As we continue to see the world adjust to an ongoing pandemic, it’s clear that the outbreak of COVID-19 has created profound change in the global food system. While the outlook continues to fluctuate by the day, many aspects of the industry will be transformed long-term.

The FoodBytes! Q1 2020 Trend Report examined food and agriculture innovations in response to COVID-19, driven by increased demand for fresh produce, shelf-stable products and health-added ingredients. Throughout the pandemic, consumers have been shopping more consciously, buying local and embracing digital e-commerce. The Q2 Trend Report dives deeper into four startup innovation areas that the FoodBytes! team expects will drive lasting change, offering a data-driven snapshot of the pandemic-proof innovations we believe are here to stay.

We have seen criticism of lean, globe-spanning supply chains with calls for shorter, more locally diverse alternatives. One category that has received great attention is Farm-to-Consumer eGrocery. Many investors may revisit the space with new vigor in light of COVID-19 as consumers look to buy produce directly from the source. Previously representing a relatively small portion of the farm tech investment landscape in 2019, this category is gaining more traction as consumer demand for supply chain transparency grows.

We’re seeing an increasing number of startups building e-commerce channels and platforms that bring the farmer closer to the consumer, as noted by Trace Genomics founder Poornima Parameswaran in our recent fundraising webinar. FoodBytes! startup alums working from the farm gate to the consumer’s plate have raised funding since the start of 2020, specifically those focused on scaling transparent supply chains. Thistle, which delivers farm-fresh meals to consumers, raised $5M in January. Connected farming alum Kakaxi raised a second round of seed funding to scale its remote data-capture device that enables transparency of growing conditions for CPG brands and agribusiness. Finally, mushroom micro-farm startup Smallhold also closed $3.7M to shorten the mushroom supply chain and engage consumers in local production in a novel way.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, food waste amounted to about 33 percent of global food production and consumption. An extended pandemic will increase food waste further, due to lack of foodservice demand and the logistical challenges in redirecting food to retail. Companies around the world are trying hard to eliminate pandemic-fueled food waste. Startups that offer valuable solutions to mitigate food loss are well placed to weather the pandemic storm.

We see many startups that have developed machine-learning algorithms or AI-driven technologies that enable retailers to track freshness and cut food losses along the value chain, like alums Wasteless and Afresh. In terms of alumni startups receiving investor traction during the pandemic, Intello Labs closed $6M for its AI food grading tech in May, focusing on efficiency and waste mitigation along the supply chain. Food waste reduction-focused grocery delivery startup Imperfect Foods saw subscriptions increase by 40 percent in 2020 alone and closed $72M in Series C funding in May to expand geographically.

 

As the focus on labor efficiencies persists, we expect to see greater adoption of agtech innovations like precision agriculture, robotics and indoor farming. Growing food safety and hygiene concerns have resulted in increased consideration of automation across agricultural production. Labor shortages exacerbated by COVID-19 safety concerns have sparked the development of new technologies that minimize worker presence across the production process, while at the same time helping companies reduce costs. In particular, we see renewed interest from labor-challenged farmers in robotic startups, like alum Burro (FKA Augean Robotics), which just raised a $1.6M round.

Investments in robotic startups have been historically low, however the need to grow crops safely in this new world showcases just how valuable data-driven farming can be. Other alumni in the broader farming digitization space have seen investment traction during the pandemic, including AI-powered dairy tech startup Connecterra. The company raised a $8.72 Series B to make farming practices more efficient and regenerative through robust insights. Soil analytics company Trace Genomics raised funding during the pandemic to expand its solutions to improve sustainable farm productivity and restore living soil.

The pandemic has accelerated the trend toward buying animal-free products and plant-based alternatives. Growing consumer concerns around the sustainability of animal consumption, coupled with meat supply chain disruption, have caused plant-based foods to experience increased demand. Plant-based meat producer Beyond Meat experienced a 141 percent sales increase in the first quarter of 2020. On the corporate R&D front, Planterra Foods, a division of protein leader JBS, has just launched a new plant-based line, Ozo, which is made of a blend of pea, rice and fermented shiitake mushroom protein. The mushroom protein is supplied by alum Mycotechnology, which recently raised a $39M Series D.

According to Nielsen data, overall plant-based sales globally have increased 90 -240 percent, depending on the category, since March. This uptick has been a boon to a handful of our alums on the financing side. InnovoPro received a cash infusion of $15M in April to boost production of its novel chickpea protein which has applications in meat alternatives, confectionary, ice cream and more. Sustainability-boosting plant-based meat additive Better Meat Co announced $5.6M to expand partnerships with protein industry leaders, including Tyson and Smithfield, just before the pandemic lockdown began. Else Nutrition announced $6M in funding in March to debut its line of plant-based complete nutrition products for toddlers.

 

 

Challenges created, or exacerbated, by the pandemic have drawn a large number of industry corporates to the FoodBytes! webinar series to gain insight from our alumni startups, investor and corporate members and RaboResearch analysts on macro industry trends, strategies for pivoting, and the evolving food and ag investment landscape. Since Q1 2020, FoodBytes! has experienced 3x growth in the number of new startups engaging with the platform through our digital channels and webinar series. The top request for future digital content from our community is case studies of corporate / startup cross-collaboration, a notion that is reflected in the industry more broadly and heightened by the global pandemic. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that players in our food and ag system must be prepared for constant change and transformation. Rabobank is now playing a much larger role in helping companies adopt the innovation mindset and capabilities that are essential for a resilient food supply, as well as long-term business success,” said Anne Greven, head of F&A Innovation at Rabobank.

At FoodBytes!, we firmly believe the startup technologies and products succeeding in today’s challenging environment have the capacity to drive a more sustainable future through cross-industry collaboration.

 

FoodBytes! Pitch, our startup discovery program that builds lasting connections between sustainable food and ag startups, corporates and investors, is going VIRTUAL. The program has been redesigned from a 3-day in person gathering to a multi-week virtual engagement spanning from mid-October through early December. Rabobank is expanding FoodBytes! Pitch to select 45 startups total, including 15 startups in each of three verticals: sustainable consumer foods (CPG), food tech and agtech. This expanded startup pool offers corporate leaders and investors exposure to a larger group of startups and a deeper view into top innovation areas. Startups benefit from more tailored mentorship in each vertical and greater peer-to-peer networking opportunities.

Startup applications are open through August 10 HERE. FoodBytes! is encouraging applications from startups that are working to tackle the most pressing food system challenges, including those pioneering on-farm automation, animal health tech, shortened supply chains, food loss mitigation, accessible food e-commerce and functional ingredients.

Corporate organizations and investors now gain access to all FoodBytes! Pitch startups, as well as the programming designed to create meaningful connections, through a paid membership. Food and ag corporates and investors interested in discovering future-proof innovations can join ADM, Barilla, Dole, Albaugh and others in the growing FoodBytes! Pitch membership network. Benefits include exclusive startup access, mentorship, speaking opportunities, marketing and media coverage and more. If you’re interested in learning more, contact Caroline Keeley at caroline.keeley@rabobank.com.

 

Like what you see? Sign up for our monthly newsletters to stay up to date on alumni news, industry insights and event updates.