Each of the companies participating in Food-X’s first-ever virtual cohort focus on what Food-X managing director and partner Peter Bodenheimer identified before COVID-19 as the biggest global food challenges including modernizing the food supply chain, transforming food commerce and bolstering the idea of food as medicine.
Now that the pandemic has forced many people to shelter at home, he said, these challenges have only magnified with pantry-stocking and panic-buying straining the food supply chain, a massive shift to online shopping underscoring the need for new commerce approaches, and a renewed consumer focus on supporting their immunity through a nutritious diet strengthening the connection between food and medicine.
Fast-thinking and adaptation are key
Given the “radically changed landscape” since the start of the pandemic, Bodenheimer says he is excited to welcome companies to Food-X that not only have much-needed solutions to the problems underscored by the coronavirus, but that also are doing so with agility and courage that many established players in the space have not demonstrated yet.
“I am from New Orleans and was there when Hurricane Katrina hit and this feels like that in the sense that when all the services were washed away, everyone either didn’t know what to do and froze up, or you stared into the abyss and said, ‘Screw it,’ and jumped in. I think the same applies here. You can either freeze up and say, ‘We don’t know what is going to happen so we can’t do anything,’ or you can say, ‘This is the world we live in, lets figure it out as we go and try to keep our heads up,’” he said.
He added the companies in Food-X’s 11th cohort fall into the second camp and even though they are in uncharted territory, they are willing to “try things to pull the ball up the hill.”
For example, he pointed to cohort member remotekitchen’s ability to pivot quickly to meet the still evolving food service industry’s needs and capabilities. Originally designed as a single unified platform to help restaurants run, manage and grow their businesses, remotekitchen was already helping to take the industry where COVID-19 has pushed it, which is towards digital delivery and using this data to influence operations and modern infrastructure.
“Remotekitchen will probably become more important to restaurant operators now, but who knows what the industry overall will look like” after the pandemic ends and restrictions limiting service to pick-up and delivery are lifted, Bodenheimer said. He added, “they continue to be flexible and that is one of the advantages that startups have to their incumbents. They have the ability to move very quickly. They have the ability to respond to consumer demand in a very immediate way,” and that is what remotekitchen is doing.
Fellow cohort member, Living Food Company, also addresses commerce challenges by offering a consumer marketplace with fresh food from farmers, bakers, brewers and other food artisans.
The right time and the right place
Before COVID-19, several of the companies in the cohort might have been considered slightly before their time, but now they have solutions that could immediately be adapted to address the strain the pandemic has placed on the food system, Bodenheimer said.
For example, as the first B2B marketplace for commodities and ingredients designed to simplify sourcing from growers to manufacturers, Fieldcraft was already in the process of “displacing these big expensive trade shows that a lot of people can’t afford or don’t think are worth the bang for the buck,” Bodenheimer said.
He added that the cancellations and postponements of many of tradeshows due to COVID-19 has accelerated the need for Fieldcraft’s model.
“This creates a great opportunity for them because the value they bring is being demonstrated now, whereas before people who were regulars at trade shows” couldn’t imagine trying a different way of connecting with clients, he explained.
Likewise, the value of cohort member Milk Moovement has been underscored by the heightened need for transparency during the pandemic. The startup is addressing this by “providing actional intelligence across the dairy supply chain through its cloud-based software,” according to Food-X.
Coronavirus turbocharges food as medicine
The idea of food as medicine and improving consumer health through healthier diets was already gaining traction before COVID-19, but as Bodenheimer notes, fear of the virus has opened the minds of fence-sitters and skeptical consumers.
This is creating opportunity for cohort members Rambuhealth, which is using the antioxidant rich shell of Rambutan for health benefits, Nature Preserve, which is upcycling produce to minimize waste and boost health through a proprietary food preservation process.
Hand in hand with the idea of food as medicine is that of personalized nutrition, which cohort member Ester taps into by “harnessing science and AI to develop hyper-personalized customer flavor profiles for retailers of beer and wine,” according to Food-X.
Similarly, consumers are not just worried about their health but also of that of their pets, which is where companies like Bramble fit in. Food-X welcomed this company into the cohort for its innovative take on fresh, plant-based food for pets that owners can use to boost their companions’ health.
A new program for a new time
Just like the members of Food-X’s 11th cohort have had to pivot to account for coronavirus, so too has the program.
Bodenheimer said Food-X made the decision to go virtual rather than delay the cohort because it didn’t want to let down the companies relying on it and because the solutions they could offer are needed today – not just tomorrow.
As such, the 3.5 month program will bring together the cohort virtually through scheduled “coffee breaks” online that are designed to help replicate the sharing that happens when companies work next to each other and share space.
Bodenheimer recognizes this approach doesn’t replicate the “serendipity” that Food-X tries to create between cohort members, but it does allow for more in-depth conversations and connections than crossing paths on the way to the coffee station.
Likewise, he sees potential for more nuanced mentorship relationships for cohort members because mentors will have more time to connect virtually through video and telephone calls than they might if they were visiting Food-X’s office and had meetings stacked back to back.
Bodenheimer also noted that many mentors seem even more engaged as the pandemic has inspired in many a desire to help where they are able and a need for something positive to look forward to. Similarly, he said, many cohort members seem more open-minded to experimentation and learning because there are so many unknowns.
“An important thing that should come through, and that I hope others will take away as well – whether they are other accelerators or investors or startups – is now is a time to try new things,” Bodenheimer said. “We are at a unique point in time, and if not now, then when?”