Brian Frank is a leading foodtech entrepreneur and investor. He’s known, among other high-profile projects, for his work with FOOD-X food start-up accelerator, SXSW’s “Future of Food” pavilion and Kickstarter sous-vide superstar project Nomiku. He’s also a curatorial advisor for our Food Loves Tech (FLT) event coming up on June 10-12 (more info and tickets here). We caught up with Brian to learn more about how he got into food tech and what compels him to continue his work in the space,
Edible Manhattan: Tell me more about your background.
Brian Frank: I’m a product manager by trade. That means I take various inputs from consumers, challenges from businesses and emerging trends to synthesize a strategy to build the best products for a given market. Altogether I’ve spent almost 20 years in consumer technology growing start-ups.
One little known fact is in-between tech jobs, I spent three years in the food and beverage industry working for the Francis Ford Coppola restaurant division and then in the wine and beverage industry! I’d always had what you might call a real passion for good food and wine and trusted that one day my experience building early-stage tech companies and interest in the food industry would eventually collide….
EM: So what precipitated the move into food tech?
BF: When my latest start-up was acquired in 2015, I took the opportunity to step back and reflect on what was next in my career. Several friends were reaching out and asking me for help with their venture-backed start-ups. There was this consistent theme; they were all in the burgeoning foodtech space!
With a motivation to find a way to put my dent on the world by improving the food system, I began mentoring, advising and investing in early-stage foodtech companies. That led me to six months of exploration. I started with three simple hypotheses:
- We all have to eat;
- The food industry may be the last sector in need of technical modernization;
- There’s opportunity for new ideas to have a significant impact on the industry because tastes are changing.
I figured that last opportunity was based on a shift-change in people’s attitudes toward healthy and natural products, but it was more than that. We have huge challenges to overcome in terms of food safety, obesity and waste, for example. Finally, many adjunct areas can be improved when we fix our food system, from the economics to the health of our populous, even down to reversing negative environmental impacts from food production.
EM: How did you go from being a first-time foodtech entrepreneur to being directly involved in Nomiku and some other well-known innovation projects?
BF: I made my first investment in Nomiku, which has popularized sous vide as a method to cook meats, fish and other foods at home using a technique that’s already popular in almost every high-end restaurant kitchen. Since then, I’ve gone on to invest in two other companies improving the quality and access to good food: Proper Food and Gelzen.
EM: It sounds as if you’ve accomplished a lot in the foodtech space already! What’s next on the cards for 2016?
BF: I’m taking a systematic approach to improving the food system, or what I call “from creation to consumption.” I want to foster better companies that build the right technology and responsibly apply good science to solve many of our biggest challenges around feeding people good food. Here are some of the goals I’m focused on right now:
- Unlocking the power of natural processes to create sustainable, high-quality food. For example, Clara Foods is using fermentation to create the proteins of egg whites.
- Automation through sensing equipment and robotics to monitor and optimize food production. I want to provide the most safe, healthy and economically resilient systems, like 6Sensor Labs, which is creating handheld gluten sensors that can detect contamination on food production lines where food is meant to be kept gluten-free.
- Improving food service. How can we make technology more effective for both small-to-medium restaurants and retailers and their larger counterparts? For example, I love how Proper Food is promoting fast, healthy grab-and-go food that’s better than either fast food or existing convenience stores.
- Innovations for home cooking. Put simply, when we cook at home with good products, we can live healthier lives. Michael Pollan is an inspiration.
- Personalized diets and providing people the optimal nutrition at the right times in their lives to stave off health-related issues. Imagine if the sensing equipment we carry every day (our cell phones or smart watches) could be paired with personalized data like our DNA sequences or microbiome to create actionable profiles.
EM: Wow, a ton of exciting new innovations to come! Why do you think the food sector is so ripe for change in particular?
BF: My family was very much into good food, I studied wine in college and am connected to a lot of great people in the Bay Area. Sadly, what I’ve seen food reduced to in the last 10 years has made me very sad: over-processed food substances that offer very little in terms of nutrition, bolstered by a system that does not see the need to improve because it’s making plenty of money.
On top of that, what I saw when I was working directly in food was an antiquated system that resembles the car industry of the early 1900s. It’s plagued by traditional processes that don’t yield good results, a lack of automation and data analytics to improve the quality, safety and accessibility of our food. Each of those factors result in homogeneous, bland products being sold to the consumer.
EM: Sounds like you’re pretty critical of the food system as is?
BF: Well, on the flip-side, I’ve seen how good food has the potential to bring people together in a community. It can help stave off illnesses and make us healthier individuals. Eating food is also one of the few accessible pleasures that everyone on the planet gets the ability to participate in (or should be able to participate in) every single day. So with our food tastes as a nation moving toward healthier, natural and sustainable products and at a time when there’s a push toward better production and distribution, it felt like it was my duty to jump in and bring my talents to bear. When we work to reinvent our food system, we can see huge economic outcomes and opportunities to exact world-positive change for every human on the planet.
EM: Can you tell me more about what you see happening at the intersection of food and tech today that’s driving all these changes?
BF: Food and tech are colliding on many different fronts. From the scientific breakthroughs accelerating our natural world to home appliances that are giving home cooks “super powers” to make better food in their home kitchens, technology is moving from being novel to being truly useful. At the same time there are all these companies using technology to improve the logistics of delivering food to homes and offices, which is just one aspect that needs to be addressed. For me personally, I prefer to focus on what’s happening in new areas where there are still radical improvements to be made to the economics, quality and accessibility of food.
EM: What are the benefits these changes could bring to the consumer and business world?
BF: The benefits are numerous. We have the potential for science and technology to transform traditional methods of producing, managing and cooking food into more simple, healthier and expedient ways to put good food on the table. There are also many associated benefits when we feed people good food. For example, our health care costs should decline as less people are starving or becoming obese. Then there’s the environmental toll of our current food system that could start to be reversed. We can foster more healthy, sustainable land management. And we shouldn’t deplete our precious natural resources as quickly when we find more replenishable ways of producing food for a modern world.
EM: Are there any risks to all that?
BF: There are fears of the unintended consequences of applying science and technology to the problem. That’s why the word “responsible” is key to the innovations I’m looking to foster. We must perform the right analysis on the impacts to making change and work with food experts to move in the right direction. Bringing technology and food leaders together, we can build confidence in what we’re doing and ensure that’s the right thing for nature and the health of our society as a whole.
EM: In terms of bringing food and tech leaders together, do you think those communities are aware of a shift toward reinventing the food system?
BF: Very much so, and I think many are championing it. Look at the demand for healthy, natural foods in our stores and restaurants—it’s a movement that the major food companies can’t ignore. They’re buying up companies or developing new products to address this trend. For example Campbell’s recently announced a $125 million venture fund to accelerate the changes in their business and the food system as a whole.
EM: What’s the greatest factor motivating this change?
BF: There’s a huge push for transparency in our food system: knowing where our food came from, how it was handled and ultimately what ended up on our plate. Several companies, from Clear Labs (DNA analysis for food) and 6Sensor Labs are tackling across the whole ecosystem where food exists, from creation to consumption.
EM: What do you think will happen next?
BF: I only see it accelerating, as food becomes the biggest investment frontier—a multi-trillion dollar industry that impacts every human on the planet. And it has impact well beyond just putting food on the table; it makes up a huge portion of world GDP.
EM: How can consumers and existing businesses contribute to that same goal?
BF: We need more Gregor Mendels! That guy ushered in modern genetics by cross-breeding pea plants. We were stuck in our way of thinking that we just plant seeds, apply soil and water, and wait. He basically said, “Hold up, what if we took the best of what nature has given us and find ways to foster that?”
Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek is fond of saying: “What if we started over?” So, what if we did do things differently? To get there, I’d prefer to say: “How do we bring everything we know to bear on improving the system?” That means experimentation and attempts to develop fundamentally better processes, services and equipment. We can’t be bound by traditional thinking—that’s what limits our ability to find breakthroughs and innovation. That’s what science and technology are unlocking, helping give nature everything they need from light to the right soil microbiome to grow efficiently, to monitoring bacterial content on our food, to helping people make better choices about the food they should eat for their own, personalized diet.
EM: For those looking to innovate or grow, funding is still a big issue whether you’re in Silicon Valley or elsewhere. What’s motivated you to support crowd-funded projects?
BF: Crowdfunding is a tool that, when used correctly, can help accelerate your business. It doesn’t replace knowing the cost and time to build your product, marketing your product through other channels or having a strong, long-term product strategy though. It’s an added tool, but not a replacement to anything that exists though. Just remember, hardware is hard. We’ve seen several high-profile initiatives fail to deliver even when they’ve raised millions of dollars. The entrepreneurs in those cases didn’t adequately estimate how much money it would cost to bring their product to market, and that can have disastrous results.
EM: What’s your advice for a budding foodtech company?
BF: In terms of funding, my advice is if you have a good idea, recruit talent, build your business plan, market it and get people talking about your product. The crowdfunding marketplaces are just a way to add one more way for people to talk about you and spread your message for an early, enthusiastic audience.
When it comes to consumer packaged goods, there are a ton of ways to market your idea using Kickstarter or Indiegogo, then there’s CircleUp, Amazon Launchpad and others growing the number of food companies on their platform. There are also specific food platforms like Barnraiser helping small food producers reach an audience.
EM: What do you think of all these new marketing and funding options?
BF: It’s great because it means you have a channel to sell your product before you go to traditional retail and fight for very crowded shelf-space.
EM: Any advice for those looking to invest in a foodtech start-up as personal investors?
BF: The challenge is very few people know what successful foodtech companies look like these days. Do your diligence! Writing a check is easy, knowing why you’re writing that check is hard. Most personal investments I see from part-time investors are because they “think that produce should exist!” That’s one perspective to take into account, but it’s very focused on you-as-the-consumer. Ask yourself some other questions:
- Can this team do what they’re saying they want to do? Always evaluate the team, and that’s the first thing early-stage investors always dig into.
- Do many people need this product or service? Taking yourself out of the equation is good because it makes you think about the bigger market for this business.
- Is it something no one else can easily replicate? Most businesses are about marketing and sales and they can survive for a while as they ride trends. The sustainable businesses have something that people can’t easily mimic, or if they do mimic, they have to use technology or the initial business’s platform.
EM: FOOD-X is based in New York. Are there any trends you see coming out of New York food/sustainability start-ups that differ from other places in the United States today?
BF: New York does more with what’s at hand, and [start-ups there] are incredibly innovative. We get spoiled on the West Coast; we’re so close to America’s salad bowl in Salinas and the Central Valley that we don’t have to do much. The food and tech scene in New York is much more “gritty” and down-to-earth. It’s people solving real-world, “right now” problems in innovative ways. In restaurants and food preparation, people like David Chang, Dan Barber and Wylie Dufresne are innovating in various ways.
[Each of these chefs is] creating new products using age-old methods; Chang and fermentation, Dan Barber’s high-end food-waste-fueled dinner to spark a discussion about food waste or pushing boundaries on what’s cuisine with molecular biology for example. You also have scientific innovators like Modern Meadow trying to culture meat and leather, which pushes a whole industry forward.
I’ve looked at many foodtech companies coming out of New York and they’re creating real value right now with local customers and connecting to a really tight-knit, community-driven consumer base. It’s really refreshing to see these companies stand in stark comparison to some of our moonshot companies here in Silicon Valley!
EM: What are the best ways for consumers or businesses based in New York to explore and participate in what you’re doing?
BF: I travel to New York at least once a quarter to keep up with what’s going on in the different boroughs and speak with the leading experts on food tech in the city. If you’re doing something interesting at the intersection of food and technology, inevitably, I’ll find you!
EM: Are there any particular projects or successful case studies linked to the New York region you could showcase?
BF: I’m an East Coaster by birth. Hailing from just outside Philadelphia, I highly respect the restaurateurs and farmers of the New York and greater Hudson Valley region that have been feeding me amazing food for most of my life!