As Food-X was making final plans to start its 11th cohort at the beginning of March, it was increasingly unclear how the rapid spread of coronavirus was going to impact Americans' lives.
Peter Bodenheimer, partner and managing director at the food accelerator, wasn't quite sure if he should delay the March 16 scheduled start of the three-and-a-half-month program, which gives its selected startups funding, mentorship, connections with investors and introductions to people in the food business. Companies selected to participate in the program had always relocated to New York and worked together out of Food-X's offices, which was looking at that point like it could be a questionable prospect.
As the pandemic caused world leaders to impose strict restrictions on travel, and as other parts of the world locked down their cities to prevent the spread, Bodenheimer and others at Food-X came to a solution tailored for the current times. The cohort started March 16 as planned, and the whole program will be almost completely virtual.
Food-X, which was the first accelerator program focusing on the food space, has been helping startups get into the business since 2014. Bodenheimer told Food Dive it was important for the program — which works with innovative companies focusing on solving the industry challenges of changing food commerce, supply chain modernization and the intersection of food and medicine — to go forward. And while the entire program couldn't be replicated through virtual means, Bodenheimer said that online platforms create opportunities for the training, mentorship and community building.
"The companies are going to continue to try and push forward in a time like this, so investors should as well," Bodenheimer told Food Dive.
The first month of the virtual program has been different, but effective and enlightening, Bodenheimer said. The participants were selected before COVID-19 was household knowledge, but many of them are looking to solve some of the problems that have become more prevalent in these times.The participants, announced today, include:
- Bramble: A fresh, 100% plant-based pet food company with the goal of improving pet diets.
- Ester: A company using science and artificial intelligence to develop hyper-personalized customer flavor profiles for beer and wine retailers.
- Fieldcraft: A B2B marketplace for commodities and ingredients built to simplify sourcing from growers to manufacturers.
- Living Food Company: A consumer marketplace offering access to fresh and clean food from world-class farmers, bakers, brewers and other artisans.
- Milk Moovement: A cloud-based dairy supply chain software solution.
- Nature Preserve: A sustainable food tech brand upcycling produce to minimize waste and maximize health through a proprietary food preservation process.
- Rambuhealth: A venture using the antioxidant-dense shell of rambutan for health benefits, which can be found in their food bars, supplements and ingredient offerings.
- remotekitchen: A unified platform to help restaurants run, manage and grow business.
Bodenheimer said the program has been going well so far. And while the entrepreneurs all undoubtedly applied with the expectation of an in-person experience working in the Food-X co-working office in New York City, they have all been enthusiastic to take part in the new variation on the program.
"The level of engagement ... has been through the roof. Not just from the founders, but from the whole sort of community around Food-X. ...I think part of that is driven by everybody finding themselves in this, you know, this very strange global crisis and wanting to really connect and be involved with others."
Partner and managing director, Food-X
Because the cohort is virtual, Bodenheimer said there are big changes to what is happening this time around. More care has gone into figuring out how to get the same results through a virtual accelerator program.
"Instead of saying, 'Let's replicate the program,' let's think about how do we use the online medium that we find ourselves really forced to use," Bodenheimer said. "How do we try and create things that are going to lead to the same types of outcomes? It may not be replicating something exactly as it is in person, but just thinking about what are the opportunities that are presented to us using online tools, and having people in the the situation that they're in today."
Those changes include pitch practices, the first of which just happened, Bodenheimer said. Generally, these are in long sessions with company founders standing up in front of investors and telling their story, their potential and why they are an opportunity an investor cannot afford to miss. The sessions this time around were shortened to be more effective online. While the entrepreneurs might not have felt quite as nervous as they might have with investors sitting in front of them, Bodenheimer said the feedback on pitches was just as valuable.
Other big changes include the social aspects of the program. Generally, all of the startups participate in Food-X's co-working space, which offers opportunities to socialize and share ideas and knowledge. Bodenheimer has instead scheduled virtual networking opportunities, like coffee breaks where two founders talk about business, or virtual movie nights through the Netflix Party app.
Bodenheimer knows everything can't be replicated in a virtual program. There are things that really can only happen while people are together in one space — like the day during a previous cohort where both the head of innovation for Nestlé and the person in charge of M&A at PepsiCo both stopped by because they happened to be in the neighborhood. He's also working on figuring out how to translate the program's demo day — which always has hundreds of people in a small area — into an experience that is safe for the current times.
However, Bodenheimer has discovered that some aspects of the accelerator program are actually better when virtual. The orientation, which typically took a few long days while the participants were still trying to get settled in to New York and find temporary housing, was moved online and went more smoothly.
The mentoring component has also gone much better. Before, Bodenheimer said, mentors would come to the office and meet with a few startups in one time period. Factoring in the travel time and packed schedules of both mentors and startups, some of these meetings were not always as beneficial as they could have been. Now, with the schedules of an office and transportation times taken away, everyone has more time to actually build relationships, Bodenheimer said. And as an added bonus, the changes to how business is done during the pandemic have meant more mentors are available and willing to participate in the program.
"The level of engagement ... has been through the roof," Bodenheimer said. "Not just from the founders, but from the whole sort of community around Food-X. ...I think part of that is driven by everybody finding themselves in this, you know, this very strange global crisis and wanting to really connect and be involved with others."
Despite the way this cohort has begun, their program is not going to be completely virtual. Bodenheimer said there will be an in-person aspect to it in New York, but he's not sure as of now what that might look like. It all depends on how and when society starts to reopen as COVID-19 becomes less of a threat — something that nobody knows at the moment. Regardless, he said, it is important — both for the founders and for Food-X.
"We want to get to really know these companies and know their founding teams because that gives ... more data as we try and support these companies and make follow-on investments," Bodenheimer said. "The more we know them, the more likely we are to make good decisions around that."
Bodenheimer said the virtual experience is likely to change the way Food-X works with future cohorts. While the accelerator probably will not do another mostly virtual program, some of the changes — like the online orientation — are going to stay. It may make sense for future cohorts to spend a shorter amount of time in New York, taking advantage of some of the training, education and advising that works better virtually.
Although the cohort isn't over yet, Bodenheimer said he's glad Food-X has found a way to keep going.
"The hard work that gets done here is by startups," he said. "We're a supporting organization to them, and so I think if a startup is being scrappy and figuring out a way to push the boulder up the hill at a time like this, then as investors and supporters of the startup community, we need to be putting our money where our mouth is and backing those companies."