It was a wet, quiet Thursday evening in the middle of May in Fontainebleau. It had been a long week already, and with our partners busy with their respective commitments, Juan Camilo and I decided to crack open a bottle of red and reflect on the past week and plan some activities and travel for the remainder of P3. In France, bars and restaurants were re-opening in a few days and it seemed many European destinations were re-opening for tourists within the next month- for those reading this a few years on, a reminder that we were in the midst of global COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns (hopefully we have successfully moved on from these unfortunate events by the time you are reading this!).
As the wine flowed (we intended to keep it to one bottle, I swear, but…), and the cheese selection got dissolved, our conversation turned towards summer plans. With Juan Camilo coming from a family business background and I from entrepreneurial ventures, we had both decided against searching for summer internship opportunities. Instead, Juan Camilo was looking to use the time to explore diversification outlets for his family business and I wanted to brainstorm a potential new venture with a fund-raising approach instead of bootstrapping, as I had done in my previous experiences.
The conversation initially began by discussing our vacationing together for a few weeks with our wives, buttook a turn when I shared an interesting article I had come across. Published by Singularity University, the article was about an exciting Israeli start-up (Aleph Farms) that had recently created the world’s first 3D printed cultured (cell-based) ribeye steak. We began dissecting the FoodTech industry and the crazy things that were happening, and this was when we discovered we each had a long-standing mutual interest in this sector and a common goal of wanting to find out more.
It was timely that the Summer Start-Up Tour (SSUP) had just done their information rounds. We touched on how it could be an excellent avenue for us to combine traveling together and learning more about the industry for our respective longer-term goals. Juan Camilo could explore whether there was a viable diversification or agency/franchise opportunity to bring back to his home country of Colombia, and given how much venture capital was flowing into the vibrant and growing start-up ecosystem within FoodTech (bolstered by the recent successes of alternative protein companies such as Impossible and Beyond Meat), I could understand how start-ups are raising funding and growing companies from a concept. In addition, I could keep my eyes and ears open for any venture opportunities or funded start-ups looking to build their management teams.
Over the next couple weeks, our tour began to form, and the excitement was real. We had decided that if we were going to commit, we were going all in. We wanted to not only learn and benefit for ourselves, but undertake research that would be of value to other stakeholders and our peers. In addition, we decided we wanted to build a global picture of the FoodTech industry and understand how the start-up ecosystem in various geographies truly influenced the development and success of these companies. Finally, we agreed that we wanted to perform as much of the tour in person as financially, and logistically, feasible to truly build our networks and relationships.
The next step was to break down the FoodTech sector and focus on areas we wanted to learn more about, and importantly, areas that we anticipated would cause the most profound disruption in the near future. Juan Camilo and I were aligned in our fascination with Cultured Meats (which then extended to anything cultured!), so that was an easy choice. At the time of writing, Alternative Proteins was the current disruptor of the sector, and money magnet of VC funding, and therefore was a must in our research drive. We then also decided to include Vertical Farming. It was a hot topic in the UAE (home for me prior to INSEAD) and Singapore, accelerated by the food security concerns generated by COVID-19, and some big global players had recently gone mainstream commercial. It was also an industry actively incorporating AI and robotics, which made it even more enticing.
Next, we began researching the global hotspots and development incubators for Food-Tech, with our top findings including The Netherlands, USA, Israel, and Singapore. This was a fortunate coincidence that aligned with our plans nicely. We were currently based on INSEAD’s European campus and intended to transfer to the Asia campus (Singapore) post
summer for P4. These destinations would also allow us to formulate a relatively broad overview, given we would be covering companies in 3 continents / 4 distinct regions in Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Asia. There was also the satisfying appeal of being the first SSUP team to cover these many geographies in a single tour!
What started off as a trivial conversation over some wine and cheese materialized, thanks to SSUP, into a fascinating global tour that unveiled some incredible insights into the start-up ecosystems in multiple countries, the VC network supporting this, and the FoodTech industry as a whole. With the support of the teams at INSEAD, the Hoffman Global Institute for Business & Society, and our additional external tour sponsors Capagro, Juan Camilo and I eventually successfully visited and held meetings with Founders and C-suite executives of start-ups, accelerators, and VCs in the following cities (despite the travel challenges brought by the pandemic!):
- Paris, France
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Delft, Netherlands
- San Francisco, USA
- San Jose, USA
- New York, USA
- Dubai, UAE
- Abu Dhabi, UAE
Virtually, we conducted interviews in the following countries as well:
- Israel (unfortunately, borders did not open in time for us to visit in person)
The detour from Israel to the UAE, while we waited for borders to open, was welcomed. It gave us a chance to explore vertical farming in more depth and also visit INSEAD’s UAE campus. Given we had visited and worked from INSEAD’s San Francisco Hub, it meant we would be the only students from our MBA cohort to visit all 4 of INSEAD’s campuses within a single intake – I’m sure that’s a record of some sort. We are still waiting for our medals of achievement though (hint-hint INSEAD).
I invite you to read our subsequent blog post, written by Juan Camilo, to learn about our key findings in FoodTech in more depth as well as access some interesting resources. However, I think it would be valuable to comment on how these regional hubs differed in hosting and promoting development from a holistic perspective; disclaimer being these are our own takeaways and should not be taken as a single reference point.
We found that FoodTech development, and generally Agriculture was ingrained in the Netherlands’ DNA. A surprise to most, the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world
second only to the US, and one of the biggest hubs for agrifood production and R&D. The ecosystem was built to support start-ups specifically in this field; from having their own specialist university dedicated to life sciences and agricultural research (Wageningen University & Research), to their own accelerator program just for AgriTech (StartLife), to having commercial parks for Agritech start-ups to set up bases and share resources (such as those that exist in Delft). While the VC funding scene may not be the strongest, start-ups can leverage many government grants and subsidies to grow their agri-tech focused companies. ,
In contrast, San Francisco was an ecosystem that promoted a start-up culture, irrespective of field. With plenty of liquidity available from a large number of VCs, and a dense start-up environment co-existing together, there is a strong network and many resources to leverage. Mix that with a strong talent pool either living there or wanting to move there as a consequence of the start-up culture, and it is no surprise it has the reputation that it does.
We found Israel to have similar qualities to the US. Though, there was a significant focus on tech-focused start-ups, which explained the high percentage of FoodTech companies focusing on the more technical and innovative cultured products.
Singapore was a perfect blend between the Netherlands and the US. There exists a healthy VC and investment network to support start-ups, and an active government initiative (Singapore’s 30 by 30 plan) to promote food sustainability. The fact that Singapore is the first, and only (at the time of writing), nation that has legalized the commercial consumption of cultured meats has also facilitated its positioning as a forward-thinking nation fostering innovation and development.
To close, the SSUP was an enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable experience. It was a great way to blend and accomplish multiple goals, and ultimately be an incredible learning journey. On a personal level, it allowed me to travel across the world, explore new cities, strengthen relationships with my peers, build an external network, learn about a disruptive industry, and gain insights into fund-raising and the VC sector (which is where I found my ultimate passion lies, and I am currently seeking recruitment). I would highly recommend the SSUP as an alternative to internships, and I challenge the future teams to raise the stakes and use our tour as only a benchmark for what is possible!
Thank you to the organizers (Sandra El Dakkak, Sebastian Barthelemy), and the institutions (INSEAD, Digital@INSEAD, the Hoffman Global Institute for Business & Society, Capagro), and their respective trustees (Peter Zemsky, Shubh Kaur, Kim Wilkinson, Julie Peyrache) for making this possible, and of course, my teammate and good friend Juan Camilo for creating and accompanying me on an exceptionally memorable summer. May future bottles of red shared together lead to many more exciting adventures.