, and Sustainability. 

The Specifics:

Restaurant & Retail Technology: The food service industry is undergoing a digital transformation. Restaurant and retail technology is no longer a niche concept; it's becoming an essential tool for businesses to thrive. From streamlining operations to enhancing the customer experience, sustainable tracking and labor optimization offer a range of benefits that can significantly impact bottom line. These are the areas we’re focusing on:

  • Kitchen Tech, Automation, & Robotics - High turnover, increased wage regulations, and slim margins call for innovation.

  • Back-of-House Operations (BOH) Tech - Streamlines operations and improves profitability by automating tasks and leveraging data for better decision-making.

  • AI/ML & Vision - Offering insights and data-driven solutions.

  • Labor Optimization - Smarter tech to empower teams.

  • Food Waste - How can we limit waste while creating new revenue streams? Reusing or upcycling material to create new revenue streams.

  • Cleaning & Sanitation - Keeping our food clean and healthy without sacrificing sustainability.

Food Production: Ever wonder where that delicious meal comes from? Our current food production system might be putting it on your plate, but it's taking a toll on the planet.  We're using water too quickly, polluting the air, overproducing, increasing waste, and leaving ourselves vulnerable to a lack of resources in the future. That’s why we’re focusing on the most crucial parts of the food production process:

  • Supply Chain Technology - From the field to your plate, automating and streamlining the movement of food is imperative.

  • Digital Technology - How do we import, export, transport, and consume smarter? 

  • AI/ML - Automating, predicting, and making data-driven decisions. 

  • Labor Optimization - Enhance efficiency, productivity, and safety.

  • Food Waste - One-third of the food produced globally is wasted or lost during its lifecycle; this needs to change. 

  • Clean & Safe Food & Water - Food and water safety has been a consistent area of interest. Unique revenue models in this space are exciting. 

  • Cleaning & Sanitation - Rethinking cleaning and sanitation practices in food production opens doors for innovation that can safeguard us, our food, and the planet.

Labor: We all appreciate a fresh meal but rarely consider the countless hands that get it to its final destination. The faces behind the checkout counter or the delivery driver are just the tip of the iceberg.  A hidden army of workers across the food chain – from farmhands to food scientists – keeps our restaurants, grocery, and food service stores stocked. Yet, labor shortages are silently squeezing this essential system. These challenges aren't just about inconvenient service; they're driving up food prices, reducing quality, and even causing potential shortages. To address these challenges, we must focus on critical areas within the workforce, including:

  • Automation & Efficiency - Robots are the future, but our plates need filling today.  How can we empower our current workforce and make those "unwanted" jobs desirable while reducing costs?

  • Compliance & Training - High turnover and untrained labor forces are a reality. Tech that can train or help monitor and manage compliance is in demand, along with tech that enables faster employee onboarding.

  • Acquisition & Retention - Interest from the top of funnel through the hiring process and into employee retention.  

  • Safety & Security - Both the food and the humans involved, from harvest to retailing. 

Supply Chain & Logistics: The pandemic's lingering woes, catastrophic incidents, and geo-political conflict have further disrupted and fractured the food supply chain. Trade, transportation, and logistics are overburdened, resulting in the overuse of natural resources, increased food spoilage, and food insecurity. The food system is broken, but the future is ripe for innovation. Entrepreneurs have a massive opportunity to build a more resilient and sustainable food supply chain. Here are a few specifics within the supply chain:

  • Redundancy & Optimization - Food is perishable and heavy, making it a logistical nightmare.

  • Net-Zero - Driven by consumer demand and increasingly by governments, sustainable and net-zero tech is in high demand among businesses.

  • Smart/Modular Manufacturing - Building flexible, efficient, and scalable solutions.

  • Food Waste - Efficient supply chain management can significantly reduce waste by optimizing logistics and improving resource allocation.

Sustainability: We continue to focus on sustainability across the food systems to reduce materials, water consumption, and ingredients. Water conservation and management are crucial to protecting the planet for years to come. We have made several investments over past programs in the sustainability space and will continue to look for innovation in the following areas:

  • Water - The food system is a massive consumer of water. Reduction of use, water health, and water processing are all in scope. 

  • Energy - Innovative solutions to energy conservation and renewable energy types are always of focus.

  • Bioenergy/Biomaterials - This is broad. From plastics to energy, there is a tremendous opportunity to leverage food waste streams. 

  • Scope 3 - The tracking, measurement, and trade of organizations’ carbon credits and mapping of indirect emissions.

Things we haven't thought of yet:

Safe to say this is the largest bucket, but we love moonshots. 

The 2024 Techstars Future of Food Powered by Ecolab Accelerator will start on September 9th. It represents not just an investment in the future of food but a commitment to fostering the next generation of entrepreneurs poised to redefine how the world thinks about food production, distribution, and consumption.