Investing in the Future of Food: Offering a solution to a problem – not just a product – can drive success
At Rabobank’s Annual Food & Agribusiness Summit in December, Mark Dahm explained how SmartCatch, which was a winner of a FoodBytes! by Rabobank pitch slam, is hoping to revolutionize how wild fish are caught with its DigiCatch technology that uses a real-time remote controlled video, lighting and sensor system to show fishers what is inside their nets before they pull them up.
Even though the financial community has been quick to deem the technology as “hot,” and recognize that it addresses a real market need in a segment that hasn’t been enabled in a “long, long time,” Dahm says he was surprised at how many investors remained standoffish at first because they didn’t understand “the intersection of a very old, traditional business, like fishing, and the digital intersection of the technology we bring to bear.”
Dahm explained that while many investors liked the technology, they didn’t see the need for it because they perceived the commercial fishing industry to be ‘dying.’
And so, Dahm said he realized that he need to talk with investors about more than just the technology. He also need to show them the problem it is addressing, and how it is enabling the commercial fishing industry “to live another day and help meet the incredible food needs, that deficit in seafood, that our work is going to need.”
To do this, Dahm explained the inspiration for SmartCatch came to the company founder in 2013 when he was shooting a documentary about commercial fishing off the Oregon coast.
He “saw that there was a challenge with the way the fishermen were operating. They would cast their net and thy had no idea what was in their net, but yet they felt they had a full load. The engines were revving and they were trying to pull up the net, and they pulled it and it was full of boulders and tree trunks and things like,” Dahm said.
That was when the founder realized that fishermen often are working blind – and by helping the to see what was in the their nets, SmartCatch could help reduce by-catch, improve operational efficiency, save fuel, help fishers avoid fines and also reduce the risk of overfishing.
Beyond this, the technology also can improve food safety and increase transparency by serving as a key component of larger blockchain technology, Dahm said.
Keeping up staff morale
Another challenge with which SmartCatch grapples, and to which many other startups likely can relate, is keeping up team morale when members are required to make personal sacrifices while bootstrapping the company.
Dahm explained that like most startups there have been times where the SmartCatch team has had to persevere without taking salaries in order to keep the business running. But he said that one way he ensured the team stuck together through the rough times as well as the good ones was to stoke their passion around the subject.
He also noted that team avoided disappointing or emotional set backs by looking at the overall process and celebrating each accomplishment – even if it wasn’t perfect – as long as it was across the finish line.
“We are doing the best we can with the resources we have, and if we are on the same page as a team, we are pulling the oars together, and that is, you know, what has been motivating us,” then the sun will never set on SmartCatch, he said, laughing.