The Kaleidoscope of Food – Chemistry, AI, Culinary Creativity, Community and Business

Pasta tasting hosted by Tarini.

From chef/baker to scientist

From my adventures as a creative chef and baker, I took a bold step to embark on a PhD in 2017 – to translate my experiences in the commercial kitchen into a computational model based on food chemistry. The ubiquitous challenge I was determined to tackle was the constant need to adapt recipes, mainly due to ingredient substitution. In every professional kitchen, this vexing issue is addressed through a cumbersome trial-and-error process, with little transferable knowledge gained on why a substitution succeeded or failed.

My proposed solution was an ambitious one – to develop a “system” that could break down recipes to their essential molecular components. By analyzing the molecular makeup of each ingredient, I aimed to identify the synergistic interplay between them. This would allow chefs to make educated substitutions by finding ingredients with complementary molecular profiles to maintain a recipe’s intended outcome.

From PhD graduate to startup CEO

This was the start of my PhD journey in 2017. By 2022, I had achieved my research goals, specifically for carb-based ingredients and their products. The sense of achievement and excitement was brief, as I was keenly aware that the next challenge might be even bigger – bridging the divide between academia and industry. To bring my work into the real world through my startup (grainge.ai), I needed the practical experience of launching a startup and, moreover, the right support system.

IIFH and my startup journey

The IIFH Innovator Fellowship proved to be the ideal opportunity I needed. The venture capital group I had the privilege of working with, Bluestein Ventures in Chicago, invests in mission-driven businesses across the food value chain, that promote a healthier and more sustainable food system. My role immersed me in the thrilling startup journey – from those first screening calls all the way through investments. Experiencing that process from the investor’s perspective made it far easier to understand and apply these insights to my own startup. Additionally, I developed an Investment Thesis focused on AI solutions spanning the which included Food Formulation, Operations such as ingredient supply, product manufacturing and distribution, and finally insight into consumer satisfaction and needs. Though my interest is in Formulation, the ultimate success of a product depends on the above-mentioned complementary functions, and I considered it important to get that wholistic view. These learnings were critical at this time for two reasons:

  1. AI is rapidly developing into a transformative technology across the food value chain. I was fortunate enough to have the experience of screening various competing and complementary businesses during my time working with Bluestein Ventures. I learned how to differentiate and position my startup, essential to nailing the product-market fit and kicking my journey off to a successful start.
  2. Garnering financing for startups in 2024 is challenging and funding amounts are small, relative to a years past. My fellowship allowed me to observe how investors assess the financial and business acumen of founders and appreciate when founders are focused and “scrappy” – two fundamental characteristics that define my approach as a founder.

The role of IIFH proved to be bigger than the invaluable Fellowship exposure. IIFH was pivotal in developing my network of industry mentors, scientific advisors, lawyers, and friends. Having a supportive peer group is critical when striking out on an entrepreneurial path. I am especially thankful to Amber Flores, Berta Lascuevas Laguna and Dana Armstrong. A few key events organised by IIFH were instrumental in developing these friendships and network.

  • The IIFH Partner Summit in October 2023 provided an unexpected platform to showcase my research. It was the first time presenting my bold ideas to a conference audience comprised of potential partners and investors.
  • The regular book club meetings created a welcoming space to organically develop friendly connections and meet like-minded innovators.
  • Presenting my research and Fellowship experience with IIFH’s network of industry partners, was great for my own reflection and it felt good to be able to give back by creating more opportunities for industry funded fellowships for future cohorts.

The Entrepreneurial Journey continues … Towards Tangible Impact

The training wheels are finally coming off! Amidst this whirlwind of network-building, I also completed my dissertation and authored articles on the Investment Thesis that Bluestein Ventures will publish later this summer. I’ve assembled a founding team, secured pre-seed funding, and crafted a go-to-market strategy. I have also created some product recipes and tested them for consumer acceptance and liking, an event that was with my colleagues from IIFH. The current exhilarating, yet daunting step is pitching the concept to potential pilot customers and investors, and I am tapping into my flourishing network to identify industry mentors.

While this leg of the journey is culminating, I’m under no illusion that the path ahead will be easy. I’ll continue leveraging the tremendous IIFH network for next milestones like acquiring customers and seeking seed funds. While every startup faces unexpected challenges and opportunities around each bend, it’s comforting to stand on the shoulders of giants who have navigated this terrain before. As I venture out from academia’s supportive environment, I hold immense appreciation for the experiences and connections that will remain a supportive foundation for this exhilarating, roller-coaster adventure.

Tarini Naravane

Tarini embraces multidisciplinary paths, having earned degrees in computer science and computer engineering, and job experience as a professional baker and time supporting trade desks on Wall Street.  She is now combining her computational expertise with her passion in food, health and agricultural systems to pursue her PhD in Biological Systems Engineering at UC Davis. Her background in business development and professional baking gives her a unique perspective on leveraging research science for innovative applications.