Chicago is a leader in food and agriculture innovation. From high-profile startups to the established industry leaders, the city is uniquely poised for continued innovation within the food ecosystem as demonstrated by the Chicago Venture Summit Future-of-Food event last week.
To provide some background, Chicago’s food and beverage manufacturing industry is the nation’s largest, generating $9.4B annually in output and employing over 65,000 individuals, according to the Chicago Business Bulletin recently released by the Research Center at World Business Chicago. Additionally, Chicago’s food innovation startups raised $723M in venture capital in 2021, which is a 508% increase compared to 2019. In the first quarter of this year, companies already raised $111M in venture capital – and the year is far from over. The strength of this sector further supports the city’s position as one of the top three innovation hubs in the country.
The industry has seen accelerated growth and innovation with new products, processes, and services to meet consumers’ ever-changing needs. As this national hub for food innovation, Chicago has over 2,800 companies in its ecosystem. Within this ecosystem is a network of local startups, incubators, investors, and established corporations, such as McDonald’s, Mondelez, ADM, Congra, and Kraft Heinz – to name a few headquartered in the city.
To bring these communities together, World Business Chicago hosted the Chicago Venture Summit Future-of-Food event. The city’s flagship startup and investor conference brought over 600 founders, executives, and investors together to showcase the next generation of innovators who are transforming the global food and ag industry. Here are some of the highlights from the two-day conference ranging from seed funding to unicorn status to recently acquired startups.
AgTools is a worldwide SaaS platform gathering real-time government and institutional data of over 500 specialty crops and commodities. Founder Martha Montoya identified that the agriculture and food supply chain is fragmented with many contributors and a large geographic reach. She created AgTools to provide a better comprehensive solution for industry participants to the challenge of measuring what matters. Last year, AgTools was selected to participate in the Illinois AgTech Accelerator housed out of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Using microbial fermentation, Aqua Cultured Foods* developed the first whole-muscle cut sushi-quality seafood alternatives. Their products are high in protein and fiber, free from the top-10 allergens, antibiotic free, vegan, non-GMO and have a fraction of the calories of traditional seafood. Co-Founders Anne Palermo and Brittany Chibe raised $2.1M at the end of 2021. At the conference, Anne shared how the company had developed formulas for tuna, whitefish, squid, and shrimp.
Made with unique ingredients and flavors of seventeen countries in West Africa, AYO Foods is a premium meal solutions brand delivering hand-crafted West African dishes. Co-Founders Perteet Spencer and Fred Spencer created this frozen food business to bring authentic ethnic products to the frozen aisle. Just one year after launch, AYO Foods achieved an 80x increase in distribution and saw a nationwide expansion last year into retailers like Kroger, Whole Foods, and Safeway.
As a local startup created out of The University of Chicago, BiomeSense is transforming the ability to understand and leverage the human microbiome for better health. Co-Founders Kevin Honaker and Jack Gilbert began developing a novel biosensor and analytics platform for daily gut microbiome tracking. BiomeSense’s pioneering GutLabTM automated laboratory system and MetaBiomeTM bioinformatics platform are the first-ever solution to provide continuous, at-home tracking, and analysis of the microbiome.
With a mission to free the world from single-use, Kadeya offers sustainable solutions that are convenient and easily adoptable by reimagining the entire supply chain of water bottles. Kadeya is a closed-loop water vending service powered by digitally-connected reusable water bottles and mini bottling stations. The company delivers convenient, quality, low-cost water that reduces carbon footprints and digitizes water consumption for users. Recently, CEO & Founder Manuela Zoinsein was featured in Inicio Ventures’ 100 Rising Latinx Founders to Watch List, which showcases inspirational US-based Latinx founders who are making a significant difference.
Co-Founded by Thomas Jonas and Matthew Stronginm, Nature’s Fynd – a Chicago based unicorn – tapped into breakthrough fermentation technology. The company created Fy™, a fungi-based nutritional protein from a microbe with origins in the geothermal springs of Yellowstone National Park. Fy Protein™ is made into products that are available at select grocery stores. Last month, Nature’s Fynd was awarded $4.7 million in grant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to expand their tech product for alternative protein in low-middle income countries.
As restaurants faced new challenges due to the pandemic, Co-Founders Andy Freivogel, Luisa Castellanos, and Ken Tsang created Science On Call to provide 24/7 tech support for restaurants. As a subscription-based tech support platform for restaurants, Science On Call helps with point of sale, internet, Wi-Fi, online ordering, email, phones, and more. Notably, this startup was a Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator portfolio company in 2021 and was supported by Food Foundry in 2020. Science on Call raised $1.6 million in pre-seed funding this past February, demonstrating the momentum of early-stage food startups in Chicago.
After creating PeaPod and ItemMaster, Co-Founders Andrew Parkinson and Thomas Parkinson took their 30 years of experience in grocery to create Sifter*, the industry-leading Nutrition as a Service™ (NaaS) platform. During the conference, Sifter announced their $5M Series Seed funding round. The financing will help to accelerate the growth of its NaaS platform and launch its Sifter Retailer Solutions. The company’s revolutionary technology, regulatory-compliant dietary data, and tailored solution suite enables grocers to empower consumers to successfully navigate their personal nutrition and wellness journeys.
The Planting Hope Company Inc. develops, launches and scales uniquely innovative plant-based and planet-friendly food and beverage brands. Founded by experienced food industry entrepreneurs Julia Stamberger and James Curley, Planting Hope is a women-managed and led company. The Chicago company went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Notably, this past April, Planting Hope also announced a big expansion across top grocery retailers in the US.
Last but not least, Vital Proteins is the market leader in collagen in the United States and a leading lifestyle and wellness platform offering supplements, beverages and food products. Founded in Chicago, the company was created to deliver premium collagen products to fit every type of lifestyle and to provide tools for a more fulfilling wellness routine. During the keynote fireside chat, CEO Tracey Halama shared about the pivots the company made and how it became the successful business it is today. Notably, Nestlé Health Science, a business unit of Nestle SA, recently completed its acquisition of Vital Proteins.
The Chicago food ecosystem is deep and wide with some of the leading corporations, investors, innovation hubs, and rapidly growing startups. Together, they are driving food innovation for a better future for everyone.