In exposing vulnerable areas of American food distribution, COVID-19 has elevated the profile — and the promise — of the foodtech movement.
UC Berkeley is a hotbed for incubating innovative food companies, and the law school’s Berkeley Center for Law and Business offers a satisfying menu for entrepreneurs through its FORM+FUND and Venture Capital Deal Camp programs. Alumni are also driving food-industry change.
“Our training focuses on the legal, financial, and operational aspects of starting and scaling a business,” says Adam Sterling ’13, the center’s executive director. “It’s exciting to help these Berkeley foodtech companies bring their products to market.”
Public awareness of traditional meat production’s waste levels and environmental impact is rising — with a correlating demand for plant-based regenerative animal alternatives.
Plant biology Ph.D. Siwen Deng and undergrad Jessica Schwabach met in the university’s Alternative Meats Lab and incorporated Sundial Foods last year after taking a second FORM+FUND class.
While passionate about the science behind their concept, “as we continued to learn more about starting a company, we quickly realized that we were in over our heads in many matters,” Deng says.
Sundial recently finished a five-month accelerator program in Switzerland and will soon launch in the United States. Schwabach says FORM+FUND provided pivotal insights and a valuable network “from lecturers to attorneys to investors.”
Prime Roots, which grows and uses a Koji super protein (used in Japan to make soy sauce and sake) in its alternative meat and seafood items, did a small bacon product launch in February.
CEO and co-founder Kimberlie Le, who designed and taught a UC Berkeley course on environmental sustainability, says animal agriculture creates about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. She wanted to make protein and meat from sustainable technologies rather than animals — and to avoid new-venture pitfalls.
“FORM+FUND illuminated the legal side of running a startup and taught us things to look out for,” Le says. “It was really useful since there aren’t classes for many of these things.”
Renske Lynde spent two decades working toward food-industry change in the nonprofit sector. Inspired by entrepreneurial colleagues, she joined an angel investing bootcamp and later co-founded Food System 6 — which supports entrepreneurs aiming to transform the food system.
A general partner at the venture fund 1st Course Capital, Lynde attended Venture Capital Deal Camp — Berkeley Law’s four-day program that teaches investors to define, negotiate, and execute early-stage investments — to help structure the fund. That knowledge helped guide Food System 6 initiatives in packaging, regenerative agriculture, and processing infrastructure.
“As we work to rebuild an entire system, we need as many tools in the proverbial toolbox as possible,” Lynde says. “Deal Camp was incredibly challenging but also rewarding as I was able to work through my questions in a supportive, collegial environment.”