2012-04-27

A Silicon Valley-Style Incubator For Local Food

Scaling local food production is going to take more than more fertilizer and sweat. It’s going to take innovative business and tech ideas.

Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, the unofficial capital of the local food movement in the U.S, there is a shortage of local and sustainably sourced food. You can get it, sure, but it will cost you. In order for prices to go down, there have to be more businesses providing the products. What better place to churn out savvy food startups than in Silicon Valley, the place that spawns startups on a daily basis?

Local Food Lab, a food incubator that came out of Columbia Business School’s Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center (itself an incubator for student startups), wants to make it happen. "We want to tie in technology, design, and the lean startup model," explains Krysia Zajonc, Local Food Lab’s cofounder.

Zajonc entered business school expressly because she wanted to work on solving problems in the food system. "I saw there was a problem getting food from farm to table and linking producers to buyers but it seemed like those problems would be solved with a few really good apps and a logistics makeover of distributors," she says. "The bottleneck in my mind was the supply piece. There’s not enough food that people are demanding, and that’s why prices are so high."

That’s why Zajonc and cofounder Mateo Aguilar are launching Local Food Lab, which will begin its first program this summer in Palo Alto. Applicants who get into the four-week program pay $1,750 in tuition for what is essentially a startup bootcamp. They’ll learn about everything from how to create a marketing plan to how to make financial projections, have access to Local Food Lab’s kitchen, garden, and collaborative space, and meet with mentors (for example, people who own delis, bakeries, and small farms). At the end, the program will hold a pitch night--familiar to anyone who has been involved with or read about Silicon Valley incubators--where participants will have the opportunity to present to potential investors.

Zajonc acknowledges that most investors won’t be able to put money into food startups and expect huge returns like they can from tech startups. But there are exceptions. She cites BrightFarms (a rooftop farming startup) as the kind of fundable company that would be ideal for the Local Food Lab.

In the fall, Local Food Lab will move to a bigger space, hopefully containing a full commercial kitchen and a greenhouse space. Zajonc expects that incubator programs will only be a piece of Local Food Lab--food entrepreneurs who pay dues will also have access to the facilities, making the lab a combination incubator and coworking space. "We’re looking for these entrepreneurs who are a little further along to be dedicated members of the space," she says.

Applications to Local Food Lab’s summer program close May 16th.

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3 Comments

  • Eric Winders

    Thanks for the article.   This could be a nice addition.  One point of contention, I'd like to make is regarding the idea of pricing in the organic market.  It is much more complex than Ms. Zajonc implies.  Although there are components of distribution and supply and demand that come in to play with the overall cost of organic foods, not mentioned is the fact that many small scale organic producers value living wages (relatively speaking) for themselves and when they can, their workers.  There can't really be outsourcing of local, organic food grown by community  stewards of the land, and therefore the race to the bottom in terms of scalability and out sourcing doesn't really work here.  The question should rather be, "Do you want to pay your local farmer, a part of your community, poverty level wages, or something they can live on?" not how do we make locally grown organic produce cheaper.

  • Michael Bernstein

    Applicants who get into the four-week program pay $1750 in tuition? Sounds like a scam.

  • Sage Wohns

    Tech incubators charge way more, plus with those facilities I'd say that's a deal. It's basically summer camp for food entrepreneurs with an industrial kitchen and professional guidance.