A sustainable food system starts with nurturing good ideas

How Rabobank is incubating innovation

Is food & agri innovation more likely to come from idealistic start-ups or corporate giants? According to Rabobank’s Food & Agri Innovation Team, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that good ideas for sustainably feeding the world come to fruition.

Listen to this story as a podcast (in Dutch), or read on for the English interview.

Maarten Ooms, who joined the bank in 2001, is Managing Director of Rabobank Financial Advisory and Solutions Europe. Part of his job is helping food and agriculture start-ups with advice and finance. “We can’t go on producing and distributing food the way we do now if we’re to feed some 2 billion more people in the next 30 years. We have to start doing things differently, so innovation is vital.”

“I totally agree,” says analyst Saskia Hoebee, who has been with the Innovation Team for two years. “The more I learn, the more conscious I am of the challenges we face.” But there are other reasons to reach out to start-ups, too, she explains. “Their potential as future Rabobank clients, obviously. But also their impact on food & agri multinationals, many of which are already Rabobank clients. After all, a start-up with a successful new product can steal market share from bigger rivals.”

“We can’t go on producing and distributing food the way we do now”

- Maarten Ooms, Rabobank

So besides supporting start-ups, the team also has a responsibility to help corporates stay relevant. “And these days,” says Hoebee, “the most future-proof business models are those that focus on sustainability. It’s good for the planet, but also good business.”

Complementary roles

Indeed, sustainable products and processes are a booming market segment. Organic food, for instance, showed growth of a whopping 12 percent in 2016. Start-ups abound in this segment. Corporates realize they can’t afford to miss out, not just to maintain their market share, but also to show their commitment to sustainability.

“Still, they’re not all equally quick to respond,” Hoebee observes. “In large organizations, bureaucracy and multiple internal shareholders can slow down the pace of change. Our team helps these clients transition more quickly and efficiently. Rabobank is a multinational, too, and has faced the same challenges. We can use our own lessons learned to advise our larger clients.”

“Start-ups are more agile, and can make a difference more quickly.”

- Maarten Ooms, Rabobank

Maarten Ooms believes start-ups and corporates play complementary roles in sustainable innovation. “Start-ups are more agile, and can make a difference more quickly. What they need is capital, market expertise and a distribution network. Corporates have all these things, but what they need is fresh, out-of-the-box ideas, which their own R&D teams can’t seem to come up with. What Rabobank does is – literally – bring the two together.”


Four years ago, Rabobank held its first FoodBytes! event, where start-ups are given the opportunity pitch their ideas to big businesses. The first was in Silicon Valley, but since then 15 more have been organized on three continents. Saskia Hoebee managed the rollout of the concept to Europe, and maintains Rabobank’s relationships with the start-ups.

“Start-ups are eager to participate,” she says. “We get between 150 and 200 entries. We can open doors and put them in touch with the right contact inside a big company. For us it’s just a matter of picking up the phone.”

“Our start-up relationships give us an overview of market trends”

- Saskia Hoebee, Rabobank

From the many entries, Rabobank chooses the 15 most promising start-ups, from across the entire food supply chain, to pitch at FoodBytes! A panel of esteemed judges chooses two winners in the categories CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods), Foodtech and Agtech, and the attendees cast their votes for the People’s Choice Award. “Our contact with all the contestants in the runup to the event give us an excellent idea of all the trends in the market.”


The optimistic buzz at FoodBytes! events is absolutely contagious, Hoebee feels. “I see a steep upward trend in awareness and sustainable enterprise. We can’t afford to rest on our laurels, though, or we’ll be overtaken by other events.”

Ooms is optimistic too. “We have a long way to go yet, but there’s no use complaining. We can transition by nurturing the good ideas, the ones that can change the world, and helping them come to fruition.”

FoodBytes! heads to London

The next FoodBytes! event is in London on November 7. Learn more about the 15 start-ups who will be pitching and get your tickets today!