The Food+City Challenge Prize: The human element behind innovation

By Lauren Quinn Badell

When we talk about startup culture, we most often talk in terms of ideas or products. These ideas are often isolated from the people who generated them, ideas living in their own space, completely removed from any human element. We might use whatever that idea leads to, but those apps, services or even food products are just the tip of a much larger iceberg. Behind every innovation in the food world is a vast, palpable life that exists just underneath the surface, one that we rarely get to see.

At the Food+City Challenge Prize competition last weekend, this kind of humanity was on display. Entrepreneurs had the chance to explain their ideas, their history, their passion with not only hundreds of potential customers, but also their equally creative peers. You could feel a distinct pulse of not only competition, which is both expected and necessary at an event like this, but more surprisingly, a sense of connection and camaraderie.

From the start of the weekend, when the finalists were rehearsing their fast pitches for feedback on Friday, connections were forming. For some, the journey to get to Austin involved hours of international travel. For others, the road was not quite as long, but every person in the room was there because of a story that we had not yet heard, having traveled their own personal journey that happened to converge at the McCombs Atrium on February 6th.

Finalists getting feedback at the practice pitch

Finalists getting feedback at the practice pitch

Right from introductions, these stories began to emerge and then merge. Many of the finalists had not been acquainted with the others or their ideas, and as the weekend rolled on, many of them had started batting around ideas about how they might work together. Robobutcher and PiggyBank, which both operate in the meat space, were trading ideas about what a mutually beneficial partnership between them might look like. Numerous teams were seeking out Ashley Colpaart, who pioneered the idea behind The Food Corridor, because they could see how her program to connect food producers with commercial kitchen space might be used in their cities.

Many of the finalists said that the most important connections they made were with their mentors and the industry professionals who challenged their ideas and offered suggestions for improvement. Mokshika Sharma from Tastegraphy, a startup based in Austin, gained new insight about possible verticals and use-cases for their data after meeting with their mentor, Juan Estrella from Whole Foods Market. Blake Harvey and Ryan Woolsley from Regrub relayed a story about speaking with people who work and lobby for the black soldier fly, an integral part of their food-waste business model. Through those conversations, they learned just how corporate and political food waste management can be.

Dror Tamir from Steak TzarTzar told me how he got into the grasshopper business in the first place, about his business partner Chanan, whom he called the “insect magician” and who purportedly has the ability to talk to these creatures, understanding what they want and need. Chanan has spent the past five years consuming insects as his sole form of protein, and when I asked about his health, Dror gestured to a picture of him and laughingly pointed out in his thick Israeli accent, “Well, he’s the only one with hair!” He also made sure to let me know that they had recently discovered a new type of grasshopper, which they have called the Longhorn Grasshopper, particularly apropos considering the use of the University of Texas at Austin event space.

Tyler Frank from Garbage to Garden had stepped away from his booth when I walked by, but his mother happily talked about how he fell in love with food waste. They lived in the country when Tyler was a child, and all the food waste went into compost that was used in the family garden. Tyler was deeply affected by the lack of available composting options when he moved to the city. This juxtaposition inspired him to provide a service that many didn't even realize was missing.

Nearly every finalist and attendee I spoke with mentioned how the connections made during the event had a significant impact on their lives, both personally and professionally. Even those that didn’t “win” the competition walked away with a larger network of supporters, potential investors, and friends. While it doesn’t directly hit their bank account, it’s the kind of emotional and social investment that often lasts even longer.


Did you make a connection at the Food+City Challenge Prize?  Let us know by sharing your story in the comment section.