Editor’s Note: Stephanie Rich is Mentor-in-Residence for Techstars Farm to Fork
On Tuesday evening, ten startup CEOs got up in front of 400 people and tried to summarize their company in five minutes. These founders and their teams were finishing up their third month in the Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator in partnership with Cargill and Ecolab.
The ten teams who presented Tuesday were chosen out of hundreds of applicants to spend three months based at the Farm to Fork office in the Osborn370 building in downtown St. Paul.
Managing Director Brett Brohl says, “When it comes to the concept of Farm to Fork, it really means we’re looking for teams that are using modern-day technology to innovate across the entire food value chain. That’s from on-farm to restaurants to food waste mitigation and beyond.”
So, what exactly is an accelerator program? Brohl, an employee of Techstars (known as the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed), shared his definition. “To me, an accelerator must include three components: a residency portion of it where the companies come and spend time together, a mentorship portion and an investment portion. We [Techstars] invest in every single one of the companies that come through our program. Three months of the year, those companies come from all over the world. The other nine months out of the year, we’re just out there looking, scouting, trying to find the companies for the next class.”
Brohl also explained the role that two of Minnesota’s Fortune 500 companies play in the program. “Cargill and Ecolab aren’t sponsors of this program they’re partners. They’re not names on a banner. They actually get in and work with these companies providing advice, mentorship and expertise on things that these companies are working on, and so it’s a true partnership.”
“More than half of Techstars’ programs are with corporate partners,” he continues. “The idea is, how do you combine startup and enterprise in a way that actually works and have both of them engage each other and add value to each other in a meaningful way. The mentorship process is how we do it.”
“We do different programming, but the secret-sauce in Techstars accelerators secret-sauce is mentorship,” says Brohl. The Farm to Fork mentor pool includes a number of Cargill and Ecolab team members as well as local industry experts and veteran entrepreneurs. In the first month of the program, each startup meets with every mentor for 20 minutes during a three-week period of what Techstars calls Mentor Madness. That one-on-one mentorship continues for the rest of the program.
The culmination of three months of hard work came at last night’s Demo Day, which included several big announcements from the 2019 class.
Read below to learn more about all ten 2019 Techstars Farm to Fork teams.(in no particular order): Contain, Trackter, Otrafy, Transparent Kitchen, PurPics, Food For All, EcoPlant, ConverSight.ai, ImagoAI, Phood
Nicola Kerslake’s entry into the world of indoor agriculture came thanks to a load of fish. During a road trip across the US, Kerslake, CEO of Contain, stumbled across a rudimentary aquaponics system. She was intrigued. What did this method of growing food, and in particular, what did growing food indoors mean for the future of the food system?
What started with a simple interest has led Kerslake to become an industry expert. With her second company in the indoor agriculture space, Kerslake is looking to build the infrastructure she believes is necessary for the growing industry.
“The first question you get asked when you go into a bank is, “Where’s your land?” And these growers don’t have land. They’re farming on rooftops and warehouses.” A seasoned economist and former investment banker, Kerslake and partners looked around at the best ways to provide capital into the industry. “We looked at equity models, we looked at debt, and then it became clear over time that actually the biggest need was for the cheapest form of financing possible. And that wasn’t equity; that was going to be leases.”
“We work with equipment vendors—folks who are doing LED lighting, greenhouse structures, HVAC, gross systems, any capital equipment you’d need for your farm. At the point where their growers are ready to start farming, the vendors refer them to us. We work with them on a finance and business plan and then we match them to our group of lenders.”
Since joining Farm to Fork in July 2019, the team has launched their automated platform, which now has over 300 growers and $500,000 in leases at this point. Kerslake pointed out that the team can now define the relationship between the lender and the growers via a matching algorithm that’s the basis of their platform.
She explains that “our platform allows growers to come in and start their lease application via chat bot. We spend a lot of time thinking about how growers live their lives and that they’re in and out of the farms, they’re on their phone, they very rarely use a laptop unless they really have to. They’ll be able to start their application on their phone and then once they submit the final application, it will automatically be matched with our algorithm to the optimal lenders. Then they can come into their account on our platform and accept, decline, negotiate, or get help from us at any point.”
The six person team is spread throughout the US. Kerslake herself is based in Reno. As to why larger banks aren’t as active in the industry, Kerslake explains that, “It’s very hard for an industry to reconfigure itself around something that’s new, particularly where they just don’t have the data. Most of the agriculture lenders are set up and have really amazing networks among traditional farmers, but they don’t have particularly good networks among indoor farmers, about 80% of whom are new to the industry.”
If Contain is successful, even those new to the industry will be able to finance their indoor farms and be part of a what may be seen as a trend, but could in fact be the future of the entire food industry.
Watermelon broker is not the typical background for the founder of a tech startup. But Trackter CEO Josh Whitlock says that while it can provide challenges, his unique background getting watermelons to market at scale actually gives his company a major competitive advantage.
“The learning curve has been steep, but it’s been a blast,” Whitlock says. “I think a lot of it was just having the right combination of naivete and confidence to take the leap. Our product is strong because I have this very deep knowledge of our user and logistics processes and how to remove constraints from those processes. That is super valuable and has led to our product saving our users more money than we ever anticipated.”
Whitlock explains that Trackter has “built an automated logistics system that handles all of your freight needs from the time you book the trucks to the time they deliver. We negotiate the best prices and make sure that everything happens just in time to reduce your costs.” With their solution, the company also aims to tackle the issues of wait time and thus diesel fuel usage. Whitlock says, “As a truck driver you wait for hours for the load to be ready. You wait for hours for the receivers to find a door for you. You talk to any truck driver and ask them how much time they spend waiting, and they will complain to you for the next 30 minutes.”
With more than four million shipments a year in the US produce market alone, it seems strange that there are still problems associated with coordinating just-in-time. But Whitlock isn’t surprised. “It’s really hard,” he says. “There are a lot of technology companies that are focused on logistics. There are a handful of forward thinking produce companies that have had some lightweight solutions built in-house for their very specific processes. But the combination of knowledge, tribal knowledge from the farms and then knowledge of building software, those people don’t talk to each other. They don’t know each other. It doesn’t surprise me at all that this doesn’t exist.”
After three months in Minnesota as part of Techstars Farm to Fork, the Trackter team is looking forward to returning to Atlanta and continuing their growth. As Whitlock sees it, their early traction is just the beginning, “There’s a lot of room in our market. What’s really interesting about logistics as a whole is you can keep carving out these niche areas, but the market itself is big and fragmented. We start with produce shipments, then add in grain shipments; you’ll find another five million shipments. Then if we were to look at protein or dairy or some other just-in-time critical manufacturing, whatever those next verticals may be, each one adds millions of shipments. And, potentially billions of dollars to our market size.”
Free food appeals to every entrepreneur but it’s not often that the offer of it leads to a potentially industry changing idea.
Nhat and Alicia Nguyen had only been in Vancouver for two weeks when they decided to attend a hackathon because, well, it was offering free food and they were hungry entrepreneurs. There they randomly met Lucas Cunha, who had been working in the food industry. The three of them came up with a supply chain product for farmers growing organic food and actually won the entire competition.
Nhat says “We got a bit of cash prize money and we thought, “Hey, instead of just going out and buying clothes with this money, we can start our business.” The trio began working on the company, which they named Otrafy, and spent time in Canada, Hong Kong and Australia along the way. When they realized that they wanted to be in the US market, they thought an accelerator would be the right point of entry.
The company entered Farm to Fork in July 2019 and three weeks into program made a major decision—to pivot and focus on building an enterprise solution for the collection and transference of certification and regulation data across the food supply chain. “Now that we’ve done the pivot, we got a lot of good customer discoveries, we know exactly what we need to build and the main point we are focusing on. We have a prototype product out there to get some early feedback, but we are really concentrating on having a successful enterprise platform that is viewed by larger manufacturers,”
Nhat says, “We didn’t realize the real value of having a proper accelerator to really show us the ropes. It has really helped us to build confidence and accountability in all our team members, and now we really truly believe that we have a real business case together that we can really take and grow.”
In the midst of changing the company product and customer base during their time at Techstars, the Otrafy team also decided to make a change to their headquarters location. “Since we came here three months ago, we’ve really enjoyed the support from the mentors, from the Techstars staff, as well as the network in the Twin Cities,” says Nhat. “I feel a lot of support and it’s a good place, a lot of our clients are around here, and slowly growing on us – it feels a bit like home nowadays.”
Along with moving to Minnesota, CEO Nhat says the team will be busy executing on their bigger vision for the future of the food supply chain. “Otrafy doesn’t just digitize paper, we collect very valuable data. We know suppliers’ farming practices, food safety practices, supply chain practices, all that is very valuable information in terms of being able to really tell the end consumer, that what we are purchasing is actually true, right? We actually have this data to be able to tell you and this is something very important to a lot of people nowadays who care about things like deforestation, child labor, and similar issues. We can really help to lend a voice to the people to be able to ensure that their voice is being heard, and people are following what’s being requested.”
“I didn’t start Transparent Kitchen to become an entrepreneur,” says Frazer Nagy with passion. “I just had this concept and this frustration around the fact that no one knew what they were really eating when they were dining at the restaurants where I worked all through high school, university, and beyond.”
Nagy’s company Transparent Kitchen is an intelligent food and beverage discovery platform. Nagy and his team of 14 work with chef-driven restaurants to digitize PDF menus and take custom photography of the menu and location several times a year. This digitization and content creation creates a tremendous amount of data, enabling a future that Nagy has long imagined. As he explains: “I think truly if we get to where we want to go, as a consumer, as a diner, as a foodie, as someone who has an allergy, you truly will know what is on your plate, how it got there, and what you are eating, all the way down to the fact that you’ll know every ingredient, and which farmer, and which owner, and which chef you are supporting with your dollar.”
TK was already live in Toronto, Ottawa and Seattle when the team fell in love with the Twin Cities dining scene while in town for Techstars. “In just a two weeks blitz, we onboarded 30 of the top restaurants here, which is unprecedented for our team. But it shows what can be done in a new market. We had just one staff member, with no additional marketing, using the telephone and accomplishing that in two weeks. We are excited for what we can accomplish when we actually have a budget and can add more resources and an expanded team.”
With a home base in Toronto and team members spread throughout the continent, the TK team has been building out their sales, photography and general business staff. Nagy says, “The front of house is a mixture of all industry people. It’s made up of individuals like Stefanie, who became our latest partner, who worked her way up to a Michelin pastry chef in London, England. Sarah, who’s our lead in photography and sales, has worked as a chef throughout her city.”
Nagy is bullish on the company’s future aims to become the Netflix or Spotify of the dining industry. He says, “I think we do have a real opportunity to become a household name, and that’s our goal. One of the things we have is our morals, and our ethics, and our values. We’ve built a team that has a chance to change an industry, the future of how you are to discover your dining experience, how that dining experience would be delivered to you, and how you are supporting your community with your dollar. I think that’s something that will always keep Transparent Kitchen unique from the rest of the pack.”
Generation Z can be loosely defined as people born between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s. Reaching this next generation is a hot topic in advertising and marketing circles as brands struggle to engage a group with different priorities then the generations that came before them. But despite spending an estimated $117 billion to reach them, many brands are failing to connect with this group.
“The idea for PurPics really came about because, as a Gen Z consumer, the way brands are trying to engage and reach my generation didn’t really resonate with me and my peers,” says Aneesh Dhawan. “Our generation is very socially conscious. We really want to support causes that are meaningful to us and so the idea for PurPics came because we wanted to find a way to help brands better connect with this next generation around the causes they cared about the most.”
Dhawan himself spent his teen summers working on projects with different NGOs in Haiti and China. When he headed to school at the University of Virginia, he realized this experience wasn’t unique to him. Dhawan and his roommate began building PurPics, a company they describe as a peer influencer platform that helps brands learn and engage with the next generation of consumers.
Two of PurPics products involve working with Gen-Z peer influencers who PurPics has defined as individuals with less than 5000 followers. PurPics Engage works with peer-influencers on social networks like Instagram while PurPics Swarm drives Gen Z consumers to on-campus events or in-stores to drive foot traffic and sales.
But it’s the third product, PurPics Insights, that Dhawan is most excited about. “I truly believe that there’s a fundamental shift coming in the way brands are going to have to engage this next generation. And that’s going to start off with, how do you better understand this next generation? and Insights in my opinion is one of the best ways for brands to really deeply understand this next generation.” At Demo Day, Dhawan announced that Purpics will be working with Cargill and Ecolab on Insights campaigns.
As for staying in touch with Gen Z while he tries to build a gigantic business, Dhawan says it’s pretty easy. “All of my friends are still Gen Z, right? I’m still really close with all my college friends, my younger brother. We’re very well connected with with our generation because when I open up my Instagram or Snapchat, I’m seeing what my friends are posting.”
It’s clear that based on what he’s seeing via brands and from his own peers Dhawan is all in on this concept. He says, “What I love the most about our company is that we are part of this mission driven trend and frankly we built the company because we think this trend is going to continue and grow. Helping brands understand that being mission driven and having a social component to your brand is actually necessary for your brand to be successful in this day and age.”
Since its launch, Food For All has prevented more than 120,000 pounds of prepared food from being thrown away. For context, 120,000 pounds is equivalent to the weight of more than one hundred and twenty-one polar bears.
Food For All CEO David Rodriguez explains that restaurants list their fresh left-over pre-prepared meals on the app; customers can purchase those meals at discounts of at least 50%. According to Rodriguez, restaurants appreciate the additional foot traffic and profit being created by these sales. He shares that meals are typically available at the tail-end of open hours so that no extra hours are required by workers.
“We’ve learned that while restaurants may not know the specific food that they are going to have as surplus food, they do know how much they’ll have because of their inventory management,” says Rodriguez. “Meaning for restaurants, they set up a profile and they upload how many people can come and pick up their meals. For customers, it’s very easy. Users log into the app, see the available meals and restaurants close to them, they pay through the app, and then they come through restaurants to pick up their meals.”
Understanding the restaurant industry comes naturally to Rodriguez. “I grew up in hospitality in Mexico, so I used to see the food waste problem firsthand. My grandparents started with a food stall, and instead of them throwing excess food away, they actually used to sell it in the outskirts of the city. I grew up with that story, and then, when we were doing research about the food industry, we discovered a lot of B2B concepts here in the US dealing with food waste, but we didn’t see any consumer facing products.
Rodriguez isn’t alone in his passion for figuring out a concept to reduce food waste. His eight person team is behind him and, according to them, so are their customers. “I think the most interesting thing about Food For All is not only selling these foods but the type of user that we’re collecting. Users that not only want healthy, affordable food but who care about food waste. The app store reviews and user engagement are really good as well. A lot of the time, restaurants are really surprised about the type of diner we’re bringing them. They’re telling us, ‘These other apps are bringing very demanding people, just asking ‘Where’s my food?’ Food For All users very much want to learn about their food.”
The Food For All app has already been downloaded more than 115,000 times. While 45,000 of those are in the cities where Food For All is live (Boston and New York), more than 70,000 downloads have come from users outside those areas. Rodriguez is looking forward to having restaurants across the country use Food For All and is starting to look at where to expand.
When it comes to exactly what city they’ll launch in next, Rodriguez shares that users will have a major impact on making their choice. How can those users influence the team? Rodriguez says, “I think sharing it with your friends to start. Tagging restaurants in your city on social media and asking them to check out Food For All will be really helpful and help us start to find those restaurants. We’re now in the process of thinking which are going to be the next cities, so if people are vocal about wanting Food For All close to them, that will be powerful.”
“It’s the un-sexiest place that you have ever thought of,” says Aviran Yaacov of the world of factory air compressors.
It’s a world he knows well. Yaacov is the Founder and CEO of EcoPlant, a startup that has developed a Software-as-a-Service solution to monitor, control and optimize air compressors. An air compressor creates air pressure, which is used in everything from factory operations to packaging an end product. While most people can identify compressed air as being part of things like potato chip packaging and pop can creation, it is also in fact used in 90% of manufacturing processes.
“We connect to existing air compressor controllers and use their regular communication protocols. You can see a lot of effects from doing this – for example, we can provide 24/7 alerts about what you need to change to avoid downtime, and our system can help you make those changes.
By doing this, Yaacov says EcoPlant can not only help prevent downtime, but it can also help reduce energy costs and optimize waste. He explains that instead of replacing an air compressor with expensive new models, the EcoPlant team installs their plug-and-play solution to existing hardware.
EcoPlant already has a team of 11 based in Kibbutz Gevim at Shaar Hanegev, Israel. Yaacov shares that their solution is already installed in 30 factories across Israel. He says that since their launch earlier this year, their customers have already seen a 30% reduction in their energy costs. The team joined the Farm to Fork accelerator in July with eyes on expanding into the US market.
Moving to Minneapolis for three months has meant that Yaacov has had to rely on planes and smartphones to keep in touch with his young family. “I brought my family here to make trips. I fly a lot. I have my 100,000 miles with United. Today with the internet and video calls, it’s easier for us because you can see their faces. But it’s hard. It’s not easy.” Yaacov and his family are now considering a permanent move to the Midwest, given the new business EcoPlant has been able to secure while part of Farm to Fork.
But expanding their business here is just the beginning, according to Yaacov. He says, “Our vision is to develop the first dynamic URP (Utilities Resource Planning) system in the world. It means that what we are doing with compressors today we plan to do in 2021 to triggers and pumps. By doing that, we will catch 60% of the entire energy at a factory. All the systems. So compressed air, triggers and pumps sometimes work together; we’ll work to optimize, connect, and continuously monitor, analyze and control.”
It’s not just the opportunity to build a big business that drives Yaacov: “For me to do something that’s better for the world is important. It’s not just developing an application, I’m doing something that actually can help better the world and reduce CO2 and energy, and that’s a major motivation.”
After sixteen years in the data and analytics space Ganesh Gandhieswaran was frustrated. As part of a large company in Indianapolis, he and his team were creating intricate dashboards and data reports for clients. But Gandhieswaran says, “we built very cool reporting mechanisms that were supposed to be for 600 people. But four months later, I was checking in on who’s using it— four people were using it. Four. Just four.”
It was a turning point in his career. “I thought, we need to do something different,” he says. “I went and interviewed all these people from a senior sales leader all the way to the sales rep asking what they need. That’s when I realized that they don’t need reports and dashboards. They need information at speed.”
Just as Gandhieswaran was getting set to quit his job and get started, he ran into Gopinath Jagamohan at a local Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce meeting. Jagamohan, a technology veteran, had himself been considering making the jump to the startup world. One four-hour meeting later and the two had decided to launch ConverSight.ai.
“ConverSight is conversational insights and action,” Gandhieswaran explains. “In this digital world, everyone has a lot of data. The enterprises are spending billions of dollars in getting this data up and running.” But, he explains, actually accessing that data in a timely manner is another story, something he had seen first-hand at his previous job.
To combat this Gandhieswaran and his team built a natural language platform to make it easier to access data that already exists in their ERPs and CRMs. He says, “Using ConverSight is more like you are going to Google or asking Alexa or Siri. Just ask a question, and Athena, an AI companion, will get that information instantly, from anywhere. If they can use those insights, they can be very efficient.”
While ConverSight’s solution has broad applicability, Gandhieswaran shares that they are focused on helping improve sales forces’ accessibility to data. “One in eight jobs in North America is a sales job. However, salespeople are spending as little as 36% of their time actively selling, and the rest of the time, they have to figure out a lot of these data things. Do they have inventory? Do they have how much sales we made? What’s the unit price for this? What is the contribution of this product? It’s not easy.”
Their new focus seems to be paying off for the now 24-person team. In their three months at Techstars Farm to Fork, ConverSight onboarded eight pilots and added $300K in revenue to their business. Gandhieswaran says being in an accelerator helped the team not only figure out their focus but also identify what they were truly ready to accomplish. “We were crawling then walking. We didn’t realize; we are ready to run.”
Abhishek Goyal likes to talk about finding bugs in your food.
But he’s not talking about finding them at the dining table or after picking up an order from your favorite fast-casual restaurant. He’s talking about seeing them on the production line by using hyperspectral imaging and advanced artificial intelligence to identify foreign contaminants and small insects long before food reaches the consumer.
Goyal is the cofounder and CEO of ImagoAI, a startup focused on improving food safety and food quality. “Where we come from, in India (ImagoAI came to MN from New Delhi, India), we have faced many times these issues of foodborne illness. You eat street food, and then you get stomach pain or something. From there, we saw that there is a huge potential to prevent this. Once we started reading more about other international markets, countries like the U.S., where food safety laws are strong, we realized that companies face a lot of product recalls, not to mention the millions of people falling sick.”
He explains that ImagoAI finds issues with food long before it reaches consumers’ hands. The company installs a hyperspectral camera above a production line and integrates it with its AI system. Goyal explains, “Our system processes the data that is captured by the hyperspectral cameras and gives these insights that there is a foreign contaminant microplastic or there is a small insect, etc. We integrate the software system with the rejection system of the production line, so when this particular food material goes through that rejection point, it gets eliminated from the line.”
The team has been able to make major strides with business development and strategy while at Techstars. Goyal shares that “at this point, we are finalizing our pilots, trying to finalize deals with big food processing companies and [figure out] how we can integrate our system over their system.” Goyal and his cofounder Shweta Gupta also made a major life decision about where to base the company during their three months in the Techstars program. Goyal says, “Minnesota is the right place for this sort of thing because of the presence of large food corporations here. Minnesota is the hub of that. So, it makes a lot of sense to move our headquarters over here.”
Imago’s ready to get settled into their new hometown. Goyal shares that they were surprised by how significant the business opportunity is here, “I was not imagining this much scale of the companies,” he shares. But he and Gupta were also amazed at the weather conditions. Goyal laughs, “Mainly hearing about how the Minnehaha waterfall basically freezes, that was pretty amazing stuff.”
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 39 million tons of food is wasted each year. On their website, they list several different actions that organizations can take to prevent and divert wasted food—from donations of extra food to diverting scraps to animals to providing waste oils for rendering and fuel conversion. But they also identify the top way to reduce the amount of wasted food in the world.
“The number one solution that has the most benefits economically and environmentally and socially is source reduction,” explains Luc Dang, founder and CEO of Phood. “That means actually preventing food waste from ever happening in the first place, whether it’s at the farm, manufacturing, with us as consumers, or even food businesses, and so that’s what we focus on.”
The EPA’s website delves into the concept of source reduction and how to do it properly. It says the first step in reducing wasted food is to measure it– an idea that defines Phood’s entire model. Dang says, “Waste tracking enables us to identify what we’re over purchasing, what we’re overproducing, what we’re losing due to contamination, spoilage, expiration, by having data-driven actionable insights.”
Phood has several products, including the Phood XL, a waste-tracking system that includes a garbage can so it integrates easily into a business’s regular kitchen routine. Daily food waste is disposed of as it usually would be but is detected by Phood’s smart scale and AI camera. The Phood X is a smaller tabletop model the features a tabletop scale and screen.Each product collects data that is sent to Phood’s web dashboard, which integrates with a business’s existing systems to automatically identify total loss, find the top items being wasted, and give actionable insights to users.
Dang explains that their decision to use advanced technology was very purposeful. “We use computer vision and artificial intelligence to automatically identify food and capture it in a seamless process. Employee turnover for a traditional foodservice operation is about three months, so you constantly have new people kind of coming in and out, and waste management is something that kind of just falls at the wayside. That’s why we made our solution require virtually zero staff training or manual entry.”
The Boston based team of six has made some significant strides over the past few months while at Techstars. “Getting into Techstars has been a roller coaster, but one that we’ve thoroughly enjoyed,” says Dang. “Techstars, in the simplest form, really helped us figure out where we are, to get to where we wanted to go.”