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

Will Rosenzweig, dean of the Food Business School and Berkeley-Haas professor. Courtesy photo

Will Rosenzweig, dean of the Food Business School and Berkeley-Haas professor. Courtesy photo

VENTURE CAPITAL BACKING OF FOOD & AGRICULTURE AT ALL-TIME HIGH

At the end of last September, Whole Foods co-CEO, Walter Robb said the food industry was going through a “tectonic shift,” after his company laid off 1,500 employees. Then a couple months later, Whole Foods reported a historically bad fourth quarter. In October, General Mills announced a new VC arm in their company that will likely focus on buying out upstart rivals. The Minneapolis-based giant has already purchased Berkeley, California-based natural macaroni and cheese revolutionizer, Annie’s. In May, Fortune produced a robust report, called “The War on Big Food,” in which Campbell and General Mills executives discussed the necessity for altering the way they’ve done business for decades.

Still, it’s hard to imagine the food giants keeping up when the collective disruptive minds and powers of Sand Hill Road combine. According to AgFunder, a San Francisco-based investment marketplace for food and agriculture, food startup investments are higher than ever before. By a lot. After hovering around half a billion U.S. dollars in investments from 2010 through 2012, food startup investments saw an uptick to just under $1 billion in 2013. In 2014, total food startup investments jumped to $2.36 billion. And halfway through 2015 (the most recent report available), investors had already backed food startups to the tune of $2.06, with VC heavyweights like Khosla, Google Ventures and Andreesen leading the way.

According to the 2015 AgFunder mid-year report, the majority of investments were made in food E-commerce. To be sure, B-school grads are sifting through a large portion of that dough. Blue Apron, which was founded by Harvard Business School grad, Matt Salzberg, secured a massive $135 million Series D seed round in June and was given a $2 billion valuation. Along with Salzberg, fellow HBS grads Josh Hix and Nick Taranto co-founded Plated, which also closed a massive seed round this summer. Hector Beverages, founded by Wharton grad, Suhas Misra, just raised nearly $29 million in its July Series C.

B-SCHOOLS SERVING AS FOOD STARTUP HUBS

Specific to this year’s Poets&Quants’ Top 100 MBA Startups rankings, food and agriculture-focused ventures dot the top of the list. Mediterranean casual dining chain VertsKebap, founded by a team from the University of Texas McCombs School of Business and WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, has raised $36 million. Harvard Business School founded Maple, a New York City-based food delivery venture that has raised $29 million. Farmer’s Business Network, a Stanford GSB-founded agronomics company, has raised nearly $24 million. KitchIt and EatFirst, two more food delivery platforms, both raised around $8 million in VC backing.

If Babson’s Greenberger is correct, and the sign of a trending interest in food entrepreneurship is an uptick of “food entrepreneurship services,” B-schools are proving to be a hub. Food and agriculture clubs exist on campuses from the Bay Area to Boston Harbor. Foodie startups are sprinkling the top of new venture competitions around the country. Last June, food startup Maestro won Chicago Booth’s startup competition—netting $70,000. FOCUS Foods, a rooftop aquaponics venture co-founded by Julia Kurnik 2015 Wharton MBA grad, has been setting startup competitions on fire, earning $130,000 along the way.

‘MASS PRODUCED’ FOOD HAS ‘LEFT THE DOOR OPEN FOR SMALLER PLAYERS’ 

Vincent Ponzo, the director of Columbia Business School’s Eugene Lang Center for Entrepreneurship, believes the ‘tectonic shift’ that Whole Foods’ Robb announced has left the door open for many voracious entrepreneurs.

“Everything from GMOs to farming, to how food is sold, what the messaging is around food, it all for the most part hasn’t changed in a long time,” Explains Ponzo. “Generally speaking, food has been mass produced and that has left the door open for smaller players wanting in.”

And Ponzo has seen some of those small players come through CBS recently.

“There are many ways to slice a huge market that hasn’t been sliced before,” reasons Ponzo, rattling off a slew of CBS ventures including Daily HarvestAeroFarms, which just raised $20M and Beyond Meat, then adding the food startup area is “in the early stages of disrupting a very broad frontier.

“It’s a huge continuum,” Ponzo continues. “How to farm the food, how to serve it to people, and everything in between. There’s a huge opportunity.”

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