Three minutes. That’s how long the 15 participants in the FoodBytes! pitch competition held in Chicago earlier this fall had to tell their stories to a panel of judges and an audience that included potential investors, food company representatives, and members of the media.
But preparing for those three minutes on stage—and the brief question-and-answer period that followed—required a considerably more substantial investment of time and energy. So what makes it worth the time and effort required? The three entrepreneurs who clinched top honors in the competition presented by food and agriculture bank Rabobank shared their thoughts with Food Technology.
First, a quick look at the three winning companies:
• Tia Lupita Foods (Judges’ Choice Award) makes a line of artisan, non-GMO hot sauces with a short list of ingredients. The company recently introduced tortillas and tortilla chips made with cactus and cassava flour.
• LocalCoho (Judges’ Choice Award) produces sustainable, traceable Coho salmon via a proprietary land-based recirculating aquaculture platform. The first salmon production facility is currently operating in upstate New York, and another is in the works for the Chicago area.
• Capro-X (People’s Choice Award) developed a fermentation bioprocess that uses non-GMO microbes to convert acid whey waste from Greek yogurt production into clean water and natural bio oils that have applications in the flavor and fragrance industries as a substitute for palm oil.
With the established food industry increasingly turning to entrepreneurial startups as a source of innovation inspiration, pitch events that offer prizes and opportunities for mentoring and networking have proliferated in recent years. When deciding to apply to compete in one, it’s important to be discriminating, the entrepreneurs agree.
“I have been a food entrepreneur for a long time and have seen the landscape change dramatically since my first company,” says Daphne Mazarakis, a strategic advisor to LocalCoho who made the pitch in Chicago. “In 2009, the number of competitions in which to participate was minimal. Now you have to be very smart about which you think will benefit your company and how. FoodBytes! has been the only competition we have participated in this year.
For Juan Guzman, president and CEO of Capro-X, FoodBytes! was a good fit “because we knew that Rabobank truly understood ag tech and this would be an amazing opportunity to present to a community that would ‘get’ the promise of our technology.
"Early on, pitching is really about preparation and understanding the art of pitching, preparing a presentation targeted for the event, and delivering the pitch,” Guzman continues. “Today, I feel we’ve cemented a compelling story to expand the company, so much of our pitching now is to raise funds. However, finding events like FoodBytes! that can truly provide other benefits with opportunities to tell our story and solution to audiences that can understand and value the impact we want to make in the world is really critical.
FoodBytes! in Chicago was the first pitch competition win for Capro-X. Both Mazarakis and Hector Saldivar, founder of Tia Lupita, have had a previous win, but all three entrepreneurs agree that participating in a well-organized event like FoodBytes! can be beneficial—even if you don’t win, thanks to the opportunities to network with other participants, connect with mentors and investors, and learn about new resources available for entrepreneurs.
Last year, Mazarakis says, she participated in Chicago’s Family Farmed Financing and Innovation Conference competition, and although she didn’t win, that effort was productive as well. “It yielded for us a fantastic investor who has lent us some very good insights and someone whom we consider a valued mentor," she says.
As for his experience as a FoodBytes! winner, Tia Lupita’s Saldivar says, “It helped us confirm that our products’ positioning and attributes are on trend.”
Winners of the Chicago competition, which was divided into ag tech, food tech, and consumer packaged goods segments, will continue to reap the benefits of FoodBytes! as they advance to a December pitch event at Rabobank’s Annual Food & Agriculture Summit in New York City.
In Chicago, other participants in the ag tech segment included Agremo, developer of cloud-based agriculture sensing and imagery software for growers and agronomists; SeedLinked, which uses crowdsourced data and advanced analytics to enable plant growers to choose, breed, and sell specialty seeds; and Cytophage Technologies, which develops synthetic bacteriophage products to prevent and treat bacterial infections in livestock.
Food tech participants included Spira, creator of functional ingredients from spirulina microalgae; Higher Steaks, which produces cell-based pork products; Journey Foods, developer of an artificial intelligence–powered software platform to aid product developers in the formulation of nutritious food products; Evigence Sensors, maker of lowcost freshness-monitoring sensors; and The Better Meat Co., a provider of plant-based protein ingredients for meat processors and foodservice operators.
CPG company participants in addition to Tia Lupita were Start Right Foods, makers of highprotein breakfast waffle products; Yolélé Foods, which is working to bring the Africangrown ancient grain fonio to market; TeaSquares, a producer of tea-infused energy snacks; and Shameless Pets, maker of healthy dog treats formulated with upcycled ingredients.