The current pandemic has put food safety and the weaknesses in our food supply chain at the center of many consumers’ minds. Although the financial decline that will surely come from the impact of Covid-19 is ultimately devastating, some agrifoodtech startups are well-poised to offer solutions.
“Generally, the public hasn’t considered the impact of a pandemic on the value chain. As we see things get really bad in North America people are starting to ask ‘how do I know who touched my food?’” Erik Westblom, co-founder and CEO of West Canada-based food safety data startup Provision Analytics, tells AFN. “Recently, Smithfield [the meat packer] had several of its staff test positive for Covid-19.”
Provision Analytics has just raised $3.2 million in private equity ($1.5 million) and grant ($1.7 million) funding to build out its digital tool for food safety and traceability. Included in its application is a custom form builder than can drag and drop new data such as employee temperatures and symptoms on the way in and out of the building so they can know who touched what.
Builders VC led the round followed by Canadian investors including food safety information source TrustBIX and individuals from startup program Creative Destruction Lab. Protein Industries Canada, a federal agtech supercluster, contributed the $1.7 million of additional grant financing as part of its initiative to accelerate analytics for the benefit of key national crops.
Provision Analytics’ software platform is called OneTrace and is intended to modernize the antiquated ways that data are collected, aggregated, and processed in the food supply chain. OneTrace processes the food data it receives through a graph database founded on the concepts pioneered by Google Search. The company applies machine learning to generate advanced reporting and traceability for the food industry, limiting the scope and cost of recalls.
After two pilots last Spring, the company signed its first enterprise clients in August and has been selling aggressively through Q4 of 2019, reports Westblom.
“We applied graph theory to food safety data capture to create a mechanism around correlating the data attributes that are collected. The long-term data vision of the company is to drive the ability to gain more insight around risks associated with different food categories like tomatoes, meat, and grains. How do they correlate and impact each other? We think there is a significant upside for the insurance and financial markets.”
When asked what graph theory is and how it serves as the heart of Provision Analytics’ offering, Westblom was hesitant to offer a layman’s explanation for fear of confusing the audience or giving away the recipe for his secret sauce. A brief internet search suggests that graph theory is indeed complex and better suited for a proper mathematician to explain. This Medium article offers some insight albeit with a dash of whiplash. Basically, it involves the study of graphs that are developed to model different relationships between objects. They don’t look like your usual bar graphs but shapes comprised of lines connecting to different dots, or nodes.
Via email, he explained that the easiest and most efficient method for architecting databases to model and map the insanely complex food system and its countless ingredients is through a graph database, which is extremely efficient in his view.
Move over blockchain
Westblom sees blockchain and QR codes as ill-suited to achieve the lofty task of tracking food production in the supply chain. He describes Provision Analytics’ app as 4,660 times faster than blockchain while posing much lower operating costs.
“Generally, if you say traceability. people think about the story of a product getting to a consumer, who was the person who grew it and why that farmer is great. But that doesn’t necessarily drive any value beyond high-level marketing. The real driver for traceability is taking data and correlating it.”
Traceability has become a growing priority for consumers who want to know as much as possible about the food they eat. The demand has led to a number of marketing efforts by big food companies including Vital Farms’ new program that shows footage of contract growers’ farms. The footage is updated twice a year raising questions about whether it constitutes honest to goodness traceability and transparency, or is better characterized as marketing.
Many startups are offering solutions for food safety and product traceability. For now, Westblom sees roughly 20 competitors swimming in the same lane, according to a deep dive analysis that the company performed. Food traceability solutions have become one of the hottest segments within agrifood tech. Last month, Singaporean startup DiMuto raised capital for its blockchain-based traceability tech, for example. And last year, microbe-based traceability product maker Carverr raised $1.9 million while Peter Thiel’s Breakout Ventures (and AgFunder!) invested in microbe-based traceability developer Phylagen’s $14 million Series A.
Ultimately, Provision Analytics is trying to become the Quickbooks for food safety for companies with under $500 million in revenue offering a low-cost solution. Although that narrows down the company’s mission to a degree, there is still the expansiveness of the food system and its endless food safety concerns to contend with.
“We get inquiries from seafood companies, beef companies, horticulture companies. We can’t be everything to everybody. That’s what really drives differences in the competitive offerings out there. Some focus on certain value chains or nodes within it,” he says. “We are really putting our focus on fresh produce and grains given that West Canada is one of the most prolific areas for high-quality grain production.