Summer 2018

The Art of the Business Pitch

Inside the first Tufts nutrition entrepreneurship competition.

By Monica Jimenez

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The OptDiet team proposed an AI-based nutrition app targeted to the Chinese market. Photo: Matthew Healey

Pitching your start-up to potential investors is like a first date. “The goal is to get a second date,” Tina Weber told her audience at the Friedman School. “You want to give them just enough; you want to hide the crazy a little bit; you want to emotionally hook them.”

It was late March, and Weber, a Tufts lecturer in entrepreneurship and business planning, was speaking to a group of about ten up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Twenty-four teams had submitted their business ideas to the inaugural Tufts Food and Nutrition Entrepreneurship competition, sponsored by the Friedman School in conjunction with the Tufts Gordon Institute and open to the entire university community. The eight teams in the room were finalists looking for pointers on pitching their ideas.

Chloe Andrews, N19, made the business case for Sustain Energy Gel. Photo: Matthew Healey

The finalists—a combination of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and partners from outside the university—represented a diverse array of ideas. Robin Shrestha, N15, project manager at the school’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Nutrition, and emergency medicine physician Sapana Adhikari cofounded Smartbakery to provide healthy, affordable meals to schoolchildren in rural Nepal. Xinge Ding, N18, Yan Bai, AG09, F16, Ying-Ju Li, F16, and Perng-Hwa Kung, an MIT alum, proposed a nutrition app, OptDiet, targeted to the Chinese market. Silvia Berciano Benitez, N21, and Alessandra Verme, N19, with Professor José Ordovás, director of the Nutrition and Genomics Lab at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, were pitching BabyGen, an app that tailors nutrition recommendations for pregnant women based on genetic tests.

In two weeks, the teams would present their companies to a judging panel of fourteen entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and food executives. While finalists scribbled notes, Weber offered tips for making the most of their five-minute pitches: specify your target market; go easy on text and heavy on images in PowerPoints; and try to offer a demo or prototype. At stake were three prizes—for $2,500, $7,500, and $15,000—to help winners put their ideas into action. The PepsiCo Foundation and Bunge were platinum sponsors of the competition.

When Weber asked for volunteers to practice, Ulrich Dossou stood up. Visiting his home country of Benin a few years ago, he said, he heard farmers talk about the difficulty of getting their products to market before they spoiled. So Dossou, a Suffolk University graduate, and his business partner, Dylan Anderson-Berens, N17, developed a multipart solution to the problem, including a mobile app linking small producers with pre-harvest finance opportunities, weather and price information, advisory services, cold-chain services, and buyers. Together with their teammates Lauren Betz and Guy Kodjogbe, they call their company GleTech—“Gle” means “farm” in the Fon language of southern Benin.

Some 80 percent of Benin’s 10.3 million citizens make a living in agriculture, usually subsistence farming. “We’re tackling issues of food insecurity, market failures, and poverty in West Africa, where the population is exploding. I can’t think of anything more exciting,” said Anderson-Berens, who completed the Friedman School’s Agriculture, Food and Environment program and recently earned a management certificate at the Harvard Extension School. “It’s just a thrilling puzzle for us to try to create a sustainable business model that really helps underserved smallholder farmers.”

That kind of innovative, big-picture thinking is what the Friedman School’s growing emphasis on entrepreneurship is all about. “Entrepreneurship for both the social good and the building of successful enterprises is now a focus of the Friedman School curriculum and interactions with nutrition entrepreneurship thought leaders around the world,” said Dennis Steindler, director of entrepreneurship education at the school. The Friedman School aspires to build a Silicon Valley for food innovation on four pillars: The new Nutrition Entrepreneurship education program, partnerships with major food-business accelerators, a growing network of experienced advisers, and a planned Innovation Council linking agriculture, research, health care, and other sectors.

A judging panel of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and food executives determined the winners. Photo: Matthew Healey

The entrepreneurship competition is a key part of the initiative. “It not only encourages people to have big ideas that could have potentially huge impact, but also demonstrates a framework to advance them and move them toward fruition,” said Ed Saltzman, academic dean. And to build a healthier, more equitable, and sustainable food system, new ideas are needed now. “If we don’t have innovation, we’re basically going to be held captive to whatever is being offered to us.”

* * * * *

The Friedman School’s Behrakis Auditorium buzzed on April 12, the day of the competition. In the lobby and hallways, finalists quietly ran through their presentations, fielding good-luck wishes from faculty. Others checked out the big screen and podium, chatting nervously with the family and friends who had come to cheer them on. After the crowd settled into their seats, Dean Dariush Mozaffarian offered opening remarks. “Entrepreneurship is not the same as business or profit. It’s about bringing together a new idea with the intellectual resources and human resources and capital resources to get it done,” he said. “Whatever any of you want to do in the world, whether it’s social, for-profit, or government, if you’re losing money, eventually you’ll shut down.”

Then it was time for the seven teams to present and take questions from the judges. (The finalist behind the eighth team, a service to decode food aroma called AroMenu, was unable to attend.) First to take the stage was engineer Patrick Mulcahy, EG17, there to pitch N2 Appliance, a refrigerator-like device that uses nitrogen gas to keep baked goods fresh. He was followed by Chloe Andrews, N19, a dietetic intern at Tufts Medical Center, who pitched healthful Sustain Energy Gel for athletes, packed in biodegradable seaweed pouches.

Xinge Ding opened her pitch for OptDiet by telling judges, “I’m here today to offer you a sexy China investment story.” She explained she had been working with patients in Chinatown during an internship at Tufts Medical Center, when the idea for an AI-based diet app driven by user feedback started to germinate. “Their diet is different from Americans’, but not in a good way,” Ding said. She and Yan Bai, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in food policy and nutrition, decided “to get back to our communities, not only in Chinatown, but in China.”

Sapana Adhikari of Smartbakery told the panel she and Robin Shrestha were visiting their native Nepal in 2014 to help set up a school library when they saw students eating processed snacks in place of proper lunches—many students lived too far away to safely bring food to the school, which had no refrigeration. The result was high rates of anemia, vitamin A deficiency, poor performance, and dropouts. “The principal asked, ‘Can you help me feed my students?’” Adhikari recalled.

The pair came up with an idea for a mud brick oven where local women would be paid to bake “smart bowls”—vitamin-fortified bread bowls filled with locally-grown vegetable curry. The bowls would be 22 cents, cheaper than processed snacks, and would create no waste. “This would have a broad societal impact: improving health and education for rural populations, employing women, and encouraging a healthy food culture,” Adhikari said. She promised judges the project could be done for $14,999—one dollar less than the first-prize award.

Eleanor Shonkoff and Shreyas Kamath presented Picture This, which uses smartphone photos to estimate caloric intake. Photo: Matthew Healey

Next up was an app called Picture This, pitched by Friedman School postdoc Eleanor Shonkoff. She was backed by Friedman School faculty Christina Economos and Erin Hennessy, as well as Karen Panetta, a dean at the School of Engineering, and engineering doctoral student Shreyas Kamath. Picture This would use artificial-intelligence technology to estimate users’ caloric intake based on smartphone photos.

After the teams from GleTech and BabyGen closed out the presentations, the judges retreated to a private room to deliberate, while the finalists and the audience headed down the hall to wait.

* * * * *

Giddy with relief, the finalists reviewed their performances with their teammates, praised each other’s presentations—and waited. After about half an hour, the judges filed in, smiling. The crowd formed a semicircle to hear the results.

First up was the $2,500 prize, for the company voted most popular by the audience, which went to BabyGen. “I feel immensely grateful just to be a finalist,” Berciano said. “To have the support of the audience really means a lot to us.” The team has launched a beta version of the blood and genetic tests that will be used in the app and already has twenty-eight customers.

For the $7,500 prize, the judges had a surprise: a tie between GleTech and OptDiet, for $3,750 each. GleTech’s solution for Benin farmers “had excellent proof of concept and very good value chain impact,” one judge observed. Anderson-Berens said he and Dossou plan to invest their winnings into their platform and operations. OptDiet was “a great match of both science and technology,” the judge said, “and we think it really leveraged well the Tufts Friedman brand in China.” Bai and Ding were excited to meet with potential investors—including a judge who expressed interest at the reception. “This entire competition and hearing the other contestants really inspired us to move forward,” Ding said. “We’re really passionate about this project and we’re convinced we can make a difference.”

Edward Saltzman with winners Robin Shrestha, N15, center, and Sapana Adhikari. Photo: Matthew Healey

After the judges congratulated all the finalists on their impressive work, it was time to announce the winner of the $15,000 first prize: Smartbakery. Their idea for smart bowls to feed schoolchildren wasn’t high-tech, but the simple solution was powerful, a judge said. “Innovation doesn’t have to be hard—innovation, and entrepreneurship, can be quite easy—and that’s why we chose this.” The panel presented an oversized check to Shrestha and Adhikari—the $15,000 crossed out and replaced with $14,999, the exact amount they had said they needed.

Adhikari said the money will cover all construction, materials and labor costs for the first Smartbakery. She was already planning another trip to Nepal this summer. “To have this support really means a lot to us,” she said. “It’s such a great opportunity, and it’s wonderful that they’re encouraging entrepreneurship here at Friedman.”

Friedman School business mentors and advisers offer their lessons for start-up success. As told to Molly McDonough.

Be Ready to Adapt

“Budding entrepreneurs should not fall too much in love with their idea. The successful entrepreneur is adaptable—to better ideas or product improvements; to changing markets; to changing tastes; to changing technology; to changing supply chains or production costs; and to better leadership. Investors will almost always fund a proven management team over a start-up entrepreneur with no track record of building a company.”
–Michael L. Blau, Esq., Partner, Foley & Lardner LLP

Find Energy to Persevere

“You need to remain focused on the purpose, which is more than just self-gratification or enrichment, but rather, how you can benefit someone else. And you need to have strong self-discipline and courage to keep going, even when others tell you to stop.”
–Bill Layden, Founder and EVP, FoodMinds

Ask Yourself: Will Customers Pay?

“Often, people will start a business because they themselves have a specific problem or challenge. But I suggest talking to other people who have the problem, and validating two things: first, whether it’s a problem that a significant number of people have—make sure it’s a big problem you’re solving—and second, find out whether people are prepared to pay for a solution.”
–Andrew Ive, Managing Director and Partner, Food-X

Hook Your Audience. And Fast.

“When it comes to pitching, you’ve got to get your audience engaged. The first thing to do is ask them a question. The thing that you learn along the way in pitching—especially when you’re pitching to investors who get pitched to all the time, is that you’ve got to hook them in right away. If it’s going to take you five minutes to explain something, your idea is too hard.”
—Wendy Behr, VP, Global R&D, Keurig Green Mountain

Follow Your Passion

“I think having a passion for food is an enormous benefit. My first offer out of school was to work for Procter & Gamble in their soap division. Even though I liked the company, I turned them down. I just wasn’t that interested in working on soap. Then they offered me the opportunity to work on coffee, which was fantastic. You’re going to enjoy life a lot more if you can make your passion part of your career.”
–Carlos Barroso, Senior VP, Global R&D and Quality, Campbell Soup Company

Become a Nutrition Expert

“Food entrepreneurs should be nutrition entrepreneurs, too. Products need to be created following a deep understanding of ingredients and their impact on people’s bodies. I really suggest that all entrepreneurs interested in the food business broaden their perspective and start learning, working closely, and integrating with specialists in nutrition and medicine.”
–Jimena Florez, Founder and CEO, Chaak Health Snacks

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