Editor’s note: We kicked off our first annual Food Loves Tech event last summer in Chelsea—here’s a recap. We’re bringing a taste of the food and farming future back this year, but just across the East River at Industry City. Leading up to the event, this story is part of an ongoing series about technology’s effects on our food supply.
In the ecosystem of people and companies that are helping to create the food companies of tomorrow, the Dutch financial institution Rabobank is playing a growing role. This centuries-old institution founded on helping Dutch farmers finance their cow herds, tulip greenhouses and drainage dykes, has become a model for innovation, partnering with organizations like the Boulder Food Group and Food+Tech Connect to find disruptive and delicious food and drink start-ups. Rabobank then uses their specialized resources to get these start-ups the advice, revenue models and capital to succeed.
Their FoodBytes pitch competitions are a hallmark of the work, and since they started in 2015, more than 900 companies from around the world have applied. The next one is coming to the city next Thursday, June 15 (get 20% off the full ticket price with the code EDIBLE at checkout), and we recently caught up with their North American head of operations, Rajiv Singh, to learn more about the bank, why they are bullish on food- and agtech companies, and why FoodBytes is a can’t-miss for investors, inventors and start-ups in this space.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity:
Edible Manhattan: As one of the oldest banks in the world focused on rural areas and food businesses, Rabobank seems to be in a sweet spot given how food investment is trending up. But what explains your recent pivot to support innovation?
RS: I became CEO of Rabobank North America Wholesale in 2014 and really spent the first few months essentially taking stock of where things were, asking myself and my peers how and where we could add value. While we were doing a lot of good things in the food and agribusiness sector, we were by and large working with medium to large corporates. As experts in the industry, we saw some of the most disruptive products and technologies originating from smaller start-up brands. I knew that we needed to put substantial focus there.
We were not covering the whole life cycle of businesses in the food sector. We were covering companies that were already mature, and we were not looking at companies that were in all these stages of their life cycle.
This prompted us to think about what we should be doing to be more relevant to companies that are in the early stages. For us, as a global institution, how do we capture that and really make sure that we are aware of all that is happening? With all that was happening here in the U.S., how can we help support the possibility of innovation globally?
EM: Right. With the FoodBytes! competition, you’re actually ferreting out start-ups, funding them and mentoring them.
RS: We have hosted FoodBytes! events in Brooklyn, Boulder, San Francisco and Sydney and our first Europe event is in May, and these began in 2015. We chose these cities because we feel like they really represent hotspots for food and ag innovation. Brooklyn’s clearly one of the top hotspots. Later this year, we’ll be hosting our first FoodBytes! event in Austin, another city that represents cross-industry innovation.
FoodBytes! was a first attempt to really connect with innovative entrepreneurs in the space and provide them a platform to get validation for their ideas. It was also our first attempt to provide a network of investors and customers that they might want to connect with for business growth.
EM: Why can Rabobank do this in a way that other banks or institutional investors cannot?
RS: We know almost everyone that matters in the food supply chain, whether it’s companies that provide input to farms, whether it is companies that are central to logistics, whether it is companies that are in the retail space or processing space, or in marketing and branding. We have this network, which includes investors, and we are very active ourselves. A lot of funds are looking to us, without knowledge that we have in this sector, to help them find the right opportunities.
We provide the opportunity for the entrepreneurs to present their idea, get some validation, get to meet people who may be potential customers or even investors that can take them to the next level.
EM: If you had to step back and point to two or three trends that you’re seeing, from your recent FoodBytes! or from all the other joint ventures, what would they be? What are you most excited about?
RS: One of the biggest trends we’ve seen at recent events is that entrepreneurs are focused on food waste. Companies are approaching the issue of waste at different stages in the supply chain, from farms to retail stores to homes, which is creating some promising results. In terms of solving a real problem facing society, food waste is the issue I’m most excited to see start-ups addressing.
We also saw two very promising companies at FoodBytes! San Francisco who focused on personalized nutrition. As people continue to evolve their personal relationship with food, DNA-based nutrition has come to the forefront.
The third trend that we are seeing from the FoodBytes! companies is a focus on transparency in the food supply chain. We have recently seen some very robust technology to test for presence of antibiotics in meat as well as tools to trace and source different foods.
EM: Is this trend being driven by consumers, or are these small-batch producers actually creating new markets?
RS: For a lot of these trends we point to Millennials, but I don’t think it’s a generational choice issue only. If you look at, and we do look at this, there are 60-year-old cohorts who like the same kinds of things that a 20-year-old likes today, just because it is available at the right price and the right time and the right place. It is the fact that a lot of things have come together to make it viable, and this demand existed at all times, and the demand for high-quality food has been there. No one in the ’60s wanted and said give me your nasty, chemically infused food. Everyone wants high-quality food at all points in time. It’s just that now, a lot of things have become possible because of technology, and technology in marketing and advertising, technology in distribution.
EM: When it comes to food and technology, we try to make a distinction between some of the technology that seems to be trying to fix, let’s say, first-world problems versus solving much more real, serious problems around the world. One distinction that someone made to me recently is between consumer food tech, which does seem like a lot of gadgets and bells and whistles, and on the other hand, more industry food tech, you know, smart labeling, technology that really allows farmers to make more efficient use of inputs, et cetera. I think there are some important distinctions to be made, and I would love in this conversation to hear some of your thoughts on that.
RS: If I get closer to the farm, a lot of what we see is technology that is trying to make farms more productive in a holistic sense—not just having a solution for the pests that they have and the weeds that they have. I think they are really becoming more productive for the long term by utilizing technologies and data in a way that allows them to use less to produce more.
EM: When you have a stake in a technology platform, whether a drone company like Agribotix or farm management software like Granular, do you help them grow by promoting them to Rabobank’s farmer clients or other partners?
RS: Rabobank does not typically take a direct stake in our technology platforms. We do work with investors and funds that may choose to go that route. If they express interest, we are always happy to make introductions between innovators and our clients. This is an area we would like to expand in the future as we see it as a natural lane for us to occupy. We would like to eventually get more involved in these direct investment opportunities.
EM: As investor interest in food trends upward, it feels like Rabobank is really in the catbird seat in terms of being able to direct funding and benefit from its long history in the space.
RS: Right, and it’s not just our history, it’s a continued involvement throughout the food chain. Because we work directly with farmers around the world, we have a farmer finance operation, which means we work with people who are producing the food. For us, we have a daily touch point, and we are seeing the innovations that are transforming the industry. It’s something that we do on a day-to-day basis, and that’s the only thing we do. I think that’s what gives us an edge.
EM: Do you use any food tech in your own personal life? I mean, healthy eating apps, smart appliances—what are your own personal eating and food habits like?
RS: I try to figure out a way to use local produce as much as possible. In terms of food-tech and apps, yes, of course, I use a lot of apps that help me make a decision quickly about food choices, whether it’s restaurants or just choosing food items.
EM: I do think both a plant-centered diet and eating local are particularly innovative. And you could also call them disruptive, even if they aren’t totally new ideas.
RS: Because that’s the way things were, 40 square miles was where typically most of the food was sourced from, and I think if—with the technology that we have out there—if we can get that perimeter down also currently, it may not need to be 40 square miles; it doesn’t need to be that for every food product that people need, but I think if we can move toward that for a substantial number of items, it will have a very disruptive impact on many aspects of our lives. I mean good disruptive.