NEW YORK — In Harlem, a husband-and-wife team have perfected a plant-based cheese for New York-style pizza. In San Jose, a concerned father is tackling plastic waste, one spork at a time. A pair of sisters in Minneapolis and Brooklyn, NY, created a shelf-stable oat milk that uses the entire organic, whole grain oat, resulting in more nutrition and less waste.

These entrepreneurs are among dozens selected to participate in Rabobank’s FoodBytes! virtual pitch competition, which kicked off in October. The program offers opportunities for emerging brands across the globe to network with investors and industry professionals representing some of the biggest food and agriculture corporations in the world. Hundreds of startups in the food technology, agriculture technology and consumer packaged goods sectors applied to the program. This year an expanded selection of 45 startups received one-on-one connections to investors and corporate members and will permanently join the FoodBytes! alumni network. In early December, 15 finalists will be invited to pitch to a panel of judges for a cash prize.

“We redesigned Rabobank’s FoodBytes! food and ag innovation platform for one reason: to build a powerful engine for ongoing collaboration and innovation between food and agribusiness players who want to feed the world sustainably,” said Anne Greven, head of food and agribusiness innovation at Rabobank. “We know we can’t achieve this purpose alone, which is why we’ve convened a collective of influential corporate and investor members who share our vision.”

The 2020 cohort is the most diverse in the program’s five-year history. Fifty-one percent of the startups are led or co-led by people of color, and 44% are led or co-led by women. The 45 startups come from 15 countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, Israel, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland.

“In the past we were going city to city trying to find the best and the brightest startups solving food challenges around North America and Europe,” Ms. Greven said. “Our goal this year was to go much more global because food is a global system and we’re a global institution, and we look at challenges of the food system globally.”

Innovating for good

Founders chosen for the program are developing sustainable solutions to address key challenges in the food system such as food waste, nutrition and food safety. Concepts include upcycled foods and beverages, plastic reduction, cell-based meat production, natural coatings that extend produce shelf life, and technologies that improve soil health, reduce water use and combat labor shortages and worker safety issues.

“If we’re really going to solve the food challenge globally we have to work together, and we have to work together quickly, and that can’t happen if we all remain in silos, competing in a battle for market share,” Ms. Greven said. “We have to come together to adopt what we believe should be the changes that can have a big impact for all of us in the food system and make a difference for the future.

“I have this high level mission that we want to be the beacon of food and ag innovation for all the members, and that’s why building the membership, expanding the startup base, building a program that encourages connections and community is how we believe we will have the biggest impact quickly and for the future.”

Dinesh Tadepalli, co-founder of Planeteer

One environmentally conscious entrepreneur hopes to eliminate the need for single-use plastic serve ware. Dinesh Tadepalli, co-founder of Planeteer, developed machinery to produce edible cutlery made from wheat, oats, chickpea, brown rice and corn. The first offering is a vegan, protein-rich spoon that remains sturdy in hot and cold foods. Flavors include chocolate, vanilla, black pepper, oregano chili, and Indian masala.

“The whole idea of my entrepreneurship came after my children were born, especially after my daughter was born, where I was planning their financial future, and that’s when I realized what’s the point of me saving money for them if they can’t enjoy and be safe on this planet?” Mr. Tadepalli said.

Planeteer plans to supply spoons to ice cream and frozen yogurt shops, restaurants and concert venues. In the meantime, the company is selling the product online while developing additional shapes.

“Spoons are just the beginning,” Mr. Tadepalli said. “We are working on edible straws and edible sporks… and edible chopsticks are in the pipeline.”

Several startups in the cohort are focused on plant-based product development. Kartik Dixit, co-founder and chief executive officer of Mumbai-based Evo Foods, is bringing animal-free alternatives to Indian consumers, beginning with a nutritious liquid egg replacement formulated with chickpeas, mung beans and peas.

Kartik Dixit, co-founder and CEO of Evo Foods

“Essentially we would like to be the Impossible Foods of India,” Mr. Dixit said. “We started with the egg because we saw the egg was the ideal gateway product for the Indian market… Egg comes with no religious restrictions, and the market is huge.”

The pandemic has delayed the company’s plans to partner with restaurants to build brand awareness before entering the retail market, Mr. Dixit said.

“Restaurants are in bad shape in India; things are trying to open up,” he said. “But at the same time cloud kitchens are booming, so we see that as an opportunity.”

Another plant-based solution comes from Willa’s, a company co-founded by Christina Dorr Drake and her sister, Elena Dorr Zienda, based on a grandmother’s recipe for oat milk. Both have prior experience in the food industry; Ms. Drake specializes in marketing, and Ms. Zienda has a background in chemical engineering.

Many other oat milks on the market contain additives such as gums or sugars, but Willa’s original unsweetened oat milk includes only filtered water, organic whole grain oats, organic real vanilla extract and salt. The company’s unique milling approach utilizes the whole oat. As a result, the product contains more fiber and protein and less sugar per serving than other varieties.

Willa's oat milk“We chose to name the company after our grandmother because she was real, honest and uncompromising,” Ms. Drake said.

The brand was set to launch in coffeeshops and coworking spaces this past March, but as the pandemic scrambled initial go-to market plans, the founders quickly shifted to marketing and selling the products online.

Like Evo Foods and Willa’s, many of the startups selected for the program have demonstrated resilience in adapting against the unexpected market challenges of COVID-19, Ms. Greven said.

“I’m constantly in awe of these folks who have taken herculean efforts, for example if they were going to go into the restaurant channel and had to immediately shift to direct to consumer,” she said. “The amount of energy and passion they have and belief in what they’re doing helps fuel their ability to be quite resilient and make those shifts.”

Accelerating solutions

In late October, FoodBytes! provided various sessions and mentorship opportunities to the participating startups, addressing a range of issues from fundraising to marketing to scaling. Companies involved in the program include PepsiCo, Inc., Archer Daniels Midland., Barilla and Dole Food Co.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of different incubators and accelerators over the years, and this one week of Foodbytes! blew me away,” said Kobi Regev, founder of New York-based Pleese Foods. “I was amazed by the type of people that attended and who got to speak in the panels and having the opportunity to meet some of them was just such a compliment to be part of this.”

Kobi and Abev Regev, founders of Pleese Foods

Mr. Regev and his wife, Abev, launched the business to fill a void in the plant-based cheese market for an allergen-free option. Many non-dairy cheese products available are formulated with soy, seeds, wheat or nuts. The debut product from Pleese is a pizza-style cheese made with faba bean protein, potato and coconut oil. The company initially is selling to restaurants and plans to launch a retail product next year.

“COVID has slowed things down for us but didn’t stop us,” Mr. Regev said. “What we realized is the benefit of going down the foodservice line, especially with pizza, is pizzerias were open during the entire pandemic. I think we were very lucky in that regard. We want to make sure we expand slowly and surely and smartly. There’s desire to have our product all over the country, but we need to make sure we create a very strong infrastructure and we get our word out efficiently and that we can bring together an amazing team to really grow this company.”

Another important area of innovation, particularly during a tumultuous year, is health and wellness. Moment, a brand of botanical beverages, was inspired by the practice of meditation and designed to relieve stress with minimal calories and no sugar or artificial ingredients. Aisha Chottani co-founded the business with her husband, Faheem Kajee.

Aisha Chottani and Faheem Kajee, founders of Moment

“Most people find meditation pretty intimidating; It looks difficult and takes even more discipline to perform it when you are really busy and stressed out, which is when you need it the most,” Ms. Chottani said. “We created a proprietary blend of botanicals and adaptogens, which are scientifically proven to stimulate the same brainwaves as meditation, helping you reduce stress, improve focus and enhance creativity.”

The company launched earlier this year with a direct-to-consumer business and sells the beverages in a handful of specialty stores in New York. A portion of proceeds supports a provider of mindfulness programming to schools nationwide.

“For us, it’s more than just a beverage,” Ms. Chottani said. “We started with a beverage because that was an easy way to access our customers and provide an immediate value… We are going to experiment with other types of products and experiences going forward. Seven out of 10 workers have identified COVID as the most stressful period of their lives, and even as the world is conquering how this pandemic is going to play out, there’s going to be other changes in the next few years in how we work, how we operate and how we live as a society, and people will need support.”