FoodBytes 2016: Behind the Scenes
By Sheri Codiana
When it comes to attracting investor dollars in the tech-focused Bay Area, food and agriculture are often overlooked. But when Rabobank’s Manuel Gonzalez Guzman was considering how to grow entrepreneurial investment in the food world, he gained inspiration from the tech world to launch the FoodBytes! Summit. With FoodBytes!, Rabobank is looking to drive innovation in food and agriculture, build knowledge and networks, and improve access to finance. Rabobank is, after all, a traditional lender.
After yet another year of seeing sponsorships dwindle at large-scale, traditional food and beverage conferences, Guzman began attending the local SF New Tech meetings, in which startups would pitch their ideas, Shark Tank-style. The margins between food and technology have grown increasingly blurred, so Guzman felt the time was right for a vehicle to attract the best in food technology.
Guzman has a vested interest in the space. As Managing Director of Wholesale Clients on the West coast for Rabobank, he was looking for ways to grow Rabobank’s visibility in the Western food world. (Rabobank is focused solely on food and agriculture outside of The Netherlands.)
The event is still in its infancy. The first FoodBytes! Summit was held in 2014, hosted by Rabobank and SF New Tech, but there’s been a feverishly growing interest since it began. The inaugural event drew 100 applications, and fewer than two years and four events later, this year’s Summits are drawing more than 200 applications. Each applicant seeks to be one of 10 demo companies selected to give a five-minute pitch. Guzman expects to reach over 1000 people and to have processed over 700 applications by the time the October event in Boulder rolls around.
Ironically, Rabobank is attempting to drive innovation in the industry by innovating itself. The traditional model in banking is to hire a number of bankers to go out and operate independently in the industry. In a point of differentiation, Rabobank employs a group of 90 analysts worldwide who focus solely on consumer-facing research and trends.
Nick Fereday, Executive Director, Senior Analyst for Consumer Foods at Rabobank, is one of those analysts and is a mentor for companies participating in FoodBytes!. He spends his time looking at big picture consumer foods trends and seeks out areas of innovation and opportunity with small food companies.
Fereday pointed out that there’s resistance to change and a lack of innovation in larger companies, especially since R&D groups are often the first to get slashed during cost-cutting measures. He cited Tiny Toast from General Mills – the company’s first new breakfast cereal in 15 years. It’s hard to imagine any other industry surviving with such a lengthy product innovation cycle.
At this year’s Summits, in addition to the 10 selected demo companies, another 10 runner-up companies were invited to give a 60 second pitch as well. And the organizers are committed to giving all participating companies plenty of support. The day before the event, representatives from all 20 companies convened at Rabobank’s San Francisco offices for a day of networking, mentoring, and rehearsals. Each mentor spent time with groups of entrepreneurs, answering questions and providing guidance. In addition to Fereday, Rabobank’s Eric Hansen provides expertise in finance and equity, and Chuck Cotter of the legal firm Holland & Hart (host of the Boulder event) provides legal guidance.
The beauty of the structure is that even companies (or people) that aren’t selected to demo can still buy a ticket to the event and give a 60 second pitch during the open mic session.
Demo companies at the most recent Summit included those focusing on supply chain software innovations; edible insects; and the latest winner, Seamore, which produces a tagliatelle-like product made from sustainably harvested seaweed.
In conjunction with the fourth FoodBytes! Summit, Rabobank also announced a partnership with RocketSpace to launch Terra, a food and ag technology accelerator. This first-of-its-kind program is another move to shift the industry towards a Silicon Valley model that pushes for innovation over both stability and tradition in food and agriculture – a much needed shift designed to address the growing need to feed more people using diminishing resources.