On a spectacular Saturday last June, the cavernous sixth floor loft of General Assembly, the leading provider of programming classes in Manhattan, just across from the Flatiron Building, began to fill up. People checked in, browsed the juices, chia bars and Brooklyn Roasting Co. coffee and started pecking on their MacBooks and iPhones.
Dress code was mostly T-shirts and jeans, TOMS, Converse or flip-flops. A clique of developers recently back from Google I/O were giggling over a poor-man’s Oculus Rift made out of an iPhone, cardboard and duct tape.
A who’s who of Gotham’s food and tech communities convened—staff from Facebook, Instagram, Cover, AmazonFresh, Mouth, ’wichcraft, Sea to Table, R/GA digital, Google, Sweetgreen, Feeding10Billion.com, Fitbit, Jawbone, AccelFoods, Culinary Institute of America, New York Angels—along with a bevy of start-ups.
And then Danielle Gould, the CEO and founder of Food + Tech Connect, a smiley 31 years old with long brown hair, took the microphone. “This isn’t just a community,” she said. “It’s a movement of many different types of people who want to use technology to improve the food system.” There was serious business to be done. Gould and her team had spent the last half year organizing this event, dubbed Hack//Dining, Gould’s fifth food-focused hackathon.
Glittering in a little black dress—the queen bee of the foodtech ecosystem—she explained that the goal wasn’t just to put together some very good brains to fix problems in our food system. The team from Google Food, a few unapologetically bespectacled in Google Glass, sought to encourage people to make food and behavior choices that allow them to achieve their personal and professional lifestyle goals. The Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group asked for a cloud-based dashboard where restaurants could navigate and comply with Byzantine health codes, anywhere in the world. Chipotle wondered how it could use technology to make restaurant design and operations more sustainable. Applegate wanted a solution for gathering eater feedback in large venues, like stadiums and food festivals.
These are heady times for the intersection of food and tech. Brita Rosenheim of Rosenheim Advisors, consulting firm, reported in December that foodtech and food media industries doubled in the last three years, investing $2.4 billion in 2014. Companies gathered even more than that—$3 billion—in the first quarter of this year alone. In April the Wall Street Journal reported that venture capital firms poured half a billion into agriculture and food last year, up by 54 percent.
While there’s been talk of a foodtech bubble, Rosenheim thinks we’re at the beginning of a long uptrend. The space has just begun to attract interest from large players in food, not to mention completely different industries considering leapfrogging into food through tech. Consider this collage: J. C. Penny partnered with Epicurious.com to market Epicurious-branded cookware; Mars partnered with UC Davis to launch the tech-forward Innovation Institute for Food and Health; Uber is plotting UberEssentials, a 10-minute grocery option; Overstock launched a farmers market subsite. Even Under Armour is flirting with the field through its acquisition of calorie-intake apps MyFitnessPal and Endomondo. David Chang, chef and owner of Momofuku, recently raised $25 million to launch Maple, a curated food delivery service. Amazon has rolled out AmazonFresh in Seattle, San Francisco and Brooklyn and launched a different grocery service in India called KiranaNow that’s heading for other cities in South Asia. The bustling marketplace hasn’t stopped at least a dozen wine, beer and spirits delivery services from rolling out nationwide, including Drizly, Minibar, Saucy, Pink Dot and Klink. (One of them was delivering cannabis in California until regulators asked them to stop.)
The biggest strategy deal to date seems to be Rocket Internet’s multi-billion dollar move to “create the biggest Internet-based food-ordering service outside of China,” according to a recent Rosenheim report. The network, internally called the “Global Online Takeaway Group,” now owns online food ordering in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, including the following affiliate sites: Delivery Hero in America, Foodpanda in 14 Asian nations and 11 countries in Africa, HelloFresh in New York and Berlin, Talabat in Dubai, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, La Nevera Roja in Spain, PizzaBo in Italy and Yemeksepeti in Turkey.
Not to mention hundreds of smaller launches, mergers and acquisitions. In the AgFunder newsletter from early March, rounds of funding were announced for SWIIM (a water rights trading platform for farmers), Edyn (a smart garden sensor) and Agribotix (a family of drones and software designed for tending orchards).
6SensorLabs, which recently raised $4 million, is developing what it calls the first portable and accurate gluten sensor, while Rowbot’s weed-munching droids can be deployed in flocks of dozens to control weeds—and plant cover crops!—between corn rows. Food + Tech Connect (FTC) counted nearly two dozen entities that launched in 2014 to accelerate, incubate and fund food businesses, including two for beer (CraftFund and CrowdBrewed), Barnraiser (a Kickstarter for food businesses), 7-Ventures, launched by 7-Eleven to invest in food and foodtech start-ups, and Cultivian Sandbox, a Chicago-based incubator launched by Monsanto.
Gould has ridden this wave, wielding FTC’s logo, a brilliant hybrid of a head of wheat and a USB plug. And she has arguably helped fuel this growth by nurturing each new class/generation/vintage of start-ups in the food space.
“Smart technology is going to eat up the world,” social media guru and investor Gary Vaynerchuk said recently, while talking about the wearable tech that’s also starting to ripple through our virtual foodshed. Vaynerchuk, an early investor in Resy, Drizly, Grove Labs and other foodtech, drinktech and hospitech companies, made his first fortune selling wine online. But he could have easily been talking about smart tractors, handheld cloud-connected food safety probes and the SavorBand, a rubber RFID-enabled wristband developed by NYC-based ClearHart to allows attendees to record everything they liked at food and drink festivals. “It allows the physical to do so much more,” he adds. “Recall, push content, unlock virtual places.”
In fact, that’s what technology is doing to our food system. It is expanding the food chain. A smart tractor can know things a farmer has never known. (Of course, a farmer can also know things a tractor can never know.) “Be guided by the analytics, not your instinct,” is the mantra in the tech space. And when we consult Yelp for where to eat or stock our pantry from FreshDirect, when a restaurant owner logs in to a dashboard to see how her waitstaff is performing or a corn farmer assesses crop health using drone-gathered data, technology is radically shifting the way we decide what to grow and eat. Enhancing the physical food chain with a digital overlay. Smart kitchens and cookware appliances have been demoed at the gadget gathering CES for years. At Hack//Dining, I held a smart cutting board that could weigh, identify and log foods being cut. All that info was accessible from a dashboard on my phone or could be fed into my Fitbit nutrition log via Bluetooth.
“What they are doing is awesome,” said the serial entrepreneur and investor Alain Bankier of the players assembled to disrupt large-scale dining. Bankier is the former CEO of the Manischewitz Company and is arguably one of the kingmakers of the New York foodtech industry with investments in Mouth, Plated, Homer and other firms. “They are dragging the hospitality business into today’s world,” he continued, juggling multiple conversations and grazing on pickles and seaweed-topped vegan hot dogs. “A big, big shift is younger people moving at a rapid rate toward this being the norm.” He was stream of consciousness now, referring to mobile reservation booking, online grocery shopping, geolocation around what we’re eating right now. “And it’s not going to cost us more. It will just happen. Boom. It’s happening.”
THE SMART GRID FOR FOOD
Gould didn’t set out to be the queen bee of foodtech. She grew up in Maryland. Her father owns a small advertising agency that specializes in nonprofit, political and car advertising. Her mother was one of the first female insurance agents at New York Life. (“They turned my mom down 12 times, but she kept going back until they hired her,” she says.)
She stopped eating red meat when she was 11 years old but would turn pescatarian when she went to Israel and lived on a kibbutz as a high school senior. “Other than that, I grew up eating lots of processed, low-fat foods,” she says. There were big family gatherings on the Eastern Shore on summer weekends and feasts for Jewish holidays, which Gould says contributed to “my proclivity to convene people.”
Ironically, Gould was a self-proclaimed technophobe. “I was that person that in my computer class in high school always lost files,” she says. “I was definitely very scared of technology.”
Her interest in food as more than just something to eat blossomed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2000. A sociology major dabbling in systems thinking and social entrepreneurship, she took a course with environmental historian William Cronin, who, on the first day of class, described the history of the American environment from the perspective of a loaf of bread. “My mind was blown,” she says. She suddenly started bumping into all sorts of food system examples in her studies. “I remember visiting a CSA and holding a chicken while discussing vegetarianism. And then we went to a landfill.” It was five years of “lots of different twists and turns, and then I had an ‘aha’ moment where I realized that, like food, the Internet is also a system. The rest is history.”
While pursuing a master’s in nonprofit management at the New School, Gould developed dual passions in green buildings and social entrepreneurship and eventually decamped to an intentional community in Arizona where she got some dirt under her nails and marveled at an Earthship-like “energy apron” built atop a mesa. She returned to New York knowing that food was her future and that the future of food was about to be completely rewritten.
Gould responded to a job announcement from BrightFarm Systems, a Manhattan-based start-up in indoor and rooftop farming and joined as a sort of utility player, doing PR, business development and administration. The budget was minimal, so Gould invested her time heavily in Twitter and how to wield it for contact cultivation. “I became amazed by how much information in the food world we’re openly sharing. And this is information that we couldn’t get as a company, but that we really needed to inform our consulting work.” We needed data like how much food was being grown in the city? What are the prices paid to producers? She started asking: “What if someone could scrape all that data together to get a better real-time picture of what’s going on in the food system?”
“I realized that at the core of so many of the issues in our food system is this core lack of information flow,” she says. “All of a sudden, technology became a thing you could use, to connect people, to aggregate ideas and improve decision making.” Gould threw herself into this effort, staying up all night to build a framework that could be used by others like her and those she didn’t yet know. “I wanted to build this smart grid for food.”
And then she got an alert from Meetup announcing a new group: the Food + Tech Meetup. “Three of us showed up,” says Holley Atkinson, the tech strategist and food activist. The third was Elizabeth McVay Greene, who created the meetup. (The group now has more than 2,000 registered members, and the meetups are packed to the gills.) Greene and Gould started collaborating on a number of projects; their big shared idea was the “Networked Food System”— a food system whose web of support wasn’t built only of fields and farms and freight haulers but also access to data, digital communication and automation. “I had an idea for an app that connected food artisans with underutilized kitchen space,” said Gould. Food + Tech Connect became the landing page for a SurveyMonkey to test the idea. They quickly moved onto other ideas, although the survey (and their social media–based link-spreading) was driving about 70 respondents a day. (Greene would go on to found Plovgh, a “marketing, logistics, and purchasing partner for farms and foodmakers” that she still runs.) Gould started posting content (lists, links, graphics) to share what they were finding in foodtech. One of the first posts was an infographic of the global food system. It went viral. Michael Pollan included it as his link of the day. What Gould found most intriguing and exciting was that just as many food people were sharing it as designers, technologists, economists and politicians.
Among those drawn to it was Will Turnage. “Oh my gosh, it’s my people,” Turnage recalls feeling. An avid cook and senior vice president of technology at the ad agency R/GA, Turnage had caught the foodtech bug, after collaborating with chef Michael Ruhlmann on the Ratio app and the Bread Baking Basics app. In these early meetups, often at Jimmy’s 43 in the East Village, the format included giving everyone an opportunity to make a rapid presentation on their current project. “It’s a very entrepreneurial space,” says Turnage. “The meetings were filled with farmers, cooks, homebrewing coders, graphic designer–jammakers. You kind of had all walks of life coming into the space.” Among the first expressions of this nascent creativity was when Turnage and Mike Lee, an entrepreneur and product designer (who would become Gould’s husband), presented “My Robotic Kitchen Planned This Dinner Party” at SXSW in 2012. Lee, an early foodtech adopter had launched Studiofeast, a pop-up dinner party platform in Brooklyn in 2007. “We got together and pitched this idea to South By and then built the software, and then threw a dinner party, and then gave the talk.” (Google it; the slideshare still exists.)
Today, nearly all Food + Tech Connect’s activities contribute in some way to building out that grid, from collecting feedback from their online entrepreneur courses to building up an online database of interviews with movers and shakers. “I was starting from a very data-centric standpoint. But at the core, people don’t necessarily want to share their data. It’s really about establishing trust,” says Gould. “It’s about connecting people offline. It’s about improving the systems, and better understanding what needs to be built. And how to build things that are better.”
Gould has become a keystone in the foodtech ecosystem in New York and beyond. “She came out of nowhere when there wasn’t all this New York interest in this in 2009 and 2010,” says Paul Matteucci, a venture capitalist at U.S. Ventures who focuses on food and ag. “She’s really been a major catalyst.” Matteucci first reached out to Gould when one of his advisers, Ken Caplan of Blackstone, saw an article on Gould in the Wall Street Journal. Matteucci, whose Twitter handle is @foodcrunch, cold-called her. They met up the next time he was in New York and have been in contact ever since. “We meet quite frequently to talk and give each other access to each other’s network,” he says. Matteucci, who also founded a nonprofit called Feeding 10 Billion to help entrepreneurs in food system change, recently collaborated with Gould on a short course on raising money for your food start-up. “In terms of foodtech, which is the end of the supply chain”—compared to agtech or croptech—“I’d say that she’s taken pretty much the lead nationally. There’s a view that we were pioneers back then and now it seems like everybody is interested in food.”
WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE?
According to Wikipedia, the first-ever hackathon was held in 1999, either at Sun Microsystems or UC Berkeley. The events gather coders, designers and venture capitalists to quickly develop new software, who often subsist on energy drinks and little sleep.
Food + Tech Connect’s hackathons are notably different in two ways: much better food and a diverse group working around a goal rooted in a broken food system. At the very first one in 2010 in SoHo, one team built software to ease group buying of whole animals. Another hackathon focused food policy; it landed Gould a closed-door meeting at the White House. “It was one of the first hackathons I had ever been to that was more content-based than technology-based,” said Turnage. Flyers on the tables asked: “What would the world look like if healthier food was affordable?”
Attendees were given a handbook that contained “The Design Hacking Toolkit,” a sort of intro course to future-friendly design thinking. The mission: “You’re here to hack and improve someone’s journey as they try to accomplish good in the world of dining.”
“What works? What doesn’t work? What would you change?” the facilitator Mike Lee asked repeatedly that night. Lee, founder and head of Studio Industries, a future-oriented branding and product strategy firm that developed the Future Market, a project and website that imagines what a supermarket will look like in 50 years, popped in on teams consuming reams of Post-its, posting queries at GitHub, drafting mock-ups in Proto.io and honing pitches with Keynotopia. “Who are your users? What are their needs? What insights influence your answer?” (Remember, we’re talking about food here.)
For instance, leadership from Applegate and Farm Aid aimed to get foodservice to “hack stadium food”—that is, replace Bud Light with local microbrews, offer a humanely raised heritage hot dog, fresher buns and small-batch sauerkraut on compostable dishware. Google had sent over a few executive chefs to listen in. “Danielle has this great ability to bring a wide variety of different stakeholders in this intersection of food and tech together without imposing her own perspective on the overall discussions,” says Michiel Bakker, the head of Google Food, which coordinates food and wellness for Google’s 50,000 employees worldwide. “She creates platforms and opportunities for people to have what we would call casual collisions. They tend to produce all kinds of interesting and new things.”
This was the third hackathon Applegate had co-hosted with Food + Tech Connect. “It’s rare that issues within the food system are tackled by groups that contain techies, designers, farmers, policymakers and entrepreneurs,” said Gina Asoudegan, director of communications for Applegate, who was there because hackathons can help the company fulfill its mission of “changing the meat we eat.” According to Asoudegan, one example of tech assisting the nose-to-tail use of meat relies on a “cloud-based inventory network,” which assists meat and poultry distribution from small, regional farms, by providing the necessary economies of scale and a streamlined supply chain to sell to large foodservices like hospitals and school districts. Asoudegan finds the holistic approach and tireless passion of these hackathons immensely effective. At the Hack//Meat event in San Francisco, Applegate presented a challenge “that we were certain we understood from every angle,” Asoudegan said. “However, when we presented it to the attendees, someone spoke up and completely reframed the problem in a way we never could have done with the knowledge base we were working from.”
Asoudegan listed how technology could bolster her lobbying work by quickly and widely measuring consumer sentiment on genetically modified foods, antibiotic use in livestock and farm estate tax crises. Food companies can hone their marketing materials and respond to real-time demands, and so can politicians, ideally. “It’s all possible, but it will take new ideas and solutions—many of which will involve technology,” she added.
“Our goal is to create this infrastructure for the networked food system,” Gould told the crowd. All of a sudden there were all these other companies starting to build pieces of this smart grid—from allergen databases at Ingredient1 and the food investment mapping reports from Rosenheim to AgFunder’s agtech start-up database. Why should Food + Tech Connect be re-creating the wheel when these start-ups were it doing better and faster? This became FTC’s first pivot: How could they support them to build awesome stuff? By being a connector and teacher. “We’re still figuring out the best way to do it,” said Gould, “but that’s the ultimate vision.”
Even as all this dough gets plowed into foodtech—not to mention agtech (farm drones, handheld food safety sensors, robotic poultry butchers), hospitech (robot waiters, iPad-based menus) and nutritech (edible packaging, personal Food IDs)—there’s plenty of concern that the same venture capital model that could push valuation of Uber, Periscope, Instagram and Instacart to new heights, may be unprepared to deal with our most essential human endeavor—feeding ourselves. “I’ve got serious concern that the ‘move fast and break things mentality’ can help fix our food system,” said Michael Lippold of FreshRealm.
Matteucci is similarly wary that the approach he uses in his day job may run roughshod over the food chain with no guarantee of making it more sustainable, equitable or even more delicious. “This roaring interest in foodtech and agtech isn’t that different in many ways from the introduction of the tractor,” said Matt Rothe, co-founder of the FEED Collaborative at Stanford. Like previous generations of farm tools, foodtech threatens to set farmers on a technology treadmill that ultimately pushes them to borrow money or scale up in order to justify the investment. “This is an allegory for every technology that has been developed since, and that includes artificial pesticides and fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, it includes specialization of farming equipment and technology,” said Rothe, who was previously the director of operations at Niman Ranch and led the Sustainable Food Program for Stanford Dining. “It’s all the same story.”
It’s true; if you look at the spectrum of foodtech innovations, they run the gamut from mission-focused apps to connect food pantries and food to ideas to products that verge on sci-fi creepy like the data-driven meal-replacement powder Soylent that talks of eliminating the need to cook, or robotic bartenders being demoed in Tokyo hotels and on cruise ships, or the 20,000-acre citrus groves using drones to scout for disease. Which should make us glad that Gould surrounds herself with sustainability-minded allies and mentors and sees technology as a tool to bring good, healthy food to people everywhere.
Gould recently spearheaded the American contingent at Seeds & Chips in Milan, the first international foodtech expo. She returned emboldened and rejuvenated by Europe’s very different approach. More important, because there’s little venture capital culture in the Old World, most entrepreneurs she met were single-mindedly focused on creating an amazing experience for their users (folks ordering food online in small-town Italy or apps to streamline regional procurement for school cafeterias) rather than building-to-sell, as American entrepreneurs are wont to do.
“Tech won’t solve fundamental problems in the food system, but it is a critical component,” says Nevin Cohen, faculty associate at the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, “and Food + Tech Connect has become the place to go for information on innovations in this sector.”
Really, Food + Tech Connect is not a media company or a data aggregator or a groovy meetup. It is a connection machine—as the name implies—between the world of food and the world of technology. Gould calls herself a “social alchemist and data forager” on her Twitter profile. “I connect innovators at the intersection of food and gov2.0, tech, data science, design, research and entrepreneurship.”
Which explains Gould’s latest pivot—ed.foodtechconnect.com, which offers online and in-person, expert-taught business courses for food entrepreneurs. They’ve had hundreds of sign-ups and will be rolling out additional courses in e-commerce, business planning and true-cost accounting. In this realm, too, Gould’s special sauce is to open the door wider. To not just play to the coders and geeks, but to put them in a room in front of Danny Meyer or Marcus Samuelsson, who both lectured as part of “The Power of Brand: Growing Your Restaurant,” a first-of-its-kind boot camp. Samuelsson waxed poetic about how social media allows him to banter with many more diners than he could ever meet in person, while Meyer, an early adopter of such hospitech tools as OpenTable and Avero, explained how hospitality is just as important when making a reservation online as when on the phone.
In addition to the boot camps, FTC cooked up, in conjunction with Force Brands: FoodForce | BevForce, a “Fail Fridays” series that has seen packed rooms of folks just relaxing into happy hour to hear colleagues—like Rick’s Picks, Dig Inn, REDWOOD new york and Entrepreneurist—big- and small-talk about their fails, in addition to teaching moments, pivots and successful exits. “It’s not easy being a food innovator,” said the promo material. “There’s no road map for reinventing an industry.”
Perhaps what makes Gould most effective is her favoring “product before personality.” “From an early point on it wasn’t just about Food + Tech Connect and the Food + Tech Meetup and the site,” says Turnage. “She was a very active collaborator with so many people’s food projects.” Colleagues fondly speak of her as “catalyst” and “cheerleader.” “Danielle doesn’t eat meat and still dove wholeheartedly into butchering a pork shoulder at Eat Retreat,” says Heather Marold Thomason of Eat Retreat, an annual gathering of the food community, which Gould has attended and helped support. “She embraced the retreat as an opportunity to unplug, play and build relationships with future collaborators. Danielle is an active member of our alumni network and an invaluable resource for the food entrepreneurs among us.”
FTC is a nurturing force for this growing ecosystem that stretches the food chain that we currently know into other dimensions. Equip a standard tractor with a few sensors and servos, and you give the farmer access to information they have never had. Instead of recipe books in our home pantry, platforms like Food52 and FeedFeed blow the culinary universe wide open—at our fingertips. What does a cloud-based food system look like? What does food look like in the cloud? Is it better for us or worse?
“There’s so much innovation going on in the food space, nobody knows how to make money off of it,” says Turnage. “Food + Tech Connect has hit on something that allows them to create huge amounts of value in the food world, in the tech world and in the emerging business space.” Food start-ups are unique because, as Turnage says, “there’s a pairing of this millennia-old food artisanship with this new world of mobile and online and digital and Twitter marketing and Pinterest.”
Matteucci, who taught a popular fund-raising course through Food + Tech Connect in February of this year (“This course will teach you everything you need to launch a kick-ass crowdfunding campaign,” according to the course promo), thinks the demand is national. “Education for entrepreneurs is the right focus. It will be interesting to see the audience when Danielle takes it to places like Minneapolis and Denver and the Bay Area; places where there’s a lot of entrepreneurs working on food and tech.”
Throughout the food chain, a new generation of future-friendly companies comes to calcified issues with fresh eyes and sees new solutions. “What would it look like if we started over?” Hampton Creek Foods has famously asked.
Gould is also focused on a bigger geopolitical aspiration: establishing New York as the global center of innovation and entrepreneurship around food and technology. “New York is poised to become that foodtech hub because, unlike most other cities, New York is a hub for a diverse number of industries. We have a strong tech community, but fashion is based here, media is based here, Wall Street is based here,” says R/GA’s Turnage. Matteucci agrees: “New York is this multi-headed monster that could dominate the space, especially the end of the food chain, more than Silicon Valley.”
To further plant that flag, later this year Gould and Lee will launch Alpha Food Labs, a brick and mortar “innovation space” in lower Manhattan that will be part co-working opportunity, part mini-MBA school. “A project in support of good food innovation,” according to Lee.
“Our goal is to work with our multi-disciplinary network partners to build a robust ecosystem for food system innovation,” says Gould. And then there’s the food mission. “We want to increase the supply and accessibility of good food,” she adds. “We’re going to do this by lowering the barriers to success for entrepreneurs and by making it easier for big companies to do good.”