Rabobank’s Foodbytes aims to evolve alongside agtech market

Foodbytes was founded in 2015 as a pitch competition but the platform's alumni raised more $2.4bn in the last two years as it has evolved into a discovery space.

Alumni of Rabobank’s Foodbytes agtech program have attracted more than $2.4 billion over the past two years, as the platform has evolved from a start-up pitch competition into a private network linking start-ups with corporates and investors.

Across Rabobank’s three main umbrella groupings, foodtech claimed the largest share of investment into Foodbytes alumni over the past two years, attracting $1.57 billion. Agtech drew in $650 million and consumer product goods start-ups in the network attracted $400 million.

On a sectoral basis, supply-chain technology took the most at $800 million, which Rabobank attributed largely to pandemic- and war-related concerns.

European and Israeli companies account for 80 percent of capital raised for clean tech markets such as animal inputs and cellular ag, which raised a combined $600 million and was the sector with the second-highest source of funding for Rabobank’s alumni.

The third top category was AI and machine learning applications at $400 million, “as technology maturation drives lower implementation costs and as higher labor costs drive a push for automation,” the bank said.

Foodbytes platform director and North America head Nina Meijers told Agri Investor that the format of a pitch competition was well-suited to the agtech market’s overall stage of development when Foodbytes started in 2015 and many companies’ offerings were in earlier stages of development. Now that the market is more mature, she added, a stronger focus on more developed companies generally between the late Series A and Series B stages of development reflects how Foodbytes has tried to evolve along with the needs of the corporates and investors active in the program.

Meijers explained that while the program began with meetings between about 15 start-ups and just a few large corporate clients, Foodbytes has come to include 45 early-stage companies interacting continuously with up to 100 of Rabobank’s corporate clients through a more private, membership model.

Member organizations pay $10,000 annually to grant up to four employees access to an online platform that facilitates working-level collaboration among start-ups and corporates. The platform also includes access to exclusive Rabobank research on key investment themes, including robotics and automation, carbon awareness and last-mile logistics, among others.

“It’s not necessarily the pie in the sky, let’s get our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in 20 years,” said Meijers, who joined Rabobank as platform manager for food and ag innovation in 2017, according to her LinkedIn profile. “For many of them it’s: ‘Here are the pain points we have now, here is what we are looking to solve, how can we do that collaboratively with start-ups?’ This is the place to find that.”

Foodbytes members include General Mills-backed venture capital firm 301 Inc, Rabobank’s internal investment fund, multinational food company Barilla and chemical manufacturing corporation JM Huber Corporation, among others.

Trevor Sieck, an assistant vice-president and relationships manager for start-ups and food and ag innovation at Rabobank, told Agri Investor that consumer-facing corporates are under increasing pressure on issues like sustainability and labor, and this is changing their approach to collaboration. Echoing themes Rabobank explored in a research paper last year, Sieck said certain of Rabobank’s clients are opening up new avenues of collaboration as they invest in innovative areas of the food and ag supply chain.

“On the corporate venture capital side, [there is] a bit of a different perspective that we’ve shared and seen throughout the industry around buying in at an early stage – early investment [by large corporates and strategic stakeholders] is not necessarily a straight line towards acquisition; strategics that might be sharing a cap-table, for instance,” he said.  “These are all contributing factors for a different type of attitude that is more amenable to collaboration, which is central to what we are doing here.”