A Matchmaker for Food Startups

Branchfood founder Lauren Abda, N12, helps entrepreneurs find their way

Lauren Abda

The informal meeting starts with introductions around the room. Among the 20 or so attendees is Darnell Adams, who hopes to eliminate a food desert in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood by opening a community-owned co-op supermarket. In the corner is Jaime Silverstein, a crop developer for Freight Farms, which builds urban hydroponic farms inside shipping containers. Cullen Schwarz invites everyone to test his app DoneGood, which rates restaurants and other businesses on their social responsibility, including environmental friendliness and worker fairness.

The co-founder of Enerchi Bites says she is open to ideas about recyclable packaging for her chia-rich energy bar nuggets. This leads to a discussion about that time Stonyfield Farms tried encasing frozen yogurt balls in edible, fruit-based film skins, to eliminate packaging altogether. A noble idea, but a little weird, most in the room agree.

All ears turn to the two Brown University grads who want to create a health drink based on gac, a superfruit grown in Vietnam. They expect to start with a powdered form, as the fresh fruit is not allowed into the United States. Someone across the table offers the name of an entrepreneur who did something similar with jackfruit: “You might want to chat with her about how she built supply.”

With the right connections, these small companies with big ideas could make a difference in how we eat.

These regular meet-ups, where people who work in all areas of food can get together to network and share best practices, are hosted by Lauren Abda, N12, a matchmaker of sorts for Boston food and tech entrepreneurs. Her company, Branchfood, runs these monthly Community Tables, as well as workshops and panel discussions focused on what’s innovative on the local food scene, and leases co-working space to budding food companies from its hip location in a downtown Boston skyscraper.

A couple years ago, Abda noticed restaurants, urban farms and local/sustainable food startups were flourishing around the city. “But there wasn’t a resource for people to access all these interesting things happening in the Boston ecosystem,” she says. Now people have a way to learn about a new way to deliver CSA shares, find restaurant software that makes sourcing organic produce easier, or even meet an angel investor looking for the next big thing in veganism.

Branchfood’s largest event to date was last November’s “Hack Urban Food,” which invited techies to come up with ideas to benefit restaurants, urban farms and institutional food services. About 150 people took part in the two-day event, which yielded such grow-worthy ideas as an app that would text customers when fresh produce is delivered to a store.

People have noticed what Abda has been up to: The Metro named her one of three female entrepreneurs to look out for, and Zagat included her in its “30 under 30” in Boston.

Abda became interested in the private sector while a student in the Friedman School’s Food Policy and Applied Nutrition Program. She was inspired by her classes with James Tillotson, professor of food policy and international business, and sought out business classes at MIT. In 2010, she started Tufts Food Works, a club for students interested in entrepreneurship and the food industry. With the help of Professor William Masters, she created a directed study (for herself and other students) that included guest lectures by business professors and site visits to local food ventures.

Explaining the breadth of the food system has been a big part of her mentorship to budding food companies. She recently coproduced the Boston Food Network database, which organizes all the people in Boston’s food scene, from farmers to distributors to companies that “rescue” food waste to keep it out of the landfill.

“There are a lot of food entrepreneurs who don’t understand the different parts of the food system, and the many players that need to be on board for these startups to really be successful,” she says. With the right connections, she hopes, these small companies with big ideas will make a difference in how we eat.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Tufts Nutrition magazine.

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