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Tess O'Mara, Vivid Machines Director of Partnerships, pitches the company's business plan at the 2022 Grow-NY Competition in Upstate NY. Credit: Allison Usavage

Network, funding and market: How 3 female-led agrifoodtech startups benefitted from the Grow-NY effect

May 18, 2023

“We have less network, especially in venture capital and banking, or in one sentence: less access to financial sources. That is the biggest challenge as a woman.”

Yael Alter, co-founder and CEO of Soos Technology, an animal agtech company from Israel, reflects on the challenges of being a woman in tech and agrifood.

Soos Technology was the 2019 top winner of the Grow-NY Food and Agriculture Competition from Cornell University, which is now in its fifth year. The business competition identifies, supports, and funds the top food, beverage, and agriculture innovations across the globe and includes a $1 million grand prize out of $3 million in total prizes, mentorship, training, and business development support. 

For 2021 Grow-NY top prize winners Trish Thomas and Nichole Wilson, co-founders of Every Body Eat – an allergen-free snacking company – the advice to other women is to always ask for what you want.

“Fearless asking unlocks everything. Ninety percent of things don’t happen because people don’t ‘ask’ … for the sale, the investment, the order, the tour, the help. Don’t spend your time thinking, spend it asking,” they said.

While Jenny Lemieux, founder of crop diagnostic ag AI company Vivid Machines – a 2022 winner – has not felt especially challenged being a woman in agrifoodtech; the biggest impact she felt from participating in the Grow-NY competition was the strong network she built as a result.

Grow-NY is now open for applications, which will be accepted through June 15, 2023. Find out more and apply here.

We caught up with these women to find out more about their experiences as agrifoodtech entrepreneurs and graduates of the Grow-NY competition.

Why was the Grow-NY competition relevant and of interest to you and your company?

Trish Thomas and Nichole Wilson (TT and NW): There is no way we could have predicted how participating in Grow-NY would positively impact our lives and our business. Through the Grow-NY network, we have met new investors, suppliers, mentors, future board members, and many, many people we now count as friends and trusted business advisors.

Jenny Lemieux (JL): New York is the second largest apple-growing state in the U.S., and we had a few trial growers in the area, so we wanted to expand our presence in the region. When we heard about the Grow-NY competition and the community connections, mentoring and doors that the program could open for us, we were inspired to apply. We are also looking to expand our technology into other fruit. Grapes are on our radar, so New York State was a natural fit.

Yael Alter (YA): It was the most relevant competition that we have participated in. The competition is focusing only on food and agtech and Soos is a food tech and agtech company. We are using an agricultural process – hatching eggs to increase food productivity.

What impact did participating in Grow-NY have on your company in the aftermath?

TT and NW: Grow-NY led to our partnership with Bozza Pasta, a local company in Rochester. Michael and Marisa Bozza are amazing partners. Together, we are going to unleash some unexpected deliciousness next year, and dinner just got a whole lot easier for everybody to eat together, regardless of dietary restrictions or preferences.  

JL: The contacts, mentoring, and relationships that we built have really supported our growth in the area, helping us bring awareness to new customers, research partners, and new hires.  We found the agtech ecosystem to be very supportive, and everyone that we met with was eager to help connect us and help us grow.  It’s been so productive; we’ve elected to set up a U.S. subsidiary with an office in Rochester for our New York-based staff. 

YA: Exposure to the American market, raising funds from local VC and academic research with Syracuse University have had a great impact on my company.

How has your company progressed since Grow-NY?

TT and NW: Our monthly sales are 400x what they were when we were on stage at the Grow-NY Summit in 2021. We have won the Midwest Supplier of the Year for Whole Foods Market (2021), and been invited to participate in highly competitive accelerator programs including Mondelēz CoLab, Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator, PeaPod Digital Labs Private Brand Supplier Diversity Program, and our brand has been selected as a Nexty finalist at Expo West.

We are the No. 1 allergen-free cracker brand, and Every Body Eat® Cheese-less is the No. 1 vegan cheese cracker at Whole Foods Market and Sprouts.

JL: Since Grow-NY, we moved from trials to bringing on customers from coast-to-coast across North America, recruited and hired field staff across North America to support our efforts, and deployed over 20 of our Vivid XV systems!

YA: We’ve increased from one pilot that we had in Italy to another three pilots with big players in the poultry industry. We have raised an additional $8 million in funding, and with support of Syracuse we developed a unique, accurate and fast chip method of DNA tests to thousands of chicks.

What are the main challenges you experience as a woman working in agrifoodtech?

TT and NW: In the U.S., there is a shortage of food processing that is free from risks of cross-contact with the top 14 allergens – the EU/global “standard” – and even the top nine allergens – the U.S. standard. And, food that is free from allergens can cost up to 400% more than other food because there are no economies of scale and no scalable manufacturing. So entrepreneurs have to choose: Do they create products that eliminate the risks of cross-contact with allergens (a major pain point for their core consumers)? Or do they use a co-packer that still poses risks?

Trust with consumers, retailers, and our team is everything. From the beginning, we knew we would have to build our own allergen-free supply chain, which has taken longer and been much more expensive than trying to scale using a contract manufacturer.

In 2019, we aimed to raise $5 million to build scalable production. I can’t help but wonder if men with the same experience as our founding team would have had as much trouble? 

JL: We’ve been extremely lucky with our partners, customers, and talent.  The issues I come up against are those any founder faces; the challenges of raising capital, recruiting great talent, managing runway, and ensuring product market fit. My experience has been that growers work with people based on values such as work ethic and integrity and that gender hasn’t been a factor. On the investment side, it was not an easy process, but I can’t objectively say that it had to do with being a woman. That being said, we’re very happy to have had the BDC Thrive Venture Fund (investing in women-led companies) lead our round.

YL: We have less network, especially with VC, banking, or in one sentence: Less access to financial sources. That is the biggest challenge as a woman.

What advice would you give to other women entrepreneurs?

TT and NW: Fearless asking unlocks everything. Ninety percent of things don’t happen because people don’t “ask” … for the sale, the investment, the order, the tour, the help. People don’t ask for help because they fear being a bother or a burden. For any entrepreneur, especially a woman or person of color, asking is the unlocking of the opportunity to navigate a difficult conversation, manage through adversity, reframe failure, and build the stakeholder networks of support (for ourselves and our businesses). Don’t spend your time thinking, spend it asking.

JL: It’s not easy being a founder when you worry about neglecting family. I think one of the best things has been involving my family in the process of building Vivid Machines. For example, my 14-year-old son has traveled with me to some of my pitches, has been out to test the Vivid XV with me in orchards, drops by the office on occasion to help, and we often talk about the challenges of building a company. He’s really engaged in the journey, and it’s been really fun talking with him about it as we both learn. Agriculture is often a family business – take advantage of that to help bring balance.

YL: Don’t be afraid to fail; the worst that can happen is that you will succeed.


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