The VINE Blog

VINE Insider Insights: Rob Trice

by | May 16, 2024

In our conversation with Rob Trice, founder of Better Food Ventures and The Mixing Bowl, we explore his transition from a background in mobile, internet, telecom venture capital to his current focus on agrifoodtech. Rob discusses how he was inspired to address the digitization gaps in agriculture and food production, aiming to create impactful solutions. Rob also highlights the importance of fostering innovation in the industry and shares his insights on the challenges and future opportunities in agrifoodtech, reflecting his dedication to driving positive change in the sector.

Can you share the story behind Better Food Ventures and The Mixing Bowl? What inspired you to get into this work?

Prior to starting Better Food Ventures, I had close to 15 years in the mobile, internet, telecom venture capital space. When I joined venture capital, it was right in the dot-com bubble in 2000. I spent a lot of time looking at mobility. I started off working at Nokia’s venture capital group, which was exciting because back then we were on 2G networks and hadn’t yet really added cameras, music, maps, or email to phones. As an example, I remember being the point person in our group looking at this exciting “new” technology called “Wi-Fi” and figuring out how to make investments in the Wi-Fi space. Those were exciting challenges we were trying to figure out. But if you fast forward to the early 2010s the space had matured, and we were talking about rolling out 5G networks.  And it was clear to me that I didn’t have 5G in me. It was time for a change. 

Meanwhile, my wife had left her job at Stanford to run a regenerative cattle ranch in Pescadero, California. Walking around that ranch, I thought about the fact that Uber had disrupted transportation and Airbnb had disrupted lodging, and wondered what the next big sector Silicon Valley was going to look at for digital disruption. This realization came to me that it might be food and agriculture as I saw a cowboy pulling an SD card out of a weather station and the ranch struggling to use Square at the farmer’s market. I thought that with food and agriculture as 5-10% of the world’s economy, and one of the least digitized major sectors, with substantial challenges, there had to be an opportunity here. So I jumped in.

With that, I started two organizations: The Mixing Bowl and Better Food Ventures. The Mixing Bowl connects IT, food, and ag innovators for thought and action leadership. Better Food Ventures makes investments in companies applying information technology across the food and ag value chain to make a positive impact now.

The Mixing Bowl has helped me understand the food and agriculture market’s innovation needs beyond venture investing. For a number of reasons, there is a limitation to what venture capital alone can achieve in food and agriculture.

With Better Food Ventures, we started making investments a decade ago and have now made 22 in total. Our investments range from Bountiful, which uses machine learning and AI for yield and sustainability prediction in specialty crops like almonds, to a company, Gastrograph, using AI to predict flavor and mouthfeel preferences for creating food and beverages tailored to specific demographics. It’s been a blast, and I’m having a lot of fun.

How does Better Food Ventures differentiate itself from other investors in the space? What’s your unique value proposition?

The first thing I’ll say is that “we play nice with everybody”. Yes, I need to say that to keep good relations but it is true. How are we different? We focus on digitization, the digital plumbing for improving food and agriculture. We aim to invest in more capital-efficient companies that might be able to leverage a SaaS-type business model. We do not invest in consumer packaged goods, retail, or growing operations so we’re different from many investors who are putting money into things like alternative proteins, meal kit delivery or vertical farming. We’ve made two investments in robotics companies, which still use digital technology enhanced by hardware. Even then, we’ve chosen capital-efficient robotic plays. Both companies we’ve invested in, farm-ng and Four Growers, reached the market with a first product with less than $5 million in venture capital raised, far less than many other agriculture robotics companies.

Another differentiation point is the “why” of our investing at Better Food Ventures. There are hardcore financial investors who will invest in anything that makes money, and, at the other end of the spectrum, social impact investors who want to change the food system at any cost. We call our approach “positive impact investing” in that we want to make a positive social impact with the capital we deploy but feel strongly about adhering to financial discipline and seeking good financial outcomes.

Our investment theses focus on five impact macro themes: improving connectivity and agility, productivity and economic stability, sustainability and transparency, precision and personalization, and nutritional health and wellness. 

These themes guide our decisions to ensure we make a positive impact now, not just in the distant future. We are less concerned about feeding the world in 2050 than feeding the world in 2024. For example, we have enough food to feed the world right now, but we lack the nervous system or communication systems to get the right food to the right people at the right time. Implementing the necessary digital plumbing can help allocate food more efficiently and reduce food waste now.

For every investment we consider, we try to not only evaluate the potential positive impact but also try to identify potential negative impacts, something known as “full consequence investing”. As early seed stage investors, we may not have control over these startups as they mature over time, but we try to anticipate and curb potential downstream negative impacts early on. Every technology can be a force for good or not, and we aim to head off negative consequences at the pass.

From your perspective, what are the most pressing challenges currently facing the AgriFood Tech industry today?

Oh boy, there are plenty of challenges. The macro issue I have is the pace at which we’re solving those challenges. Moving back into my Mixing Bowl hat, we arguably did the first agrifood tech event in Silicon Valley a decade ago at Stanford University. One of the slides we put up on the screen then talked about the Mixing Bowl’s purpose in the food/agriculture sector: See problems, Seek solutions, Solve problems, and Scale solutions.

If I look at the agrifoodtech innovation ecosystem right now, my frustration is that 80 percent of our effort is still in seeing the issues and seeking solutions, while only 20 percent is in solving and scaling. How do we flip that so we’re actually moving the ball down the field and solving problems at scale now? For instance, on the food waste side, one of the companies we have invested in is called Afresh, which is rolled out at large grocery retailers like Kroger and Albertsons. They use AI to decrease food waste and it’s working phenomenally well. As I recall, retailers using Afresh in their produce department were seeing a 25% drop in shrinkage and a 40% lift in the produce department’s operating margin. What I am interested in is how we can “rinse and repeat” to get more adoption of solutions like Afresh working toward solving challenges we need to address.

One of the challenges we have right now is that we as the agrifoodtech segment are struggling in the venture space. In the ten years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen venture investments go from roughly $2 billion a year deployed up to $52 billion in 2021, down to $32 billion in 2022, and to $15 billion in 2023. This year we’re probably going to be in the $12 to $18 billion range. The venture numbers for the first quarter of this year were not encouraging. Agrifoodtech has been around 2.2% to 2.6% of VC funding every quarter for the last few years but in the first quarter of this year it was only 1.6%. Maybe we’ll get some better news in the second half of this year, but the reality is the space overall is challenged. We haven’t seen big unicorn exits, and we’re likely going to have a lot of dead or zombie companies. 

Agrifoodtech venture capital is not getting the level of innovation and success, including financial success, we need overall. In some sub-segments, like alternative protein and vertical farming, there was over-promising and under-delivering on results. Many other startups are not seeing the rate of growth they need for various reasons. Some ideas might not be point solutions, rather than complete solutions. Many good solutions might be good businesses but not the kind that can get a venture capital the kind of exit it is seeking. Then there’s the adoption issue, which could be related to pricing or the lack of a forcing function, either in the form of a carrot or a stick, to get the customer to take it on. And many more solutions are still too clunky or technical, still far away from an easy plug-and-play experience for the customer. So, there are many challenges in this venture space right now.

How do you see the role of technology evolving in agriculture and food production over the next decade?

I think I’m going to be a little controversial here. Too often, we’re enamored with the shiny bauble and not focused on the fundamentals. I’ll give you an example. Everyone is talking about the magical things we can do with artificial intelligence right now. But if you don’t have the right data, you can’t make AI work. It’s like having a car with no gasoline in the tank. We need to crawl before we walk before we run and get good data.

We’ve got a long way to go on data collection. TSC & Trust in Food’s survey says around 62 percent of American farmers aren’t using a software product. And of 800 food companies only 8% could track the origin of a product and ingredient back to the farm.  AI tools will help us with digital data custodial services, but we need to ensure that whatever data we are feeding AI tools is harmonized, standardized, interoperable, and machine-readable. Once we have the data we can unlock the magic of AI. Right now, too many people are focused on AI without looking at where they’re going to get the gas to make the AI engine run.

We need to focus on data collection, so we can educate both ourselves and the AI machines about how to optimize best practices. When it comes to human health, many are looking at personalized nutrition. For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation has a project called the Periodic Table of Food Initiative to identify many of the 26,000 micronutrients in our food and apply technology and “-omics” to understand them. I believe they’re starting by mapping 1,500 micronutrients right now so we have a long way to go. I am not trying to knock the project but merely point out how early in the game we are just to understand what composes our food. And once we have mapped out the composition of our food we need to further understand the food-body interrelationship between all of those foods and billions of very diverse individuals around the globe. What I am saying is that, having stepped into this space just a decade ago, I am surprised how elementary our understanding of the components of food and personalized nutrition are still. The lack of data I am pointing out here regarding personalized nutrition is but one example of a data challenge we have across the agrifood ecosystem. I’ll say it again, we need to crawl before we walk before we run.

Are there any emerging technologies that you’re particularly excited about? If so, why?

To be honest, we have not come across a deal in the last few months that knocked our socks off. Perhaps we are distracted in part due by the rough waters the agrifoodtech venture sector is going through. It’s naturally harder to place a bet when you feel that, at least in the short term, a startup is going to have a rough road to hoe. That said, the challenges of the food system are still here, and there are new technologies and tools that I know can meet those challenges. I should say we’re looking at two different companies in the livestock sector, and both are interesting in terms of how they can make livestock more sustainable.

Another area we’re looking at is consumer behavior. I previously mentioned our portfolio company Gastrograph, that uses AI tools to predict flavor and mouthfeel preference. Beyond predicting flavor is the broader role digital tools play in food choice architecture and what drives consumers to choose one particular food. This academic term of food choice architecture needs to be applied to the commercial realm because understanding what drives food choices is crucial. For example, I’m an advisor to the non-profit Food for Climate League, the only dedicated organization I know focused on getting consumers to eat climate-smart foods. What the Food for Climate League has made me appreciate is that we can’t just slap a regenerative label on a product like macaroni and cheese and expect it to sell. We need to make these foods relatable to consumers and understand what drives their intent to purchase and consume specific goods. The Food for Climate League has an amazing team of rock star women who are demographers, sociologists, marketers, and storytellers working on communicating the benefits of these foods in a way that connects with consumers.

The technologies are there; the question is making them work. For instance, we have invested in two portfolio companies. One is called Milk Moovement, which is digitizing the wet milk logistics market, replacing pen and paper. This isn’t sexy cool emerging technology or cold fusion, but that’s where we are in food and agriculture. Similarly, we invested in a company called Breedr, which focuses on per-cow tracking and traceability through the supply chain. Again, this isn’t rocket science, but it’s necessary for agriculture and the supply chain to take the next steps it needs. 

What predictions do you have for the AgriFood Tech industry in the next 10 to 15 years?

The largest disruptive force we have in agrifood over the next ten to fifteen years will be climate. The IPCC says if we overshoot 1.5 degrees celsius and hit an additional two degrees, globally we can expect corn yields to be 5% worse, see 7-10% less rangeland available for livestock, twice as much plant species loss, and three times as much insect loss.  

We have two paths in front of us: revolution or evolution. On the evolution side, the question is whether incumbent players will pull up their socks and make the changes we need at the pace we need. Or are those institutions too entrenched or brittle to change. If not, we can expect to see a revolutionary approach where we may struggle to grow enough food to feed ourselves and have to embrace technologically possible new foods and production systems from a new wave of actors.  

At the highest level, the climate and its impact on our ability to produce food is the biggest crisis in the next 10 to 15 years in my opinion. Lest we forget, as part of this we must consider what we’re doing to the oceans and rivers, not just the land. These “blue foods” are critical.

So you’re saying agrifood technology will need to either solve or adapt to these challenges?

Yes, exactly. To solve these issues, we need to scale up solutions faster than we are currently doing to minimize the impact of climate change. If we don’t, we’ll have to adapt. We do have technologies, but producing food will become more expensive. 

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to young entrepreneur entering the agrifood tech space for the first time?

There’s a former portfolio company CEO, Andy Kleisch, now with a company called Atomo, which makes beanless coffee. He once spoke to a University of Washington MBA class, and someone asked him, “When should I start my startup?” His answer was, “When you absolutely, positively can’t think about doing anything else in the world.” I think it’s similar here. Many entrepreneurs and young farmers might not fully appreciate how hard and long this journey is. I live in the small farming community of Pescadero, California and I have seen some amazing young farmers there. But we have been living there for over a decade and some of those farmers that were eager beavers a while back are getting a little older. They’ve got spouses and kids, sore muscles and endless exhaustion. When they thought about starting that farm enterprise they may not have thought about what life would look like a decade out. The same goes with startup founders. I’m not saying don’t do it, but make sure you evaluate the impact on your stamina, resilience, and relationships. These will all be strained, whether you’re successful or not. I have a lot of respect for entrepreneurs and starting farmers who do this because it isn’t easy.

If you do make the choice to become an entrepreneur, choose good bedfellows. As you’re looking at investors, do your due diligence on them. Talk to their other portfolio companies and don’t just take any money because it’s green. Understand the personality of the person at that investment firm that you’ll be working with for perhaps a decade.

Choose a tech incubator and accelerator carefully. There are about 150 different incubators, accelerators, and venture support organizations just for agrifoodtech globally. Understand the cost-benefit and whether it’s the right one for you and how they will add value to your company and at what cost, including your most valuable asset, your time.

Lastly, do your homework on the competitive landscape and the history of the technology segment. I’ve been disappointed lately by the number of entrepreneurs I’ve talked to who don’t sufficiently understand their competition or the history of their technology solution. When I point out similar companies that failed, they often respond, “Well, we’re different.” That’s not a sufficient answer. I need to understand what has changed in your approach, in technology, or the market that will cause you to succeed where others have failed. Being candid, I’m frustrated by the lack of depth in the answers I’m getting from some entrepreneurs.

Throughout your career investing in AgrifoodTech, what have been your most profound or significant learnings or surprises?

One of my big learnings came early on, right there in Davis, with Harold Schmitz, who was the Chief Science Officer at Mars when I first met him. Harold came from big, slow food and academia, while I came from fast-moving venture. The friction between those perspectives was significant, but it led to good things. I gained an appreciation for why big food companies and even academia can’t move quickly—why the elephant can’t dance, so to speak.

From a personal perspective, I’m all in on this food and ag stuff now. I grew up as a suburban kid yet five years ago my wife and I bought our own place in Pescadero with a 35-acre tired hay field. This depleted field had been a hay field for 40 years straight. So I have had to learn to drive and fix the tractor. I also bought a no-till drill, applied 325 tons of compost, and planted 650 pounds of pollinator-friendly seeds to the hay field, and it now looks lush, like you could do snow angels in it this spring. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.

I also have my own small food CPG, a popsicle (actually a paleta) brand called Tricicles that takes olallieberries, blackberry, strawberry, lavender, and lime all from within five miles of Pescadero. In fact, the olallieberries and the honey come directly from our place. I have them made by a co-manufactuer in South San Francisco and sell them at a local farm stand. 

Another significant learning came from buying a food truck during COVID. We have had it parked in the town of Pescadero, and on weekends we served food with ingredients sourced from our local Pescadero farmers and ranchers. I’ve learned a lot about standing up a food truck, processing, permitting, and offering food to customers, as well as going through food safety certification.

Playing in Silicon Valley on the technology side and working hands-on with the paletas, the food truck and the field gives me a good perspective. It certainly helps me understand where farmers and those in food service are coming from better.

Do you find that being both a producer and an investor gives you a unique vantage point that informs your investment decisions?

Absolutely. While some investors may have more professional experience—like the CEO of McDonald’s who is now in venture—I have a different scale of experience with my food truck in Pescadero. This hands-on experience helps me understand what it takes to make things happen. For instance, when companies pitch technology for the food truck market, I can assess whether we would actually use that technology. Or someone is talking about getting an input on a farmer’s field, I can envision how easy or hard that might be. 

For startups looking to make an impact in the AgriFood Tech space, how can they get involved with Better Food Ventures?

Send us an email at We’re always open to new ideas and collaborations.