This week, the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA) announced they were launching a technology accelerator to attract companies interested in entering the global produce market. Fresh Field Catalyst is a six-month immersion program for companies (start-up, scale-up, and corporates) to help them integrate into the fresh produce and floral industry.
I caught up with Vonnie Estes, the VP of Innovation for the IFPA, to learn more about the program and understand why an industry trade association for fresh produce is launching an accelerator.
Why is an organization focused on fresh produce starting a technology accelerator?
The fresh produce industry has the potential to provide solutions to almost every major global health and economic challenge we are facing. When we formed the new association, International Fresh Produce Association, built on the legacies of PMA and United Fresh, the goal was to create an association primed to address tomorrow’s challenges – including leading from the front and demonstrating our relevance to the world.
Part of that work is showcasing the potential and possibility for innovators with technologies that can be adapted to the produce industry. The accelerator, Fresh Field Catalyst, is designed to bring those with an adaptable technology into the produce market by creating a bridge into the industry, creating industry connections, and minimizing risks by sharing industry learnings and lessons to those exploring the produce market for the first time.
Can you briefly talk about the story of how this idea came together?
Based on my interactions at non-industry events and engagements, I’d argue that many investors and innovators are unaware of the kind of opportunity they have in the produce industry. The perishability of our product means that our supply chain is fast-paced, providing a phenomenal environment for testing, iteration, and improvements. Our products are critical and available in almost every community across the globe, providing not only an ability to make a huge impact on what matters to people the most, but also an enormous opportunity for scaling and growth.
As we looked to scale the opportunity for technology in the produce industry and what other groups are doing, we had to ask ourselves, what can we offer that no one else can? What do companies need most?
Connections. Contacts. Risk mitigation. An open door.
We knew that we could scale our impact and help bring transformative tech solutions to our industry by throwing open the door to innovators who already have tools ready to be adapted to our industry needs.
Many accelerators take equity in the companies, but you chose not to. Can you talk about your thinking process?
Right now, we want to bring technology into the industry with the least number of barriers. This is a new program and we are figuring out what is best for the industry, the companies, and IFPA. With most incubators/accelerators the negotiation of equity is one of the hardest parts and ends up blocking out some companies. I’m not saying we would never look at taking equity, but for this first cohort, we want to get it up and running as soon as we can to bring technology to the industry.
Are there any specific technology areas you are excited to see involved in your accelerator?
There are so many challenges to the industry that we are looking to solve! We are open to all solutions to the big problems – labor, climate change, food waste, digitalizing. And also solutions that just make things work better. We will show companies how to enter the produce industry to solve the problem they are solving elsewhere – in other countries or other industries. We are looking for solutions, the technology applied is up to the company.
We have a great opportunity to learn not only from other industries but also from those innovators coming from different regions. One of the difficult challenges to overcome as it relates to technology and produce is the need to cater to different commodities and conditions. A more diverse field of innovators provides so many more opportunities to learn and generate new ideas.
Is this something we will see every year?
Yes. We plan to do this every year. The program will grow as we learn. For example, we might move toward more themed challenges.