Food needs revolution. Luckily, that just happens to be Shen Tong’s mission. As a social activist, entrepreneur and angel investor, disruption is what Tong is all about. An exiled orchestrator of the Chinese democracy movement that led to the 1989 occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Tong completed his studies in the US first at Brandeis, then Boston and finally Harvard. After a string of successful business projects, he has a new mission: changing the world of food-funding. Tong’s motto resonates like a true millennial anthem: “Do well by doing good.”
FOOD-X, a food business accelerator launched here in New York (full video of the launch above), channels funds and expertise from a wide range of experts and investors to do just that. The aim is to give fledgling socially- and environmentally-conscious food businesses a fighting chance to succeed. Budding entrepreneurs can apply to become part of seasonal “cohorts” guided through 14-week long rounds of training and exposure to financiers. Each successful applicant is overseen directly by Tong, his team and a panel of hand-picked experts including Food Tank president Danielle Nierenberg, Food+Tech Connect founder Danielle Gould, chef Dan Barber and The New York Times journalist Michael Moss to name a few. Beyond educating new entrepreneurs, FOOD-X works to provide tailored introductions to investors most likely to take an interest in each company’s mission. The goal is to support long-lasting relationships, not just caffeine-injections.
This is venture capital meets pressure cooking. Fourteen weeks with FOOD-X equates to a year out in the field in terms of lessons learned, access to funds and finding food mentors. In return for around $50,000 initial funding to attend the program, FOOD-X takes a small share (on average around six to ten percent) of each business, exposes entrepreneurs to potential investors and pairs them with a rotating plethora of successful mentors. The program is overseen by Chris Stueart, who brings corporate and food-related expertise to bear upon the management of FOOD-X. The first batch of graduates to have benefited from the program includes already familiar names such as Local Food Lab and Nextdoorganics. In turn, these well-seasoned graduates are already hard at work inspiring and educating the next wave of food entrepreneurs.
FOOD-X is also a shrewd investment in itself. The odds are clearly stacked in its favor. Tong’s experience with venture accelerators has shown that three out of four companies change their names and more than half change their product as a result of seeking funding. He sees the cycle of trial and error as an essential ingredient for creating well-prepared entrepreneurs. As a result his FOOD-X program is designed to simulate and expose new entrepreneurs to risk and reward, though the training wheels are still there to prevent any real injuries. The rewards benefit everyone involved, including FOOD-X’s future cohorts.
It appears Shen is onto something. According to Food+Tech Connect, fifteen new food startup accelerators and incubators launched in 2014. Rather than be worried about potential competitors, Tong sees this as a good thing. For him more food accelerators and training-related incubators can grow the new food movement even faster. Most hearteningly, big consumer goods businesses are seeking a dialogue in this arena rather than put up opposition.
However this accelerator is far from just another corporate funding machine. It’s an experiment in modification. FOOD-X’s products are engineered not only for profit but a deep-seated passion for social activism and interest in the food system, too. That’s because Tong wants to build “with heart” rather than rely on technological advances to rescue the food system. For him, the desire to create a new model stems from experience garnered across different cultures.
Language and location aside, he sees people everywhere suffering from eating habits and food products damaging their health and agricultural systems to boot. The result is a situation where much of modern medicine is focused on treating preventable diet-related illnesses. He wants to change that. Faced with that situation it’s hard not to question if the existing food system is benefiting society overall: “We are twice as large and are living twice as long compared to traditional agrarian societies but… not that much happier or healthier.”
Tong’s past experiences have led to the conviction that change “never happens from the top down.” Instead, a “groundswell” is needed to help educate consumers and businesses alike about how the choices they make can change things for the better. The solution for him is to create an environment that nurtures businesses that aim to “do good.”
Change also starts at home. Tong and his family now eat 90 percent organic facilitated by Nextdoorganics. For him, the key to making the switch from regular to local, sustainable produce is changing the consumer model. Rather than baffle shoppers with choice, success and change can be achieved by creating simple experiences that bring good food directly to consumers. Similarly price-point is key. For example, buying local should be cheaper than buying products with long carbon footprints.
Tong’s endeavors are centered around five key principles: respect for people’s bodies and environment, a focus on doing good, individual responsibility, being sustainable and being delicious. The time is clearly ripe for food lovers with business acumen to put their ideas to the test. Almost 30 years after Tiananmen, Tong’s now driving evolution too.
The latest group of FOOD-X participants will be announced on its site in mid-March.