MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize sponsor Rabobank recently hosted a FoodBytes! event in Brooklyn. The goal of these events, according to Managing Director Manuel Gonzalez, is to connect highly qualified innovators (the acceptance rate for startups is about 5%) with a range of investors, from corporate venture capitalists to venture capitalists to impact investors. More of a networking event than a funding event, the winner is chosen by the audience, and the main value proposition to startups is to build brand awareness and connect with potential investors.
Shelly Xu, an MIT Sloan MBA candidate and one of MIT FAC’s Executive Team members, shares her insights below on the Brooklyn event.
FAC: Tell us about the format of the event.
SX: The event started with a reception, intended to create networking opportunities. Then, the 10 selected companies pitched for five minutes, with five minutes of Q&A each. There were 10 pitches, and though there was a bias towards consumer market products, some were AgTech, or focused on other parts of the food system. Following the pitches, there was another reception with more networking opportunities. I thought the pitches were the best part of the event, though I really liked that guests could see the pitch decks during the reception, making it easy to approach startups, and giving startups an opportunity to get feedback.
FAC: The People’s Choice Award Winner was True Made Foods, a producer of ketchup and BBQ sauce made with all vegetable ingredients. Was this your favorite? What did you think about the audience-choice format for selecting a winner? Was the audience qualified?
SX: Q&A is always tough because you don't know what you’re going to get. A big part of the audience was Rabobank’s invited guests. Many were investors who were able to ask insightful questions about business viability. Other attendees asked questions from a consumer perspective, stemming from a personal or professional passion for food. One of the most interesting was a question for Sophie’s Kitchen: “if it’s vegan, why call it ‘seafood’?”
My personal favorite was a company founded by a MIT Media Lab alum called FreshTemp. They do remote and real-time temperature monitoring for commercial kitchens to ensure food safety, and have great potential for the application to cold-chain transportation.
FAC: Startups have tons of choices for how they spend their time, where they pitch, and where to seek funding. Why would you participate in FoodBytes if you had a startup?
SX: The strategic partners that Rabobank invites help guide the types of ventures. For this event, it was well marketed that Whole Foods would be the Presenting Sponsor. This was a big draw, and probably why there were many food products. If I had a company that fit with the Whole Foods brand image, or if this was a desired distribution channel, I’d be really excited about this event. For all the companies, though, it was a good opportunity for exposure, as the selection process is competitive and being selected shows their qualifications.
FAC: What was most surprising about the event?
SX: I didn't expect there to be international exposure. There was a Scandinavian company and an Israeli company, which was great to see.
Also, the event was held in Williamsbug, clearly an innovative, artistic, happening neighborhood. This venue was special and I personally liked it, as it resonated with the “be crazy, be wild” spirit of entrepreneurship. It helped to reinforce idea of innovation and breaking through traditional and conventional views.
SX: This isn’t unique to this event, but it was hard to navigate the networking. Many people know each other already, so it’s hard to break in and make meaningful connections. Maybe a way for attendee’s to show their sub-interest(s) in the sector could help facilitate connections. I did really appreciate that people traveled from all over, so it was a good way to build a broader network, beyond just NYC.
FAC: As an MBA student, why go to an event like this?
SX: It was valuable for me to talk to qualified startups. Who knows, maybe it will lead to an internship or job opportunity. Because the event wasn’t focused on one aspect of the value chain, it was also a good way to get exposure to different types of innovations and get insight into new trends.