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The Leading Voices in Food

E12: Renske Lynde on Cultivating Food System Entrepreneurs for Impact

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
February 8, 2019

Imagine if the focus of your work was to identify the most promising entrepreneurs, those who could potentially develop transformative and scalable food and agriculture solutions. Imagine working closely with those entrepreneurs as their ideas blossom and their businesses develop, promote organic gardening effort to tackle food insecurity and Silicon Valley to accompany that converts organic waste in the compostable bioplastic. How fun would this be? Such is the work of Renske Lynde, director of Food Systems 6, a nonprofit California public benefit corporation based in the San Francisco Bay area, whose mission is to support promising entrepreneurs who want to transform how we grow, produce and distribute food.

Renske has more than 20 years of experience working in the nonprofit sector on food, agriculture, and nutrition policy issues. Her work has included grassroots education and community organizing, strategic campaign development, quantitative policy analysis and legislative advocacy. She co-founded Food System 6 with serial entrepreneur Peter Hertz and now runs 16-week mentoring programs for aspiring entrepreneurs, offering them business and organizational support, tools, training and mentorship. Renske holds a bachelor degree from Boston University and a Master’s degree in public policy from the University of California at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, and served in the Peace Corps. She began her career in Minneapolis at the Institute for Agriculture and trade policy working on behalf of small scale sustainable agriculture producers and went on to build direct markets for Pennsylvania farmers in the Philadelphia marketplace.

Interview Summary

How has your background in food policy informed the work that you’re doing in the innovation and entrepreneur space?

That’s a great question. So, you know, as you know, Kelly, given your own legendary background in food and nutrition and agriculture policy, the landscape in food and agriculture is one that is very dynamic and there really is, in my mind, no other system that really represents the way in which the public sector, the private sector and the social sector really interact than in the food system. I’ve always been interested in solving problems at scale, thinking about how we can make our food system work for more people, both those who steward our land and really shepherd it towards sustainable objectives, all the way through to those people in our communities that don’t have enough access to food. And really thinking about scale around that and you know, certainly sought the policy path as a means by which I could think about solving those problems at scale.

And you know, that, that background and the time that I spent working in food and agriculture policy for around 20 years really does help me also better support the entrepreneurs that are trying to innovate and bring really transformative solutions into the space. Who may have incredibly deep technical knowledge or technological expertise, business backgrounds but aren’t necessarily as up to speed on some of the complexities of the system and the ways in which you know, the system interacts with these other sectors. And of course, and in fact the regulatory landscape that really is wrapped around all of the companies that I’m ultimately supporting.

Could you give us some examples of the kinds of entrepreneurs that you have supported over the years?

I would love to. So I’m in the very fortunate position of supporting now 23 different portfolio companies. We have 17 for profit startups in our portfolio and six nonprofit organizations. And we’re really excited about what we believe is an important interplay of change makers. And so that’s a big part of the reason we support both for profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs and leaders. You mentioned, in your opener, a company called Full Cycle Bioplastics which is working to transform, and has developed, the technology to transform all forms of food waste and what are known as cellulosic materials, so cardboards and things of that nature, into a completely biodegradable and fully compostable bioplastic alternative that can be used for packaging. So, there’s obviously right now an incredible amount of attention being paid to both of these problems that this company is poised to bring a transformative solution towards both mitigating food waste and tackling some of the really detrimental effects of plastic pollution in our oceans. So it’s also very consistent with a lot of what we’re seeing out there as far as a closed loop approach is concerned.

Another in our portfolio that I can describe that is working to identify where is there an opportunity to extract value in this system and in the different processes associated with food production, distribution and consumption so that we might better close the loops so to speak. And kind of move our system from a really linear and extractive one to one that is more circular and really does take into account the virtuous cycle that can be brought into life. When you, when you think about where is value and where and how can that be captured. That’s one example. Happy to give more of course that there’s, there’s many. So I’ll let you tell me if there’s time to talk about more.

You must have a million ideas cross your desk and come to your attention. How do we make decisions on what might create the most benefit? What is most likely to succeed? What’s most feasible?

You’re asking me at exactly the right time because we’re in the process right now of reviewing all the applications that we’ve received for our next formal cohort program. That’s the 16-week program that you referenced in the introduction and our next program will begin in February. And first and foremost, I will say it is a while, a complex task, it is, I think a very enviable one. Because we are seeing some unbelievably interesting solutions really coming from all over the world. What we call top of funnel. Our pipeline of innovations and entrepreneurs numbers around a thousand at this point. At this point, it’s just a question of our being able to manage all the data that’s coming in. So we’re really excited about what we’re seeing as far as the decision making process.

First and foremost, for us as a nonprofit focused on impact and really driven by our mission, we’re looking for that kind of alignment. So we want to understand that an entrepreneur is equally as passionate about really delivering a positive and demonstrable impact on some key dimension of our food system. That could be either a social impact, obviously an environmental one, and then clearly we’re looking also at human health outcomes. That’s our first screen. We have to start there. There’s lots of amazing innovations that cross our desks that really aren’t necessarily thinking about transforming the system. They may be a better-for-you cupcake, which is great and we think that that’s certainly an improvement over the less-better-for-you cupcake, but we’re really looking for some of the truly game-changing innovations that stand a chance at transforming the system in some really meaningful way.

So that’s where we start. Then it goes from there to really analyze and assess is the business ready for our support? Meaning, can we be helpful? So at the very early stages of a company’s lifespan, when it’s an idea, basically we’re less positioned to help at that point. We certainly talked entrepreneurs that are in that stage of ‘I have an idea and I really want to do something with it’ because that passion is really important. If we can, we do offer advice or guidance or simple suggestions on next steps, but really for us, we need to know and see some demonstrated traction in the marketplace. So some customer, and again, we support both for profit or nonprofit, somebody who has made it clear that they really are in need of this service and are in some way, shape, or form, already engaging in the market,

It was interesting to hear that the passion of entrepreneurs is an important part of this and I imagine the entrepreneurs that you are working with come with much different levels of experience from one another. So what kind of training do you provide them during these 16 weeks?

That’s a great question. And yes, that’s absolutely the case. Certainly, especially when you’re working in the early stage with companies there, often teams of anywhere from one to five, so they’re quite small. Five would be a luxury for some of the companies that we’ve supported at their earliest stages. And so they certainly do have a lot of talent and vision and mission in terms of the product or service. But there’s so much that’s missing of course, and so much that’s needed to help them move beyond that initial traction in the marketplace to moving towards the necessary steps for scale. So first and foremost, again, we focus on their individual needs. So the company, what is the team, what are their strengths, what are some of the areas that they know that they need support on, what are some of the next major milestones that they’re working towards as a company?

And we go from there to help build a program that really supports their individual needs. We roll up our sleeves and we really get to know these companies over that 16 weeks so that we’re positioned to help them for two to three years after they leave our program. Another big part of what we do is we want to build a community that was a big part of our mission. When we were founded, we believed that there wasn’t a community of change makers out there that was really designed to support these kinds of innovative thinkers and these entrepreneurs. So we were really focused on creating a collaborative environment and an ecosystem where entrepreneurs are eager and willing to lean in and help each other. We do bring our companies together for three sessions in person over the course of our programming.

And that is very robust programming that is designed to be helpful to any of the companies that we’re supporting. So storytelling, public speaking, interaction with a wide range of different types of legal support, brand, visual identity development. How do you put your story out in the world on your website. Things of that nature. That’s really where we have the opportunity to add value to the full group, and again, really start to foster some of the connections between them. And it’s one of the areas that we believe represents a real significant opportunity for building a strong constituent base around policy advocacy. So that’s a particular passion of mine. We definitely spend time talking to all of our entrepreneurs about the food policy world. What it means and ways in which they can both individually and internally in their companies think about some of these bigger issues in the food system. But then also externally, what can they do, how can they be in many ways some of the strongest advocates because they’re living and breathing the change that they want to see happen.

Could we get your opinion on this kind of reciprocal relationship between entrepreneurs and policy? Are there particular areas of policy where you see entrepreneurs gaining traction?

I think there’s a wide range of sort of perspectives on what comes first and you know, in terms of the kind of change that we want to see happen in the vision we hold for the food system. But I can certainly say that for example, food waste that we talked about that beginning of the call. Over the last five years, that is a topic that has just exploded onto the national landscape from a variety of different sectors in large part due to the pioneering work of Refed, which is a nonprofit that really brought together many different stakeholders. Including policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs, etc. to really identify how we could collectively as a country reduce food waste by a specific percentage, by a specific date. And I think that’s one of the most interesting areas right now, given how much public awareness there is, how much consumer demand there is for alternatives.

Companies like Imperfect Produce I think are really meeting a need for consumers to both feel good about the fact that they’re helping mitigate food waste by buying fruits and vegetables that would otherwise have gone to waste, but also are able to provide their families a healthier, fresher alternative. So that’s an example of an innovation that can be bolstered and supported by some of the regulations that we see coming down both on the state and federal level that are really designed around creating incentives to support those kinds of innovation. So yeah, that’s one area that obviously has a lot of great effort and momentum behind it where I think some of the most interesting work is happening.

Are there places where policy changes could support entrepreneurs better?

Oh gosh, sure. The answer is definitely yes. I think it’s just a question of thinking about by what means. So for example, some of the incentives that my home state of California is putting into place around both carbon emissions and mitigating carbon emissions and looking for identifying ways in which we can be reducing carbon in the atmosphere, really can kick start and galvanize an entire community of innovators that are bringing solutions into the market that can help support those objectives. And this obviously extends well beyond the food system, but that’s clearly the system I know the best. Similarly initiatives at my state level here in California that are focused on investing in healthy soils with a clear recognition that we need to be investing in soil health and soil fertility, for all of the many benefits that are associated with that. Again, also can help spur innovation activity that can help meet those objectives either for companies or for farmers or ranchers. So those are the top of mind things, but there are many more when we think about our current production system and what we call Food System 5 and the industrialized food system. There are certainly areas of regulation and policy that if altered or adopted as far as requirements are concerned, really can help spur more innovative activity,

Let’s discuss the training that you provide people because, we’re especially interested in the connections these entrepreneurs might form with one another. Do those end up being important personally and professionally for the individuals?

Yes, there’s no question. So, we often say we’re really here to provide the container of support: management, consulting, those types of services. But ultimately, the entrepreneurs who are really the ones who are living their experience, day in and day out, of building solutions often in markets that don’t exist. That can often be a very lonely task. You can feel very isolated. You are talking and living and breathing in a world that many people don’t understand because they just simply aren’t up to speed on things like: why do we need insects as an alternative protein source? That’s a hard thing to explain to people. You’re really heads down trying to build your business. It’s important for both morale and for just sharing information. They are constantly interacting with different parts of the marketplace and that’s really important data and knowledge and information they can share.

So we see a lot of this happening. We see a lot of our entrepreneurs saying: ‘hey, I just met with this retailer, or I just had this experience with this investor. And they put this term sheet forward and I didn’t necessarily understand it, so I got some help, and here’s what I’m thinking.’ There’s a real giver mentality certainly amongst the entrepreneurs that we support and in general, I think that this is the case. If you’re doing something that is out to change the world, you’re often a little on the fringes of what the world is currently looks like. Having that kind of community to really lean in and help support you on the really nitty gritty of building a business. Because they’re solving a problem that somebody else has solved before, as well as just kind of the content and the overall change making that the entrepreneurs that we support are really looking to do in the world. It’s really important.


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