By Stewart Putney, edible Silicon Valley
At first glance it looked like a common event in Silicon Valley. A group of industry leaders and entrepreneurs met to learn, evangelize and network. Speakers shared their experiences, panels discussed market challenges and entrepreneurs pitched their start-ups to expert judges. All at Stanford on a beautiful sunny day in June.
But this event was a little different. The 2014 “Food IT: Soil to Fork Conference” was a gathering of technology, food and farming professionals looking to revolutionize the future of food. And as one attendee, a farmer from Vancouver, noted, “This was the best eight hours I have spent in years.”
The Soil to Fork Conference was hosted by The Mixing Bowl, an organization whose purpose is “to stimulate the adoption of IT innovation in the food and agriculture industries through business-focused dialogue between existing industry players, start-ups and investors, and other food innovators,” according to its website. And if the sold-out conference with over 40 speakers is any indication, The Mixing Bowl is well on the way to meeting its goals.
The Mixing Bowl is the brainchild of Rob Trice, who cofounded the group in late 2013. Trice, an experienced telecom venture capitalist, is now dedicated to investing in food, farm and IT businesses through The Mixing Bowl and his investment group Better Food Ventures. Trice hoped the conference, and his investments, would help build businesses where “local and sustainable producers get bigger, and bigger producers get more local and sustainable.”
It all started when Trice attended the Hack//Meat SV “hackathon” in 2013. Trice and a group that included his wife Wendy Millet of TomKat Ranch won the competition with Farmstacker, an online service that “connects young farmers to land and capital by creating collaboration with existing farm operations using stacked agriculture.” From there, Trice realized the “volume of opportunities for farmers and food producers to connect with Silicon Valley’s IT innovation ecosystem.”
As Trice says, “You see what happens when you apply IT to sometimes-sleepy verticals like agriculture. Look at what Uber has done for taxis, AirBnB for lodging or Square for payments. We can use available technology to drive immense sector growth … and food and agriculture are a huge part of the economy.”
Trice’s work to connect food and farm business with IT partners and investors seems timely. Food + Tech Connect estimates that there was over $3.9 billion in food technology and media investments and acquisitions in the first half of 2104. Meanwhile, AgFunderNews estimates that, as of mid-July, agricultural technology companies pulled in $401 million in new investments in 2014.
The Mixing Bowl is doing its part. Beyond the Soil to Fork Conference, they host regular Hacks, “Tossups” (think Meet-ups for food tech) and “Food Geeks Travel” events that bring technologists directly in contact with farmers and food producers across the globe.
What’s next for Trice and The Mixing Bowl? Trice hopes The Mixing Bowl will act as hub for building a brick and mortar “Food Lab” where entrepreneurs can test and market their ideas to customers and investors. Regardless of what the future holds, you can be assured of Trice’s commitment to connect food producers and farmers with Silicon Valley technology. As he says, “I am all in.”
Stewart Putney is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and writer. He grows food, cooks and mixes the occasional cocktail. Stewart is the managing and online editor of Edible Silicon Valley and blogs at PutneyFarm.com.