One thing that I’ve learned over the last years is that startups really can succeed. The three friends that have nothing but a crazy idea, a bold vision and perhaps a lousy pitch deck today, can actually turn out to have changed industries, consumer behaviors and consequently even societies in ten years from now.
Obviously I knew this on a theoretical, conceptual, level earlier too, but just as the phenomenon in sports psychology where an athlete gets to train with the more senior athletes who are competing, and perhaps even winning, in the Olympics — it’s not until you see it you that you actually understand it. It’s the point when you realize that even your superheroes, despite all their talent, hard work, sacrifices and relentless dedication, are after all just humans.
And when one really takes in and acknowledges that startups actually might succeed with the boldest version of their vision; the end state in which they’ve succeeded becomes critical. Those friends naively claiming today that they will disrupt an industry — what will the world look like if they actually do? What industry will they have transformed, how many peoples lives will they have affected and how? Have they created more good than harm? Were there unanticipated side effects? Many startups that were almost unanimously embraced and cherished only a few years ago are now being examined in a new light. To what degree has a startup like Airbnb contributed to the housing crises evident in many large cities globally? What responsibility does Facebook have for the outcome of world-changing elections? Twitter?
No matter the vision and the area, it takes blood, sweat and tears to build startups. And hours, mounting up to years and years. And of course capital, oftentimes almost ungraspable amounts of capital. Taking all of that into account, what’s the alternative cost of the next successful ad platform startup? What could 50 hard-working intelligent individuals currently building the next e-commerce company accomplish if they picked a truly meaningful problem to focus on?
These are questions and reasonings about the startup world that I’ve been contemplating intensely over the last few years. I’ve always been fascinated with somewhat existential questions, and am deeply interested in what truly motivates people. But for a long time I’ve focused more on other peoples’ motivation than my own. For myself I’ve always started with The What. I’ve focused on doing what has provided the steepest learning curve, the most thrilling rides and the most exciting environment. This has provided me with many experiences, relationships and learnings for which I’m extremely grateful. But when I took some time off to think about my next step last year I knew that this time I needed to start with The Why.
When I started sharing these thoughts and feelings with an old angel investor of mine, Erik Byrenius, it turned out that he had been brooding over similar questions for some time, and that our hearts and minds were in sync. We both had a fundamentally optimistic view on startups and the positive affect they can have on the world, but we were also mindful of how few of them that actually strive towards a truly meaningful end state. And most importantly, we both wanted to commit our own time and energy to helping those who actually do.
In parallell to these reasonings about the startup world, I, just as many others, have had a doomsday feeling growing stronger due to the evident climate and environmental crisis and the consequences it will cause, and to some degree already has caused, on the world. I’m by no means any climate saint, no activist, no scientist — I sometimes buy things I don’t actually need, I take really long and warm showers and I’ve been flying between SF and Stockholm, and before that between London and Stockholm, more times than I could count. But the evidence is clear; if we continue with business as usual, we’re pretty much doomed.
So I knew that I wanted to focus on an area that contributed to solving problems related to the climate and environment. But in order to really have an impact, me and Erik decided that we needed to identify a more narrow space than a challenge so broad and complex as “the climate”.
When we started researching and comparing different areas, all angles and roads led us to food and agriculture. Food systems contribute 21% to 37% of global greenhouse gases, and are significant contributors to deforestation, biodiversity loss and declining water tables among other problems. Food systems are really the sum of hundreds, if not thousands, of components in a machinery where likely most components will need to be altered in the strive to mitigate climate changes and environmental problems.
The need for such dramatic and rapid change across so many different areas of the value-chain puts startups at an extreme advantage; the ability to move fast and identify new solutions to old problems will be critical. There are certain areas where startups have historically proven particularly successful compared to established companies, including changing consumer behaviors, building and scaling data-driven solutions, and launching and testing green-field solutions and innovations.
Another aspect of the food sector that dramatically differs from the other sectors we reviewed was that climate is only one of several critical challenges that we need to solve. At the same time as a privileged western world is seeing increasing health problems such as obesity and diabetes from having too much access to food, especially unhealthy food, hundreds of millions of people are still going to bed hungry.
The good thing is that not only these problems, but also the corresponding solutions, to some degree are linked to one-another. To simplify: if we can find better ways of reducing food waste, shifting to more climate friendly diets and producing and distributing food globally, not only will we help the planet, we will also decrease health problems and food poverty.
That’s why me and Erik are committed to accelerating high-impact food and agriculture startups. The exact What is still work in progress as we’re continuously learning more about what the landscape needs. The 0.1 version is however that we’re investing small tickets in early stage startups in the space, focused on meaningful problems.
See more at Trellis Road or sign up for our monthly newsletter. Do you have input about what the ecosystem needs? Are you building a startup in the space? Are you considering starting or joining a startup in the space? Please reach out at email@example.com, I’d love to talk you.