5 Things I Learned from MIT’s first Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize

January 30, 2017

This year the MIT Food and Agriculture Club, supported by MIT JWAFS and Rabobank, launched a business plan competition for early stage ideas. The competition culminated with six finalist teams pitching to a panel of judges, who then chose the first ($12k), second ($8k), and third ($5k) place winners. MIT News summarized the event and the various stages of the prize.

Here my personal takeaways from the final event:

1. The developing world needs entrepreneurs.

Many of the finalists, and all three of the winners, are creating businesses to support food and agriculture in the developing world. This is hugely important as the majority of the world’s farmers are smallholders, often in developing countries. To feed the future, we need to solve their problems. MIT programs, like GEAR Lab and the Tata Center, encourage students to learn about innovation for resource-constrained environments. It was awesome to see students going beyond the lab to turn their ideas into businesses that solve pressing issues. Finalists demonstrated that these businesses have unique needs: one has had to find local partners to help with adoption and education; another had to alter their business model to ensure they had a paying customer.

2. Tell user stories.

As I’ve said before, delivery is as important (if not more so) than content. At a competition with live judges and a live audience, it’s especially crucial to tell compelling stories that connect with people on an emotional level. The finalists did an awesome job of this. One team had videos of farmers in Kenya using their technology; another had a detailed user persona, complete with personal information about their family and daily challenges.

3. Know your audience.

After the five minute pitches, the teams had three minutes to answer questions from the judges. The benefit of rehearsing answers to the most likely questions was clear- some teams were ready, while others were caught off guard. Of course it’s impossible to prepare answers to every possible question, but given the technical depth and business experience of the judges, questions about materials science and beachhead markets should not have come as a surprise. The importance of knowing your audience applies to investor pitches, too. Doing background research builds your confidence, helps you think through critical questions, and can give you an advantage over your competition.

4. Know what problem you’re trying to solve.

All of the finalists had really strong ideas and impressive technical backgrounds. The teams that won clearly explained how they were applying their idea and expertise to a problem that someone- ideally someone who can pay- wants to solve. This wasn’t a pitch to VCs and the competition was open to non-profit business models, so I’m not arguing for making a “billion dollar market” case. But, the most compelling business ideas will address a specific problem that someone really cares about solving.

5. MIT is paying attention to Food and Ag.

Despite being a land grant school and having our dedication to agriculture literally inscribed in the dome of the iconic lobby seven, MIT is not known as a leader in food or agriculture. Yet. Things are starting to change. As President of the Food and Agriculture Club for the last two years, I’ve seen how enthusiastic students and faculty are about food system issues. The Prize is one of many efforts, like the OpenAg Initiative and this summer program on agriculture and innovation, to convert this interest into meaningful action. Boston is a great place for this work- it’s an innovation ecosystem that includes leaders such as the Food+Future coLab, Branchfood, Anterra Capital, and Flagship Ventures.

I am thrilled to have been part of the Prize, and cannot wait to see what’s in store for the future of food and agribusiness innovation at MIT. Congratulations again to gomango, Safi Organics, and Ricult.