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thought for food

Why the Thought For Food Challenge Embraces Controversy

April 27, 2018

Thought For Food (TFF) is a non-profit competition and an acceleration program that takes entrepreneurs on earlier than most – in the first moments of their ideas. The annual competition event and eight-week accelerator program is designed to discover promising new ideas for feeding the growing global population in a more sustainable way.

The 2018 competition (The TFF Challenge) will close applications on May 4 after which 10 finalist teams will be selected from thousands of entries from around the world to compete for the chance to win up to $25,000 in cash grants and a trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the TFF Summit.

We caught up with TFF founder and CEO Christine Gould to find out how this annual event produces real businesses that go on to raise real funding. According to Gould, at least 40 startups in the area of nutrition, synthetic biology, vertical farming, logistics, new proteins, big data, and tech for smallholders have started at TFF’s events and gone on to raise millions of dollars at the seed stage since its founding in 2015. 

Why is the Thought For Food Summit moving out of Europe this year to South America?

We’re a small team at TFF and we’ve always been based in Europe. There are so many great, cool cities here that we’ve leveraged — Berlin and Lisbon have big startups ecosystems developing. But we are a global organization. We’re working in 140 countries with entrepreneurs at different levels. So we decided that if we really want to showcase ourselves as a global organization, we need to try something new and go global.

Where are we seeing hotspots of innovation? It’s certainly the emerging economies. We have a network of ambassadors and people who are part of the Thought of Food movement in Brazil, so that’s where we’re going in 2018 and we’re already scoping out 2019 and going to another part of the world, so we’re really taking advantage of this global community we’ve put together. And it allows us also to bring in diversity and flare into these global summits. Going to Rio allows us to tap into the incredible things they’re doing in agriculture and food innovation and give it a little bit of a local touch.

You are expanding the offering this year and starting the Thought For Food Academy. What led to that decision?

We are a nonprofit focused on engaging and empowering the next generation, and we work with some of the leading companies in the industry, showing them that there is this world of incredible change and innovation happening around them. We pull together the change-makers that are shaping this world and understand how their values are shifting, what they’re looking for from employers, how they’re innovating etc. And we make connections between industry and the next generation of innovators. We also realized that the biggest value that we deliver is in our education program— in the work that we do specifically with the leaders of the future, equipping them with the skills and the mindset that they need to thrive in the world. So we said, why don’t we build out our program to cater to them. Instead of focusing our efforts on trying to get corporates to come to our summit, let’s go all in with the people who benefit form it the most, which are the young people.

So we designed this academy program. It’s a summer school-type approach — although its winter in Brazil with an intense educational program. In the past, we offered an eight-week accelerator, one week of which was in person and we housed our TFF challenge finalist teams together. By the end of that week, they were best friends jamming on guitars, visiting each other in their respective countries after the summit. We said we want to make that experience for more people, so we’re selecting 200 people to take part in this program. We’re bringing thought leaders from industry, from design, from the DIY movement altogether to co-create solutions.

We’re getting into food and ag fundamentals. We’re also having all of the participants work on a real-life project that industry is bringing us. We’re going to reforest some land in Rio city, for example, and we’re going to work on some smallholder issues related to pesticide safety, and we’re looking forward to that. At what other conference do you have a pesticide company and permaculture agroforestry people together?

There is often a divide between technologists, farmers, environmentalists, and corporations. How do you discuss that dynamic with your young entrepreneurs?

One of my favorite conversations that I happened to stumble upon at Thought for Food was a group of people talking about the future of meat. We had cattle farmers from Nebraska, talking with nomadic pastoralists from Uganda, talking with a vegan from India, and a biologist from San Francisco who was really interested in cultured meat. Together they were talking about all the different protein futures that were possible. At TFF we create a platform for these kinds of conversations to happen and we embrace controversy. But what unites us is driving toward a solution and not fighting for a particular point of view.

Another example of this is around GMOs. We embrace real discussion of this topic. I would say, by and large, the TFF community tends to be pro-science and thereby have an open mind to GM crops. But they have real questions about how this technology has been introduced and the intellectual property around it, so we create forum for them to have those types of discussions and then also to talk to companies like Syngenta about where their concerns are and what ideas they have about how that technology could become more accepted by society.

It’s difficult, but it’s something we’ve been able to manage with an approach that is based on openness, sharing, and collaboration over competition and by saying that we’re not here to fight for a particular agenda, we’re here to bring a community together.

There has been a downward trend in seed stage funding globally over the past few years. As you take responsibility for so many young entrepreneurs, how do you think about that and what do you tell them?

We grapple with it every day because not only are we trying to fight against the tide of declining seed stage investment, we have a trifecta of challenges. You talk to an investor about early-stage companies, developed by young people, from developing countries … they run.

We’ve successfully created and helped to launch 40 companies that have gone on to launch seed stage investment and what we also do is work with different types of investors — impact investors and high net-worth individuals that are really focused on this specific space. In some ways, we are an accelerator because we have a very hands-on approach to accelerating ideas, but the difference is that we actually help to create those ideas too. A lot of those companies that you see coming out of TFF — they started those ideas because of the TFF Challenge. We have countless stories of groups that have gone on to raise millions of dollars in seed investment because the challenge was presented to them, they came up with an idea and went through our Design Thinking Lab and went through our accelerator program and have changed the course of their lives.

We think that a good idea and good execution will continue to attract investments and we fight really hard to get the attention of investors and other accelerators.

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