Brian Frank of FTW Ventures on the Future of Food Tech
Brian Frank is the Founder and General Partner at Food for Thought Worldwide (FTW) Ventures, an early-stage venture fund investing in breakthrough hardware, software and biotech solutions for the massive, worldwide Food System. Brian has invested in high-growth startups including Square Roots, Spoiler Alert, Nomiku, Proper Foods and Geltor. Brian also serves as an advisor to Teforia, Philz Coffee, and Dishcraft Robotics. He acts as a mentor for companies in his extensive investor and accelerator network, at places such as Lemnos Labs, IndieBio, HAX and Food-X.
In a recent Food Innovation Circle guest speaker session, Brian shared with us how he transitioned from a technology product guy to a food tech investor, where he sees this industry going, and his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
I know you have been a long-time product guy. Can you tell us about your past experience and what led you to the world of investment?
When I was in college in the mid-90s I was really into computers. I went to Cornell University for the computer science major, but I learned very quickly that I hate programming. The thing I was very into was learning how technology was going to change people’s lives. I ended up finding my way into product management, which is a beautiful blend of technology and human behavior. In my senior year, I spent almost 40-hour doing my first startup, leading to an online calendar product which was sold to Microsoft.
I moved on from the startup but the theme of my career has always been, how can I be the most cutting edge of the technology? In the 1990s it was the web world. In the 2000s it was the mobile world. In the early 2010s, it was the social media. Most recently it was artificial intelligence and machine learning.
After doing product management for 20 years, I felt I am ready to try something else, and help the next generation of entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.
Launching products is not exciting anymore for me. I found there are so many cool and exciting things going on and I want to turn that into something. Being an investor is more of a natural transition for me and I felt my operational experience will be useful in the investment world.
Why did you pick the food sector?
The story is, I moved out to the Bay Area in 2000 and joined one of the rising startups. In fact, the founding team was the team that built MacIntosh and you would see Steve Jobs walking around the office. However, we raised 30 million and returned zero of it. I had my first massive startup failure. I was out of the job and walking around the Palo Alto at the time. I walked into a café that served wine and asked if they needed someone to run their wine program. They tested my wine knowledge which I gained at Cornell University and hired me. One year later I was the Wine Director of the café. I then also did some consulting work in the food and wine sector and helped my friend launch a liquor brand. So I really got to see the food business from the ground up and it was my passion from very early on.
Food innovation has been a new buzz word in many cities and you see more incubators and capitals focusing on food. What’s your thought on this trend?
People really care about what they put into their bodies. Beyond convenience and quality, we do care about how our food is being produced. This has drastically changed over the last 5 years. I grew up eating fast food. My friends know that Chick-Fil-A is my favorite food.
However, you will also see a trend which is not so good that everything has be “techified”. Juicero is a good example which believes that juice needs to have an advanced technology solution. I admire Doug (Juicero’s founder) went above and beyond to find that solution, but I believe it was overly capitalized.
Lastly, there is also a lack of understanding of the economies of the food business. For example, I like to call Blue Apron a logistics company rather than a food company. That introduces a lot of complexities of building a model that can make money. As an investor, I will be very cautious about all the elements go into building a meal kit delivery service. With that being said, I still do believe meal kit as a new engaging way to inspire people to cook at home, we just need to pay more attention to the unit cost and upcoming competition that will be created by the Amazon and Whole Foods acquisition.
You have talked about some of the negatives, what about opportunities in the food tech space?
Food tech is more than meal kits delivery and juice machines (laugh), and what excites me is the white space. I think people spend too much time thinking about the cooking gadgets and consumer technologies, but forget that there are so many things going on from the farms, to the infrastructure, to consumer services. In agriculture, we are going through a massive shift in how our food is being produced. Take California for example, our farmland is running out, labor cost is going up and labor is short. We have an immigration policy that believes trumps being able to produce our food. The people that are growing our food are being pushed out from our country. So what I have been focusing on? Agriculture robotics, automation, and simplification.
For example, when we can reduce the need for precious resources, like water, we can save farmers money, which ultimately will have downstream impact to the cost of our food.
I am also very excited about solutions to end food waste. It is a billion-dollar opportunity. As some of you may know, we waste about 30 to 40 percent food in our system. So we are working with a fantastic company called Spoiler Alert, technology platform that helps food business to recover value from unsold inventory.
As an investor, you have to absorb different information very quickly every day. What’s a typical day looks like for you?
I probably talk to 2 startups a day that are usually referred to me. We typically have a checklist including questions like why they are doing this, how they are doing it, early milestones or prospects.
The other half of my day is spent on talking to people that are going to give me the money. Venture capitalists don’t really invest their own money. We help wealthy individuals, family offices and large corporations invest in promising, early-stage startups. Both fundraising and investing have their own challenges.
I also attend interesting events once a month. I will be speaking at The Smart Kitchen Summit, the Restaurant Innovation Summit and Food Loves Tech in October and November for instance.
What are you looking for in a startup?
The first thing I always ask is, why you?
I am looking for unique things that you figured out that no one else can figure out. I am looking for the passion, hunger, and eagerness in this space.
The second part is the market and the solution. How viable is the solution and how big is the market? Finally, I would always like to talk to your customers, your investors and other people that know you. I call this a social proof. It helps us confirm that there is a halo effect surrounding you and that if we throw fuel on the fire, it will explode. I also like entrepreneurs that will listen and take actions.
Does age or industry experience matter?
I don’t think age or industry experiences are predictors of whether the startup is going to be successful. I think what matter is: can you identify a problem? Can you find out a solution that people don’t know? Can you go after the solution and execute it extremely well? There is a huge gap between an idea and execution, so what I am really looking for is relentless execution.
What’s your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Know what you are good at and not good at. In meetings, if you don’t know something, just be very honest and say you will get more information. Don’t fake an answer because investor can smell that a mile away. Tell what you don’t know, and I am OK with that. What I will ask you for is, how do you go get that information? You can also say, I don’t know but I will get back to you in one week. Get yourselves some time and breathing room.
I think very often times entrepreneurs forget that investors are there to help them, and the pitch meetings don’t run like Shark Tank.
Thanks to our community partner Kitchen Town Learning Lab for sponsoring the wonderful location!