Looking From Inside The Mixing Bowl in 2019

The partners of The Mixing Bowl– Seana Day, Michael Rose, Brita Rosenheim and myself– recently sat down to revisit where we are and where we want to go as we head into 2019. We thought we would give you a peek into our perspective on the Agrifoodtech ecosystem in 2019 and what we believe our team should be doing to maximize our contribution to its success.

Here are a couple insights we had on the Agrifoodtech ecosystem:

  1. Things ARE changing in the food and agriculture market and technology is the primary enabler unleashing change. Imagine I jumped into a time machine to speak at the very first Mixing Bowl FOOD IT conference in June, 2014. That 2014 audience would simply not believe me if I told them that in five years: Denmark will have decreased food waste by 25%; You can buy a lab-grown Impossible Burger at White Castle; Amazon owns Whole FoodsUber delivers more meals than any other company in the US; We can manipulate DNA via software through something called Crispr; Tyson Foods has a venture fund investing in plant-based meat alternatives; and Donald Trump is President of the United States.
  1. As part of the maturity of “Food Tech” & “AgTech” we have even seen the gap between food and agriculture shrink and the rise of “Agrifoodtech”. Witness Agfunder’s decision to change the title of its investment report from Agtech to “Agrifood Tech” this year. (From here on out in this piece I am going to refer to Agrifoodtech as  “AFT”).
  1. We have seen a fast rise in the number of AFT-focused “venture support organizations” like incubators, accelerators, pitch contests, hackathons, etc. Sarah Nolet of Agthentic has cataloged over 155 AFT venture support organizations worldwide. We are growing increasingly concerned that all of these incubators, etc. may be creating “too much innovation” in that the startup concepts are duplicative, not ready for the market, and/or feeding fatigue with those who fund and those who buy these AFT innovations.
  1. We have seen the amount of AFT funding rise substantially though we have concern that much of the funding is mismatched with the market or ahead of market adoption. We really do not want the AFT space to resemble the 2008 version of cleantech, where funders get burned because they invested based on a perceived future scarcity of resources or to help fulfill a world view of what those investors wanted to see. The four of us want to make positive impact through AFT but we want to do so by supporting those innovators addressing the pain points of 2019, not 2050.  On another dimension of this topic, we see a healthy number of seed and growth investors in AFT but funding for “late seed and early venture” (Series A/B stage) financing is still pretty limited. We need more investment dollars to help AFT innovations cross the chasm from early stage to abundant later stage sector financing.
  1. We have seen large incumbent AFT players taking action to embrace outside innovation by setting up their own incubators and funds. One such institution that we are supporting is Mista Foods. Led by Givaudan, they now have a vertically focused, multi-corporate (DanoneIngredionMars, etc.) effort to be an “optimizer” for food products to help them rapidly scale growth. This is a unique corporate innovation approach with great promise and we are pleased to see it taking place in the AFT space.
  1. There are a growing number of AFT conferences. There are now so many that they are honestly hard to track. That said, we do find value in some of the more targeted events like the Smart Kitchen SummitFish 2.0, or even the inaugural GroceryShop event. Five years ago there probably weren’t enough startups to warrant a dedicated conference for any of these sub-sectors but now they can be of value to the innovators in these sub-sectors.
  1. We see many more “talkers and takers” in AFT than we see “do-ers and givers”.  If we are really going to see positive progress made in harnessing technology to solve some of the big food and agriculture challenges, we need less talk and more action!

So, understanding the lay of the land, what is our team going to focus on in 2019?

  1. The investing work we have been doing as Better Food Ventures to fund companies harnessing information technology for positive impact in food and agriculture now. To continue this effort we are raising a new $50m fund to help fill the AFT funding ecosystem gap we discuss above.
  1. Online information-sharing through the publications of landscape maps and social media. We will update our core Agtech & Food Tech landscape maps soon and will likely take on more sub-sector analyses done in collaboration with other organizations (like Restaurant Tech done in collaboration with Tech Table and Dairy & Livestock Tech done together with the Innovation Center for US Dairy).
  1. Impactful gatherings that bring together uncommon collaborators to take action to solve problems. With the new over abundance of AFT conferences, we want to make sure any event of ours is differentiated and impactful. To this end, we are questioning if we will do our FOOD IT event in the Valley and our event in NYC again this year or not. Our current thinking is that our time might be better spent working with others to bring together smaller groups of action-oriented innovators to solve subsector-level problems. We also think we can continue to add value to others’ AFT-focused events by helping to shape agendas, speaking and moderating.

Despite some of the grumbling above related to the growing pains of this AFT innovation ecosystem, we share excitement in watching the digitization of food and agriculture unfold and the positive impact all of us in the ecosystem are making to build agility into our food system now so that by the time the challenges of feeding 9 or 10 billion people sustainably and nutritiously are upon us, we will be well positioned to tackle them.

Let’s go take action together on these important AFT challenges in 2019!

– Seana, Brita, Michael & Rob