The 2023 Summer Start-up Tour marked the fifth year of ‘SSUP!, which opens opportunities for INSEAD MBA students to connect with start-ups, learn from founders and entrepreneurs, and gain a deeper understanding of ventures operating in the innovation space. Each year, the Hoffmann Institute collaborates with ‘SSUP! student leadership and supports student teams on their learning journey.
Achieving sustainable development that delivers value to both business and society will require a rethink of the fundamentals of human activity, including how we eat and how we power growth. This year, the ‘SSUP! Student teams sponsored by the Hoffmann Institute explored start-ups working at the cutting edge of critical issues such as energy and food and agriculture.
Looking to the Past to Feed in the Future
Team Genies D’éclair is made up of two students who are passionate about food. Zoé Toulouse trained as a professional baker and worked in a fine-dining restaurant with two Michelin stars. Wade Newville discovered his passion for food and agriculture traveling the world and helped scale up Gorillas, a start-up that delivers groceries in more than 60 cities. The two teamed up to explore the food system value chain and understand how to do better business. They found that the future of food may well be tied to our agricultural past.
Their journey started at Le Papondu, a company that is engineering a vegetable-based egg substitute for culinary, bakery, and nutritional applications. Their high-tech, laboratory approach has perfected a powder-based product that is now being rolled out to a growing customer base. Then, they met with Yeasty, another foodtech company that is using science to remove bitterness from yeast for human consumption.
Excited about the use of science and innovation in food, Team Genies D’éclair then met with Agripolis, a start-up specializing in urban and vertical farms. They found that high costs of real estate, energy and talent make urban farming cost-prohibitive in a lot of places. So, they visited Terres de Café, a French firm that is promoting coffee consumption like wine consumption – with attention to terroir, agricultural practices, flavour profile and service. The company develops relationships with coffee growers around the world and partners with them to produce in a more eco-conscious way.
This start-up tour shows that the future of food may indeed be a combination of new, high-tech approaches that encourage sustainable food production and new approaches to consumption that consider issues like climate change, biodiversity and environmental collapse.
Lessons from Agritech in Africa
The third ‘SSUP! Team sponsored by the Hoffmann Institute took their tour in a whole new direction and to a new continent. The KenyaCap team of Vanshika Singh, Alistair Hall, Madhusmita Das and Boulos Hraoui visited Nairobi, Kenya and found a vibrant start-up ecosystem focused on the future of food. The Tour took them to start-ups devoted to optimizing food distribution, streamlining supply chain logistics and ingenious solutions for a more sustainable agriculture sector.
The team found themselves in a country facing challenge and full of promise. For example, infrastructure challenges affect the ability to transport food, finance remains a challenge for transforming the agriculture sector and smallholder farmers that make up the majority of agricultural workers in the country often lack access to technology. However, the thriving start-up ecosystem is working to close these gaps.
Mobile app development is helping farmers access vital information like weather forecasts, market prices and finance solutions. Agriculture technologies are in development to optimize resources like water and fertilizer. Private funding through impact-focused grants and foundations are deploying capital. And the government is providing support with initiatives like Digital-For-Agriculture, which looks to enrol 1.4 million smallholder farms online and establish a network of 2,300 retailers supplying essential farm inputs.
Kenya is an example of how a thriving start-up ecosystem can make a difference on global challenges like climate change and sustainability by empowering local communities like shareholder farmers. As technologies like mobile apps, digital financial services and drones and satellite imaging gain traction, the transformation of agriculture can accelerate. Along with a focus on sustainable practices, biodiversity, renewable energy use and carbon capture, agritech start-ups can make every smallholder farmer active in the solutions needed for a sustainable future.
Thinking Big about Powering Growth
Another Hoffmann Institute-sponsored team, Team EMS, explored the exciting world of Israeli start-ups. The team of Misal Choudhary, Soham Banarjee and Eric Tsai learned that thinking big and determination are powerful forces in growing a business. They visited SolarEdge, an Israeli start-up that developed a DC-optimized inverter system in 2006. This technology combined with the SolarEdge energy manager platform can turn any home or business into an eco-friendly energy hub that feeds electricity back to the grid.
When SolarEdge launched, they did so with a co-founder model that drew scepticism from investors. However, this leadership model allowed the company to pivot to Europe and stay ahead of the competition. The company faced challenges but transformed them into opportunities and eventually went public on the NASDAQ exchange. That same year, the company partnered with Tesla, which grew their business from a $700 million valuation at IPO into a $20 billion valuation today. This is truly a testament to the power of determination.
This part of the Team EMS tour showed that innovative technology is not the only thing needed to change how we power growth. There is value in thinking big and moving towards a vision with determination. It is a lesson for anyone working to scale up positive impact and finding obstacles in the path forward.
The Hoffmann Institute looks forward to collaborating with ‘SSUP! Organizers and our student teams next summer to explore more ways for start-ups to scale up and speed up the sustainability shift.