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The Unified Theory of Food Investing for Tech VCs

One of the aspects of running a venture fund that I am most excited about is turning over rocks that other VCs might not. I'm less likely to get excited about the next big photo sharing app coming out of YC, and more into going "where no VC has gone before."

Whatever I do, it needs to be in big enough spaces. What are the biggest opportunities?  To be really basic about it, everyone on the planet eats, sleeps, and poops--so you could start there. I don't think that there's much of an investable ecosystem around poop unless you're doing biofuels or chemicals around environmental remediation. Cross that off for most non-scientific tech VCs.

What about sleep? Well, I actually think this is a major category. It's absolutely no surprise to me that Sleep Cycle is one of the top paid apps. Everyone needs more sleep, and they're spending billions in drugs and expensive mattresses to get it. I'd love to see more done here.

What about food?

Well, there's no shortage of apps dedicated to helping me find the best restaurant, but that pretty much only covers city dwellers that don't have kids--a small percentage of the world in the grand scheme of things as opposed to just "people who eat."

So how do you get into all other aspects of our eating of you're looking for a monster play?

The category is called food systems and it is huge. The industries involved in getting food literally from farm to table is enormous--bigger than most areas tech VCs are investing in now.  One of the key trends in food systems?  It's actually quite simple:

The distance from where my food is grown to where I eat it must shrink.

That's kind of it in a nutshell.  We simply can no longer afford to centralize all our farming to just a few overplanted areas, depleating the soil of nutrients, and then shipping that vacous food all over the world at a huge carbon footprint expense.  Even things like increasing yield are most applicable to difficult to farm areas that are nearer to lots of people. 

There will undoubtedly not be a single solution, but many, enabling everyone, in the next five years, to decrease their farm to table distance.  We simply have to.  It's not clear that we can reverse climate change, but we can't have water creeping up our shores a foot in the next decade or two.

That shift towards more local sourcing is going to happen in a number of ways.  CSAs and other forms of member organizations will enable local farms to create more economically viable models.  That's why Sherbrooke and Benchmark just put $8mm into Farmingo, to support these food communities via social software.  Plovgh is working on something similar as well.

Even if you're not a part of a food community, you could be buying a lot more local than you think.  Brightfarms, which got $4mm in venture capital, sets up indoor farms inside your local supermarket or on rooftops.  They're building the largest rooftop farm right here in Brooklyn.

What about in your own backyard?  BKFarmyards will let you trade your backyard space for a share in a local CSA happening on your own property which they teach you how to farm.

Windowfarms will put the power of growing--and connecting to a social community of 40,000 strong--right in your home.  Their indoor food systems had a hugely successful Kickstarter and will top those sales before the year is out--and that's even before their social community has even hit its 1.0 version.  I like to think of Windowfarms as "Makerbot for food", because you've got a physical object that makes things, connected to an information sharing community.

Will any of these models be the single solution to our food sourcing issues?  No. 

Will they all be part of a movement to get a lot more conscious about our own ecological footprints, where our food comes from, and it's quality?  Absolutely. 

This is a titanic shift--think PC, mobile...  like, landscape changing, literally.  Think about what our urban landscapes will look like when we're striving to cover every inch of rooftop with something that grows--and what kinds of technologies, businesses and jobs that will create.

I think the key to getting tech investors over the hump on a lot of these opportunities is seeing them for what they are--not "food" investments, but just applied technology models--SaaS, Social Commerce, etc.  An investor in Farmingo is investing in commerce.  A Brightfarms investor is counting on economics and sales cycles that will look enterprisey.  Windowfarms?  It's not about the plants--it's about social commerce.  You buy a tower, connect it to a community, now others want it.  You grow dino kale and others see your progress with it, now other people want it, too.

I'd love to hear from more investors that see food systems as an opportunity or want to know more about it--or just people who are bored investing in yet another photo sharing app.

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