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From Delivery Platforms To Aquaponics, MBAs & The Food Startup Craze

Foodie

“The most compelling presentation will get these persimmons and this pineapple guava straight from the Idea Garden,” declares Will Rosenzweig in front of a packed theatre-style room in Cheit Hall on the campus of the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

It’s late November and the first ever offering of the Food Venture Lab on a B-school campus is at its apex. One-by-one, 14 teams of MBAs with freshly minted food ventures sashayed to the front of the room to impress Rosenzweig and a panel of food experts and investors. Along with the persimmons and pineapple guava from Rosenzweig’s patch of Northern California land he’s dubbed the Idea Garden, class grades and potential investments were at stake. The most exceptional of the Shark Tank-style pitches could garner classroom bragging rights. Not to mention the potential beginnings of the next disrupter in a burgeoning line of foodie startups with MBAs at the helm.

The Food Venture Lab is an extension of the Culinary Institute of America’s Food Business School, based in St. Helena, California and where Rosenzweig is dean. The school launched about a year ago, and with the intertwining of elite MBA faculty and Napa Valley chefs, left national headlines in its wake. It’s the first school of its kind and the fact it even exists says quite a bit about the current food business climate. It also empowers the entrepreneurs aiming to prey on the growing vulnerability of long-standing and deeply established big food brands. Rosenzweig, who has been on faculty at Berkeley-Haas since 1999, brought the course to Berkeley’s campus with the urging and inspiration of Berkeley-Haas MBA for Executives student Caroline Yeh.

At Berkeley-Haas, the Food Venture Lab is essentially a one-unit accelerator for students keen on food innovation and entrepreneurship. Originally set to be an 18-person class for Berkeley’s MBA for Executives program, it ballooned into a class of more than 60 students. It also drew students from the school’s full-time and evening and weekend MBA programs–the first time Berkeley-Haas has offered the same section and course across all three of its MBA programs. Seasoned middle-aged executives sat next to and worked on teams with the largely millennial full-time MBA population.

ENORMOUS INDUSTRY AND CULTURAL SHIFTS

“We’re living at a moment where it feels like everything about food is changing,” Rosenzweig tells Poets&Quants before rattling off examples of the changes. “From what we’re being told to eat, how things are being grown, the conditions in which food is being grown is changing dramatically, the way food is getting to market, the way food is being delivered to people’s homes and plates.”

And Rosenzweig would know. He was the founding CEO of The Republic of Tea, a premium tea purveyor, and was on the founding board of natural juice and smoothy company, Odwalla. He founded and is a managing partner at venture capital firm Physic Ventures, a $160 million fund “focused on investing in keeping people healthy.” Revolution Foods, which has raised nearly $100 million in venture backing and is changing the way food is served in schools around the country was founded in one of his classes.

But this is just one class on one B-school campus. The Food Venture Lab is very much a microcosm of a greater phenomenon—small, fledgling ventures preying on vulnerable established food Goliaths. Whether it’s the immigrant selling food in a truck on the side of the road, a farmer selling produce at a market, or a food delivery system trying to figure out how to scale with its newfound millions in VC backing, food entrepreneurship is hot.

“One indicator [showing how] food entrepreneurship is trending in terms of starting businesses is the number of food-related incubators, accelerators, boot camps, services–what I call food entrepreneur services–that have exploded in the last couple of years,” says Rachel Greenberger, the director of Babson College’s Food Sol, an “open source action tank for food entrepreneurs of all kinds” for those in and outside of the Babson community.

“They’re everywhere,” she adds.

She’s right. From obvious spots for food innovation like San Francisco and New York City to unlikely hubs like Cincinnati and Detroit, food incubators and accelerators are popping up in droves. And the country’s food heavyweights are paying attention.