French Venture Capitalists Scour America For The ‘Google Of Food’

By Benny Evangelista
San Francisco Chronicle.

The way French venture capitalist Vincent Prêtet sees it, there are 7 billion people who need to eat every day — but technology has yet to disrupt the world’s food industry the way it has other businesses.

So Prêtet and his team completed a nine-city North American tour in San Francisco Thursday, searching for an early-stage food and beverage tech company that could become what he called “the Google of food.”

To help with that, Prêtet’s company, 33entrepreneurs, will make a $100,000 investment in each of three national winners from a series of elevator-pitch competitions that started June 8 in New York. 33entrepreneurs is a wine, food and tourism accelerator based in France’s wine capital of Bordeaux. Prêtet’s team has been crossing the country by private bus.

“The food industries are super traditional,” Prêtet said. “They haven’t been transformed by technology and digital yet.
“Think of the impact Google has had on ads; think of the impact Airbnb has on hotels.”

The 27 finalists selected from the nine competitions all have a chance for more exposure during two big international food and travel industry conventions this year, Bon Appétech in San Francisco and Phocuswright in Florida.

The funding and exposure was potentially huge for a startup like Chef Koochooloo, a Mountain View company developing a tech platform to educate children about cooking and eating healthier.

“Our main focus is to excite kids to try new foods, because American kids only eat hot dogs, chicken nuggets or pizza,” company founder Layla Sabourian-Tarwe said during her 10-minute elevator pitch.

Afterward, she said that companies mixing food and tech is a rising trend, but she has found it harder to interest Silicon Valley investors than if she ran a business-oriented software-as-a service company.

“In Silicon Valley, most of the investors have an interest in the next billion-dollar technology,” Sabourian-Tarwe said. “They aren’t really interested in helping kids eat better.”

Komal Ahmad, CEO of Feeding Forward, said her San Francisco startup wants to use technology to help solve the world’s hunger problem. Feeding Forward sought funds to expand its services, helping restaurants to send their unused food to organizations that feed the hungry.

“Food waste is ripe for disruption,” she said. “There is plenty of food that is wasted here in San Francisco that can also be used to feed these people.”

During its research in preparation for the contest, Prêtet said, his firm found about 3,200 North American startups involved in food, travel, wine and spirits. About 43 percent are in food and 24 percent in wine and spirits, and many headed by entrepreneurs like Ahmad who are motivated by global food shortages and environmental problems.

But of the $80 billion invested by venture capitalists last year, only about 13 percent went to food, travel and wine startups, he said. About 42 percent went to software companies.

And while tech apps like Yelp and OpenTable help diners find restaurants and make reservations, Prêtet believes the overall industry is ripe for an even more disruptive technology that hasn’t surfaced.

“This is part of the game, to be here to support them and to bring innovation to the table,” Prêtet said. “It’s not only to feed more people on the planet, but to keep the planet safe and comfortable to live on.”

One startup CEO who spoke and helped judge the competition was also celebrating a milestone as the event started. Payman Nejati’s San Francisco company, Handpick, started Smart Groceries, which delivers enough ingredients for a family to cook three meals economically.

Nejati said his company found a new way to look at cooking by compiling the food and recipes that people were posting every day on social media.

“We looked at 250 million user-generated food posts around the globe on social media,” he said. “And we started seeing trends into ingredient pairing that recipe sites haven’t even thought about.”

The recipes that Handpick offers are portioned in a way that’s designed to “use up everything” delivered, he said. “It’s all about reducing food waste.”

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