Student Startup Roundup: Farmcation, Byte
June 08, 2016
This is part of an occasional series of articles spotlighting students and recent alumni who are working with Berkeley-Haas to start a new business or social enterprise.
By Krysten Crawford
Co-founders: Grace Lesser and Caitlyn Toombs, MBA 16s
Grace Lesser and her husband gave “localvore” a whole new meaning when they set out a year ago to plan their wedding. They spent the summer before their August nuptials raising 65 chickens, along with beets, carrots, salad greens, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, and herbs that they served to 240 guests on their big day.
“We poured our blood, sweat and tears into turning over an acre of land,” says Lesser, who cultivated her wedding feast on the non-working farm she grew up on in western Massachusetts. “It was amazing.”
The appreciation Lesser gained for the hard work and low margins that define small farming today also planted the idea for Lesser’s new company, Farmcation.
Formed late last year with her friend and classmate Caitlyn Toombs, Farmcation helps small farmers connect with urbanites eager to experience firsthand where and how the food they put on their tables is grown.
Photo by Kim Heath
Farmcation works with small farmers to host on-site events, including guided tours and prepared meals. The company’s first event, held in April, drew 30 people to Terra Firma Farm in Winters, Ca. “We want to help bring people closer to their source of food, to be more conscious consumers, and to create a better sense of community through food,” says Toombs.
Lesser and Toombs are, in many ways, a perfect pairing. Both are self-described foodies (Toombs, a New Jersey native, keeps a detailed spreadsheet of her top Bay Area meals) who worked in international development before starting at Haas in 2014.
Lesser, who in addition to her MBA is set to earn a master’s degree in public health in December, is interning this summer at Denver-based WhiteWave Foods, which distributes Earthbound Farms, Horizon Organic, and Land O'Lakes products. She lived in Rwanda for four years before coming to Haas, where she designed public health and agriculture programs to improve population health, particularly focused on nutrition.
At Haas, Lesser and Toombs bonded over their social impact backgrounds. But it wasn’t until they took Jorge Calderon’s Impact Startup Disco, a one-unit weekend course on entrepreneurship, that they devised a business plan. Farmcation officially launched in December, after Lesser and Toombs won a $5,000 grant from the Dean’s Startup Seed Fund.
During the spring, Lesser and Toombs did extensive customer research and outreach to local farmers. Lesser relied on a UC Berkeley public health course on food entrepreneurship and innovation, “Eat. Think. Design,” and a team of interdisciplinary students, to further develop the company’s business model.
Now, Lesser and Toombs are fine-tuning Farmcation’s business model while planning a second event at a Northern California farm.
“There is so much about this business that was nurtured during our time at Haas — through courses and so many support structures,” says Toombs, who is set to join Google in August. “We think Farmcation has a lot of potential.”
Co-Founder: Megan Mokri
Evening & Weekend MBA, 16
The typical office vending machine is turning into a culinary adventure of a much healthier and savory sort, thanks to Megan Mokri’s company, Byte.
What Byte offers that most other vending machine suppliers don’t? Fresh salads instead of Cheez-Its. Breakfast burritos instead of Pop-Tarts. Blue Bottle coffee instead of Coca-Cola. Byte is the fresh food solution for the 99 percent of offices that have no fresh food on-site.
“It’s like having a little Whole Foods in your office,” says Mokri.
Just one year old, Byte already counts among its customers Chevron, Bain & Company, Autodesk, Virgin America, and cosmetics retailer Sephora.
Mokri and her husband and co-founder, Lee Mokri, got the idea for Byte while running a meal delivery service in Marin County called 180Eats, which launched a year after Mokri enrolled at Haas in 2013. It was during their search for a way to offer around-the-clock meal deliveries that they discovered the latest in smart refrigeration technology.
They ran a pilot program using technology that relies on a modified Android computer tablet with a credit card reader. Wireless (RFID) technology detects what items are taken out of the refrigerator and then automatically charges the card that was swiped.
It didn’t take long for the duo to realize that they had a potential “billion-dollar business" in the making, says Megan Mokri. Earlier this year they sold the assets of 180Eats and closed on a non-cash deal for the smart refrigeration technology developed by a company called Pantry. Mokri’s Evening & Weekend classmate Ben Purvis joined the team as vice president of operations. Today, Byte is backed by $750,000 in angel funding and has about 20 full-time employees.
Mokri, who is also mom to two-year-old daughter Isla, says the Evening & Weekend MBA program was perfect for her. “I could have my cake and eat it, too, in terms of still being in the industry without losing two years to go to school,” she says.
During her program, Mokri was awarded two fellowships, the Hansoo Lee Fellowship and the Turner Award, which helped her juggle tuition and startup costs. She also credits an entrepreneurship class taught by Chris Puscasiu and the Food Venture Lab, a course first offered last fall that is taught by William Rosenzweig, for helping her to learn by doing.
“Having the resources of Haas when you inevitably hit hard times, not just professors but also fellow students who are starting their own businesses, was incredible,” says Mokri. “It’s an amazing program.”
Read more about Farmcation.
Read more about Byte.