Food Hackers Cook Up a Storm of Startup Ideas in San Francisco

File this under “more evidence that food-tech is one of the hottest areas for Bay Area entrepeneurs.” A weekend Food Hackathon contest at SOMACentral’s new 450 Townsend Street space attracted some 170 developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and food lovers for 30 hours of brainstorming and frantic coding, culminating in a pitchfest late Sunday afternoon with $25,000 in prizes at stake. Teams originated or improved upon 14 startup ideas, at least a few of which seem destined to grow into serious businesses.

The grand prize for best overall food innovation hack went to Vibrantly, a team that built an iPhone app that lets users search for foods based on their color. Feeling like something green? The Vibrantly app can show you healthy food options ranging from kale stew to basil pesto to guacamole. “By focusing on color we stimulate your right brain and motivate behavior change,” said Vibrantly’s team leader.

The event, believed to be the first-ever hackathon focused on food and technology, was timed to coincide with the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, taking place in San Francisco April 6-9. It was the brainchild of San Francisco-area entrepreneurs Matt Wise, and was co-organized by Michelle Paratore, Wayne Sutton, and Tim West. West, Wise, and Sutton are also the founders of Cosemble, an events platform that is often used to organized food startup events. Sponsorship came from nearly 30 companies, including recipe search startup Yummly, freelance marketplace Elance, and job search site Dice. (Xconomy was a media sponsor of the event.)

Food Hackathon Logo“We put this together with a desire to change our food system,” West said at the closing pitchfest. “Here in San Francisco we have people with an unbelievable power to create positive change. These people have hacked away for the last 36 hours to come up with awesome, wild ideas.”

Wild, indeed. Among the other winning ideas:

Tiny Farms (winner, “Best Hardware and Food Hack” prize): This startup wants to bring large-scale mechanization to the cultivation of edible insects. In countries where bugs are a big part of people’s diet—Thailand, for example—methods for collecting and sorting insects are still rudimentary and labor-intensive. Tiny Farms founder Daniel Imrie-Situnayake said his team spent the weekend building prototype machines that use air flow to to help sort mealworms from the meal in which they live. (See photo above right.) “With the food pressure the world is under, there needs to be infrastructure for this cottage industry that industrializes it,” Imrie-Situnayake said. “There are people whose entire lives depend on this growing market for edible insects, and there are some problems we can address easily in a weekend that could change those lives.”

GardenBnB (winner, “Social Good” prize): Drawing inspiration from Airbnb, this team came up with an idea for connecting would-be gardeners with unused garden space or underpicked fruit trees. The service lets users book times to visit neighbor’s gardens or trees, or book a visit by a “Gardenmobile”—a flatbed truck carrying a miniature garden. “We bring the farm to you,” said team leader Leslie Wu.

Touchless Ticket (winner, “LeapMotion Challenge” prize): This team came up with a clever way to reduce the mess and confusion inherent in paper-based order tracking systems in restaurant kitchens. The team’s prototype, built around a Leap Motion motion-control sensor and a set of computer monitors, is designed to let “expediters” in restaurant kitchens assign orders to specific chefs, then alert wait staff when a meal is ready—all through gesture control, without having to touch a screen or a slip of paper.

Slim Menu (winner, “Best Technology” prize): This team showed off a smartphone app that helps restaurant-goers figure out what to order by showing them pictures of the food on the menu. Optical character recognition software translates menu text into a Web image search, then shows pictures of dishes grabbed from the Internet or from the restaurant’s website.

Are there revenue opportunities to support all these ideas? That will be a key question for teams that decided to keep developing their ideas post-hackathon. Teams began hacking at 11 am Saturday and pitched their final ideas at 5 pm Sunday, meaning they barely had enough time to come up with an idea, recruit team members, and build a basic website, app, or prototype, let alone talk with potential customers or come up with plausible business models. (Teams benefited, of course, from access to free application programming interfaces from companies like Yummly, Yelp, Mashery, Twilio, Twitter, and Facebook.)

In any case, the real purpose of the event was not necessarily to birth fully-formed startups, but to give current or aspiring food-tech entrepreneurs an opportunity to network, experiment, and get feedback from the pitch-contest judges, who included Foodspotting founder Alexa Andrzejewski, Google executive chef Marc Rasic, #Dominatefund founder Ben Parr, and Valley Oak Investments president Niko Hrdy, among others.

“Food is a common dominator on this planet because everyone needs to eat,” hackathon organizer Wise told Xconomy. “We’re witnessing the nascent stages of a groundswell of food innovation fueled by technology, which can be harnessed to improve every aspect of our lives. We created Food Hackathon because we’re passionate about improving food and the human experience.”

West said a second Food Hackathon is already being planned for later this year.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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