Disruptive start-ups hold the key to the future for many sectors – Food and Agri (F&A) is no exception. To stimulate innovation in the sector, Rabobank provides a support framework that includes a sponsored incubator and accelerator initiatives.
The bank's FoodBytes! initiative connects F&A start-ups with industry leaders and investors by organizing quarterly pitch competitions. The start-ups get the chance to present their ideas to an audience of industry stakeholders. Winners gain access to a range of benefits to help them grow their businesses.
More than 170 start-ups have taken part in 10 events held around the world since FoodBytes! started in 2015. Several have won significant financial backing.
AgVoice: more investment and partners
Atlanta, Georgia-based AgVoice secured US$250,000 (€211,150) for its unique hands-free data capture technology having attended the New York event in 2017.
“Foodbytes! helped narrow our focus and refine our message”- Bruce Rasa, CEO AgVoice
CEO Bruce Rasa says: “We came across FoodBytes! by chance. It’s unlike any such event we’ve attended before. The team was amazing and you could feel the level of audience engagement in the dynamics of the food sector and how we are meeting – or not – consumer needs. Our aim was to secure more investment and hook up with partners. It also helped narrow our focus, refine our message, and better understand the players in the industry and where we could best serve them.”
As the Judges’ Award winner, AgVoice gained an invite to pitch at Rabobank’s annual client event for CEOs and CFOs, also in New York, as well as a range of benefits provided by FoodBytes! partners. These included brand and marketing support, legal consultation and an Innovation Day with ADM, one of the world’s largest agricultural processors and food ingredient providers.
Arable Labs: Getting connected
New Jersey-based Arable Labs benefited from FoodBytes! even though they did not deliver a winning pitch. Shortly after taking part, the company announced it had secured US$4.25 million (€3.58 million) in funding. Taking part in FoodBytes! is an experience CEO Adam Wolf values highly. “You go to these events to meet one great connection,” he says. “In the case of FoodBytes!, I met so many. Jorge Gaviria’s Masienda is one of my favorite companies. I got to meet Andy Zolkowski of Cultivian Sandbox who did time at Princeton Plasma Physics lab and who, in turn, introduced me to the people at Descartes Labs. Gabriel Wilmoth and I connected with Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms and Rodale...we got into agriculture with much the same impulse. Business is people and FoodBytes! brings them together.”
"Business is people and FoodBytes! brings them together”- Adam Wolf, CEO Arable Labs
Rabobank's Terra Accelerator comes in when companies are ready to pilot projects at scale. The program accepts start-ups that can demonstrate they are ready to collaborate with larger corporates, and have social impact and sustainability at the core of their business. Around 32 start-ups have taken part since the initiative launched in 2016.
“With Terra, it’s really important we match the start-ups with the right corporations,” says Manuel Gonzalez, Global Head of Banking for Food Start-Up Innovation at Rabobank. “They’re going to be working together for some months, so the selection process is robust. Being selected is a great validation of the start-ups' ideas – it’s not easy to convince corporations to invest this kind of time in pilot projects.”
Another plus for start-ups is the data they get from the pilot projects. Even if the pilot fails, the results will help inform decisions about future projects. If it succeeds, there’s every chance the start-up will secure contracts, partnerships, investment or even be acquired.
Rabobank's Manuel Gonzalez, Global Head of Banking for Food Start-Up Innovation
Ramp up for mOasis
Currently awaiting the results of its pilot run with two large sugar producers in Mexico is mOasis, a California-based producer of a soil additive called BountiGel that allows growers to make the most of the water they use on their land.
“We’re already past the accelerator phase,” said Steve Hartmeier of mOasis. “But since Terra reached out to us and we were at a point where we wanted to ramp up production and broaden the number of applications for our product, we applied. Terra involves the corporations in choosing the start-ups they work with. That really added value for us: we gained additional credibility in the industry and it meant we identified two potential customers before the pilot started.”
Rabobank Food and Agriculture Innovation Fund
Rabo Private Equity established the Rabobank Food and Agriculture Innovation Fund (RFAIF) in May 2017. “Innovation is key to unlocking value and driving efficiency in the food supply chain and the availability of venture capital is central in achieving this,” says Richard O’Gorman, Director of RFAIF. “The fund was set up as another means of assisting the ecosystem and we work closely with our other venture capital activities and initiatives.”
The fund will provide between €500,000 and €3 million seed and early growth capital for F&A start-ups in western Europe and the US that are innovating in fields aligned with Rabobank’s Banking for Food Strategy.
“The fund plugs these innovators into our broad knowledge network”- Richard O'Gorman, Director Rabobank Food and Agriculture Innovation Fund (RFAIF)
“We’re also targeting start-ups that we feel would benefit most from our food and agribusiness expertise,” said O’Gorman. “This isn’t just about financial investment, it’s about plugging these innovators into our broad knowledge network and working with them to grow their businesses for mutual benefit.”
“In our first six months, we generated strong internal and external engagement with the fund and identified around 220 opportunities, several of which we’ve taken forward,” adds O’Gorman. “These came about through our own contacts, but also through FoodBytes! and Terra, so we’re already seeing how the fund is complementing our other innovation initiatives. We hope we will be able to announce our first deals in the coming months.”