At Rabobank, we believe collaboration is essential to a thriving food and agriculture industry that can feed the planet sustainably while creating long-term business value. Startups are driving innovations with the potential to shape the future of food, yet impact grows exponentially when these new approaches are scaled through partnerships with corporate players who want to lead the way.
The global pandemic has now brought the case for cross-industry collaboration into sharp focus. COVID-19 has revealed systemic vulnerabilities in our food system, and created new business challenges for emerging brands and multinational corporations alike. Food and ag business leaders understand the need to navigate disruption and prepare for transformation like never before. Corporate organizations know they must look outside their walls for the innovation mindset and capabilities essential for a resilient food supply, as well as long-term business success.
With the case for cross-industry cooperation clear, Rabobank convened startup and corporate leaders to share their experiences of direct collaboration through Rabobank’s TERRA accelerator, which was expanded and reinvented as FoodBytes! Pilot this year to drive even greater impact for corporate partners.
Pilot collaborators Michael Lee, Group Manager at Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and James Bello, co-founder of Shameless Pets, joined Anthony Howcroft, CEO and co-founder of Swarm Engineering and Chamidu Karunathilake, head of technology innovation at GrainCorp, to discuss their learnings about how to maximize ROI from corporate-startup collaboration.
Invest in Aligning Goals and Be Willing to Fail & Learn Fast
Michael Lee of Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and James Bello from Shameless Pets found they had a shared vision of sustainability and growth when it came to food production and marketing. The pair credited taking time upfront to develop clear objectives and expectations for mutually-beneficial outcomes as key to success. MLA, which works to grow the profitability and sustainability of the Australian red meat industry, was looking to gain an understanding of how American consumers would respond to True Aussie beef as a differentiating ingredient in pet treats. Shameless Pets’ James Bello was interested in identifying new upcycled ingredients for the brand’s all-natural, grain-free dog treats. They believed that the U.S. trend of pet humanization – with ‘pet parents’ willing to buy the best for their canine family members – could be a means to increase demand for Australian red meat, while also reducing food waste and driving new upcycling opportunities.
As Bello and Lee hashed out their pilot, an unexpected idea emerged: to actually produce – and sell – a new pet treat to test consumer demand and perceptions of Australian beef first-hand. ‘We wanted to fail fast and learn fast,’ said Lee. In six weeks, Shameless Pets formulated a new ‘Beef and Reef’ treat with packaging highlighting sustainable Australian beef. ‘We wanted to let consumers vote with their dollar,’ said Bello of the 6,000 bags they sold online, on-shelf through dog subscription boxes. Through post-purchase surveys, Bello and Lee learned that consumers loved the flavor pairing that played on ‘surf and turf,’ and also wanted deep information about sourcing and sustainability credentials. According to Lee, consumers were saying ‘it’s great that it’s grass-fed beef, but tell me more — what’s the verification behind this?’ Lee and Bello agreed the prototype allowed them to test their question about the humanization of pet food, while gaining valuable consumer insights to inform future business decisions.
Be Ready to Adapt for Unexpected Disruption
Speed was a theme also echoed by Anthony Howcroft of Swarm Engineering and Chamidu Karunathilake of GrainCorp, who were forced to pivot their pilot quickly in response to unexpected challenges that preceded the pandemic. Howcroft described how they were initially working on a project to optimize supply chain operations for grain exports, when Australia was hit with ‘biblical-like plagues of drought, fires and floods’ that disrupted GrainCorp’s business and the country’s agricultural industry at large. These ‘macro forces’ meant that Swarm’s AI-driven algorithm was tackling a problem that was no longer immediately relevant to GrainCorp’s business, so the startup initiated a second project with a new data set to manage for an entirely different set of challenges. Under the new circumstances, GrainCorp needed help achieving efficiencies as the supply chain reversed and they needed to route grain to feed animals in Australia’s interior.
Karunathilake credited the success of this pivot to how the Swarm team ‘immersed into [GrainCorp’s] organization to understand our key challenges, as well as our ancillary challenges.’ He described the many layers of operational complexity for a company like GrainCorp, between weather, modes of transporting grain and other factors – even before events like the bushfires. Swarm’s optimization programs solve business problems in a way that doesn’t require clients to be experts in sophisticated technology. ‘We’re all about solving complexity; complexity is good where we’re concerned,’ offered Howcroft, who also praised GrainCorp for having the business team fully aligned as critical to their success. Karunathilake returned the compliment, saying, ‘There is no playbook for these unexpected things, and Anthony’s solution helped us mitigate through these situations to better outcomes.’
Leveraging the Learnings Beyond One Collaboration
Our speakers shared how their collaborations have yielded new opportunities beyond their original pilots. In the case of MLA and Shameless Pets, the startup parlayed the learnings from the MLA pilot to launch a new beef and lobster jerky product. According to Bello, the MLA collaboration validated the insight that pet owners love the play on ‘surf and turf’ and are also open to upcycled meat that delivers nutrition in pet food products. Shameless Pets is now confident in expanding beyond ‘ugly produce’ into upcycled meat for its products, based on pilot insights which mapped nutritional benefits from specific cuts of beef that would have been wasted.
MLA and Shameless Pets see long-term potential to develop an entire jerky line that includes lamb and goat products. ‘We’re taking the opportunity we saw with beef back to our suppliers to look at partnerships with Shameless,’ said Lee. ‘Now we just have to find the goats on the mountain!’ MLA and Shameless Pets are also taking forward insights around consumer desire for transparency and information on sourcing. ‘Today’s pet owner doesn’t just want to know that a product is sustainable,’ said Bello. ‘They want to know where it’s from and how to verify those sustainability credentials.’
For GrainCorp’s part, the company is looking at how they can incorporate Swarm Engineering’s solutions into their organization. Karunathilake acknowledged that embedding this technology is a long-term endeavor and that they ‘are keen to continue the relationship with Swarm.’
Swarm Engineering was able to use the approach from its pivoted pilot with GrainCorp to secure two new clients in America. ‘We’ve seen 20 to 30 percent cost savings for both of those customers here,’ explained Howcroft. ‘It’s been great to take that experience and learning to another market, and see that the savings are still there.’ He also attributed the startup’s recent success in securing investment with S2G Ventures in part to the GrainCorp collaboration. ‘We probably wouldn’t have been able to secure that investment without the support of GrainCorp and the results of that project,’ said Howcroft.
The Pandemic’s Impact on Innovation
In light of the pandemic and economic pressure, our speakers highlighted the continued need for investment in innovation and relationships. ‘While we may need to look at cost-cutting initiatives, we need to continue to have a pipeline of innovation investments,’ explained Lee. Karunathilake summed it up this way: ‘These disruptions create opportunities for innovation.’ MLA and GrainCorp, both Australian companies, cited COVID-related travel restrictions as an obstacle that Rabobank’s global network of startups helps solve. ‘When we’re not able to travel and use the normal methods for sourcing technology and startups, it’s a challenge,’ said Karunathilake. ‘That’s why we rely on relationships like FoodBytes! to source those startups for us and keep improving as a company.’
To learn more about FoodBytes! Pilot, Rabobank’s expanded corporate innovation program that includes consulting and tailored matchmaking with startups for pilot collaborations, please contact Caroline Keeley at email@example.com.
Are you a startup building sustainable solutions in food and ag? Applications for FoodBytes! Pitch VIRTUAL are officially open! Learn more about our new virtual programming, the benefits of joining the FoodBytes! ecosystem, and apply before August 10.
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