There are many different foodtech accelerators open to startups these days. From university-backed efforts to major consumer goods brands, a variety of stakeholders are hoping to expedite entrepreneurs’ foodtech fantasies – and share in the upside, if any.
But according to Rob Ward, founder of UK-headquartered ForwardFood.Tech, there are some serious snags in the existing accelerator model as it applies to agrifood startups.
“The principle of applying a set process and curriculum to an entrepreneur in [such a broad sector] requires you to create an average position – and that requires you to undermine the best, and probably doesn’t serve the weakest players either,” he told AFN.
“It’s just an average marginalization of advice that I don’t think works. It needs to be at the individual business’s pace.”
Ward previously co-founded what he describes as the world’s first accelerator for food and drink products — the Grocery Accelerator, which last year rebranded to Mission Ventures — in London in 2013.
ForwardFood.Tech is his new approach to startup support. He describes it as a “leadership hub,” aimed at fostering networks and connections.
To that end, ForwardFood.Tech doesn’t offer any pitch day prizes or rankings. Shifting away from a competitive environment to a collaborative one is a key part of its model. Startups are encouraged to mentor one another, rather than keeping their inner workings under lock and key.
“The more help that a startup needs, the more there becomes a dependency around the business. What we are doing here is much more about self-determination,” Ward said.
“There’s no prize at the end. There’s no motive for that. It’s the actual benefit of cross-pollination of ideas and developing a collective together. It’s about collaboration, not competition. Your prize is your place in the program.”
Like traditional accelerators, the concept is still very much geared towards testing and tweaking business ideas; and despite the lack of a demo day, fundraising is still a key focus, with FutureFood.Tech offering one-to-one coaching sessions covering everything from winning over investors to perfecting pitch decks.
But instead of requiring participants to follow a specific track, each team is allowed to explore whichever ideas or issues it sees as most important for its own objectives.
“The reason accelerators were created was to find an efficient way to try and aggregate innovative businesses. It was a way to avoid the cost of one-to-one teacher education,” Ward said.
“Our job is not to teach them things – it is to enable them to think for themselves, at their own pace.”
A counseling group for startups
The model consists of five ‘leadership hubs’ arranged by geography: Europe, Africa, South America, North America, and Asia Pacific. Each hosts a free, online peer-to-peer network which accepts founders, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders across agtech and foodtech as members.
These participants attend a two-hour online meeting every month for six months. The goal of these meetings is to engage and discuss as a group. Each founder also has a chance to share their ideas and the challenges they are facing with the group and receive collaborative feedback.
There are also monthly hour-long speaker sessions featuring industry leaders.
“It’s a hybrid process. It’s not really a program. In fact, we’re trying to avoid that title,” Ward said. “It’s almost like a counseling group for businesses.”
The selection process is competitive. To join, a startup must be post-seed funding, in revenue, and aiming to scale globally.
“We’re also looking for a desire to share and learn from each other, and openness. The way we start the program is a rapport-building exercise that is more to do with them as an individual outside of any business context,” Ward said.
Some of FutureFood.Tech’s alumni include Irish livestock supply chain platform StrongBó, US microalgae manufacturer TrueAlgae, UK food waste mitigator It’s Fresh, and Indian food quality monitoring firm Intello Labs. [Disclosure: Intello Labs is also a graduate of the GROW Impact Accelerator, which is backed by AFN‘s parent company, AgFunder.]
This new model is not immune to the challenges faced by more traditionally structured accelerator programs.
“To be honest, self-awareness is a problem. On the one hand, there is imposter syndrome where people don’t think they’re good enough. Some people have the opposite problem,” Ward said.
“The other problem is that people get into pitch mode and cannot stop. It’s almost like an addiction. They tell you everything that is brilliant, while there’s a whole lot of bad stuff they’re hiding. We cannot move forward without knowing what that is.”