The Art of the Business Pitch
By Monica Jimenez for Tufts Nutrition Magazine
Pitching your start-up to potential investors is like a first date. “The goal is to get a second date,” Tina Weber told her audience at the Friedman School. “You want to give them just enough; you want to hide the crazy a little bit; you want to emotionally hook them.”
It was late March, and Weber, a Tufts lecturer in entrepreneurship and business planning, was speaking to a group of about ten up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Twenty-four teams had submitted their business ideas to the inaugural Tufts Food and Nutrition Entrepreneurship competition, sponsored by the Friedman School in conjunction with the Tufts Gordon Institute and open to the entire university community. The eight teams in the room were finalists looking for pointers on pitching their ideas.
The finalists—a combination of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and partners from outside the university—represented a diverse array of ideas. Robin Shrestha, N15, project manager at the school’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Nutrition, and emergency medicine physician Sapana Adhikari cofounded Smartbakery to provide healthy, affordable meals to schoolchildren in rural Nepal. Xinge Ding, N18, Yan Bai, AG09, F16, Ying-Ju Li, F16, and Perng-Hwa Kung, an MIT alum, proposed a nutrition app, OptDiet, targeted to the Chinese market. Silvia Berciano Benitez, N21, and Alessandra Verme, N19, with Professor José Ordovás, director of the Nutrition and Genomics Lab at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, were pitching BabyGen, an app that tailors nutrition recommendations for pregnant women based on genetic tests.
In two weeks, the teams would present their companies to a judging panel of fourteen entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and food executives. While finalists scribbled notes, Weber offered tips for making the most of their five-minute pitches: specify your target market; go easy on text and heavy on images in PowerPoints; and try to offer a demo or prototype. At stake were three prizes—for $2,500, $7,500, and $15,000—to help winners put their ideas into action. The PepsiCo Foundation and Bunge were platinum sponsors of the competition.
“We’re tackling issues of food insecurity, market failures, and poverty in West Africa, where the population is exploding. I can’t think of anything more exciting”
Dylan Anderson-Berens, N17 for Team GleTech with Ulrich Dossou, Dylan Anderson-Berens, Lauren Betz, and Guy Kodjogbe
When Weber asked for volunteers to practice, Ulrich Dossou stood up. Visiting his home country of Benin a few years ago, he said, he heard farmers talk about the difficulty of getting their products to market before they spoiled. So Dossou, a Suffolk University graduate, and his business partner, Dylan Anderson-Berens, N17, developed a multipart solution to the problem, including a mobile app linking small producers with pre-harvest finance opportunities, weather and price information, advisory services, cold-chain services, and buyers. Together with their teammates Lauren Betz and Guy Kodjogbe, they call their company GleTech—“Gle” means “farm” in the Fon language of southern Benin.
Some 80 percent of Benin’s 10.3 million citizens make a living in agriculture, usually subsistence farming. “We’re tackling issues of food insecurity, market failures, and poverty in West Africa, where the population is exploding. I can’t think of anything more exciting,” said Anderson-Berens, who completed the Friedman School’s Agriculture, Food and Environment program and recently earned a management certificate at the Harvard Extension School. “It’s just a thrilling puzzle for us to try to create a sustainable business model that really helps underserved smallholder farmers.”
That kind of innovative, big-picture thinking is what the Friedman School’s growing emphasis on entrepreneurship is all about. “Entrepreneurship for both the social good and the building of successful enterprises is now a focus of the Friedman School curriculum and interactions with nutrition entrepreneurship thought leaders around the world,” said Dennis Steindler, then director of entrepreneurship education at the school (Jeff Blumberg is now the new director). The Friedman School aspires to build a Silicon Valley for food innovation on four pillars: The Nutrition Entrepreneurship education program, partnerships with major food-business accelerators, a growing network of experienced advisers, and a Food & Nutrition Innovation Council linking agriculture, research, health care, and other sectors.
The entrepreneurship competition is a key part of the initiative. “It not only encourages people to have big ideas that could have potentially huge impact, but also demonstrates a framework to advance them and move them toward fruition,” said Ed Saltzman, academic dean. And to build a healthier, more equitable, and sustainable food system, new ideas are needed now. “If we don’t have innovation, we’re basically going to be held captive to whatever is being offered to us.”
The Friedman School’s Behrakis Auditorium buzzed on April 12, the day of the competition. In the lobby and hallways, finalists quietly ran through their presentations, fielding good-luck wishes from faculty. Others checked out the big screen and podium, chatting nervously with the family and friends who had come to cheer them on. After the crowd settled into their seats, Dean Dariush Mozaffarian offered opening remarks. “Entrepreneurship is not the same as business or profit. It’s about bringing together a new idea with the intellectual resources and human resources and capital resources to get it done,” he said. “Whatever any of you want to do in the world, whether it’s social, for-profit, or government, if you’re losing money, eventually you’ll shut down.”
Then it was time for the seven teams to present and take questions from the judges. (The finalist behind the eighth team, a service to decode food aroma called AroMenu, was unable to attend.) First to take the stage was engineer Patrick Mulcahy, EG17, there to pitch N2 Appliance, a refrigerator-like device that uses nitrogen gas to keep baked goods fresh. He was followed by Chloe Andrews, N19, a dietetic intern at Tufts Medical Center, who pitched healthful Sustain Energy Gel for athletes, packed in biodegradable seaweed pouches.
Grand Prize Winner
Xinge Ding opened her pitch for OptDiet by telling judges, “I’m here today to offer you a sexy China investment story.” She explained she had been working with patients in Chinatown during an internship at Tufts Medical Center, when the idea for an AI-based diet app driven by user feedback started to germinate. “Their diet is different from Americans’, but not in a good way,” Ding said. She and Yan Bai, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in food policy and nutrition, decided “to get back to our communities, not only in Chinatown, but in China.”
Sapana Adhikari of Smartbakery told the panel she and Robin Shrestha were visiting their native Nepal in 2014 to help set up a school library when they saw students eating processed snacks in place of proper lunches—many students lived too far away to safely bring food to the school, which had no refrigeration. The result was high rates of anemia, vitamin A deficiency, poor performance, and dropouts. “The principal asked, ‘Can you help me feed my students?’” Adhikari recalled.
The pair came up with an idea for a mud brick oven where local women would be paid to bake “smart bowls”—vitamin-fortified bread bowls filled with locally-grown vegetable curry. The bowls would be 22 cents, cheaper than processed snacks, and would create no waste. “This would have a broad societal impact: improving health and education for rural populations, employing women, and encouraging a healthy food culture,” Adhikari said. She promised judges the project could be done for $14,999—one dollar less than the first-prize award.
“This would have a broad societal impact: improving health and education for rural populations, employing women, and encouraging a healthy food culture,”
Sapana Adhikari of Smartbakery
Next up was an app called Picture This, pitched by Friedman School postdoc Eleanor Shonkoff. She was backed by Friedman School faculty Christina Economos and Erin Hennessy, as well as Karen Panetta, a dean at the School of Engineering, and engineering doctoral student Shreyas Kamath. Picture This would use artificial-intelligence technology to estimate users’ caloric intake based on smartphone photos.
After the teams from GleTech and BabyGen closed out the presentations, the judges retreated to a private room to deliberate, while the finalists and the audience headed down the hall to wait.
Sapana Adhikari of Smartbakery told the panel she and Robin Shrestha were visiting their native Nepal in 2014 to help set up a school library when they saw students eating processed snacks in place of proper lunches—many students lived too far away to safely bring food to the school, which had no refrigeration. The result was high rates of anemia, vitamin A deficiency, poor performance, and dropouts. “The principal asked, ‘Can you help me feed my students?’” Adhikari recalled. The pair came up with an idea for a mud brick oven where local women would be paid to bake “smart bowls”—vitamin-fortified bread bowls filled with locally-grown vegetable curry. The bowls would be 22 cents, cheaper than processed snacks, and would create no waste. “This would have a broad societal impact: improving health and education for rural populations, employing women, and encouraging a healthy food culture,” Adhikari said. She promised judges the project could be done for $14,999—one dollar less than the first-prize award.
Giddy with relief, the finalists reviewed their performances with their teammates, praised each other’s presentations—and waited. After about half an hour, the judges filed in, smiling. The crowd formed a semicircle to hear the results.
First up was the $2,500 prize, for the company voted most popular by the audience, which went to BabyGen. “I feel immensely grateful just to be a finalist,” Berciano said. “To have the support of the audience really means a lot to us.” The team has launched a beta version of the blood and genetic tests that will be used in the app and already has twenty-eight customers.
For the $7,500 prize, the judges had a surprise: a tie between GleTech and OptDiet, for $3,750 each. GleTech’s solution for Benin farmers “had excellent proof of concept and very good value chain impact,” one judge observed. Anderson-Berens said he and Dossou plan to invest their winnings into their platform and operations. OptDiet was “a great match of both science and technology,” the judge said, “and we think it really leveraged well the Tufts Friedman brand in China.” Bai and Ding were excited to meet with potential investors—including a judge who expressed interest at the reception. “This entire competition and hearing the other contestants really inspired us to move forward,” Ding said. “We’re really passionate about this project and we’re convinced we can make a difference.”
The panel presented an oversized check to Shrestha and Adhikari—the $15,000 crossed out and replaced with $14,999, the exact amount they had said they needed.
After the judges congratulated all the finalists on their impressive work, it was time to announce the winner of the $15,000 first prize: Smartbakery. Their idea for smart bowls to feed schoolchildren wasn’t high-tech, but the simple solution was powerful, a judge said. “Innovation doesn’t have to be hard—innovation, and entrepreneurship, can be quite easy—and that’s why we chose this.” The panel presented an oversized check to Shrestha and Adhikari—the $15,000 crossed out and replaced with $14,999, the exact amount they had said they needed.
Adhikari said the money will cover all construction, materials and labor costs for the first Smartbakery. She was already planning another trip to Nepal this summer. “To have this support really means a lot to us,” she said. “It’s such a great opportunity, and it’s wonderful that they’re encouraging entrepreneurship here at Friedman.”