The Jew And The Carrot

Israel's First Food Tech Accelerator

By Liz Steinberg

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Could the startup nation become a powerhouse for food-related startups, too? There are at least a few people who hope so, and they’re taking action to make it happen.

The Boston-based accelerator MassChallenge is partnering with Israel’s Strauss group to launch a food-focused accelerator program based in Israel. The program, drawing on Strauss’s food expertise and MassChallenge’s experience in nurturing young companies and ideas, plans to accept entrepreneurs from around the world with food-tech related ideas or startups, and help turn those ideas into full-fledged businesses.

If you’re new to the world of incubators and accelerators, let me explain: Accelerators help entrepreneurs with ideas or early-stage startups launch full-fledged businesses more quickly than they would without outside assistance. Help could come in the form of advisers, access to potential customers and to regulators, and funding, among others.

The food tech sector is underrepresented among startup companies, and part of the idea behind the program is to change that, says Amir Eldad, MassChallenge’s lead partner for international expansion.

There are two main benefits to the project, he explains. One is drawing more entrepreneurs and technologies to the Strauss Group in particular and the food sector in general. The other is to help craft Israel as a powerhouse in food technology with a global reach,” he says.

Strauss, for its part, is looking for an innovative way to compete against even larger multinationals such as Nestle, explains Dagan Eshel, innovation manager at Strauss and head of Alphastrauss, Strauss’ center for nurturing food technology.

“We thought, what is our competitive advantage? And the first thought that came to our mind is, we are Israeli,” he says, referring to Israel’s penchant for churning out startups.

No one in Israel — or abroad — is focusing on food tech to the full extent that Eshel believes possible. “There is no Silicon Valley for food. No one until now thought that food is a big enough arena… for making a food tech industry,” he says.

Hundreds if not thousands of food-related technologies are already in development in Israel, but there’s no one connecting the dots, pulling the entrepreneurs together and giving them the support that the high-tech industry has, for example, says Eshel. Israel’s entrepreneurial environment makes it a good place for a food tech focus, agree Eldad and Eshel.

“Outside of the U.S., Israel is the place where there is a complete and very strong entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Eldad. MassChallenge, which bills itself as the world’s largest startup accelerator, has been running an annual program for four years now. This year, 1,200 applications were submitted and ultimately 128 were accepted.

The food-focused accelerator is just one of MassChallenge’s attempts to focus on specific fields, notes Eldad. It’s too early to discuss specifics as to how the program will work, since the partnership was just announced, but the partners plan to have it up and running by 2014.

The project will take a broad approach to food technology. Food production goes beyond the food itself, explains Eshel — it necessitates technologies that touch on infrastructure, raw ingredients, packaging and more, he notes. As an example of the type of innovation he hopes to see in the accelerator program, he cites the example of a medical technology startup whose product could be used to identify foreign items in food.

The technologies developed by the accelerator won’t directly benefit either MassChallenge or Strauss. MassChallenge charges only a small fee for registration and takes no equity from participants, notes Eldad, while Eshel says his company is looking toward the long term.

“We want to create a community,” says Eshel.” We are looking 10 years into the future. If we could accelerate this community of food tech, it would be good for you, good for Israel and good for Strauss.”


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