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Gluten Allergy Prompts AgTech Food Tracing Startup

Stephanie Westdal, Co-Founder of TheoryMesh

Do you know where your food was grown? 

Unless you grew it yourself, or know your local farmer, it’s a difficult question to answer.

The dilemma:
This was the dilemma facing Stephanie Westdal, Co-founder of TheoryMesh. Her husband and Co-founder, Chris Bunio, developed a severe gluten allergy. “We would do our best to make the correct food choices based on the food packaging specs when grocery shopping. We, unfortunately, learned that food labelling wasn’t always reliable, and it was difficult to understand sometimes. To help us make better decisions, we wanted to know where the food was grown but found food package labelling incomplete when it came to the growing location of all the ingredients. They also learned that tracing the food from farm to table was unavailable.

Stephanie recognized that there is a need for traceability and transparency in the food supply chain, marketing and labelling.

TheoryMesh Co-founders Paul Westdal Chris Bunio Stephanie Westdal Anne Kirk
TheoryMesh Co-founders from left to right: Paul Westdal, Chris Bunio, Stephanie Westdal, and Anne Kirk

The innovation:
With help from the North Forge Founders Program, Stephanie learned she could combine her marketing expertise with Chris’ software capabilities to build the technology for a food tracing system. It would digitize the food journey by bringing blockchain and machine learning into new areas. “From the producers to the food processors, all the way down the supply chain to the consumer. We wanted to create a more reliable way of tracing where the food has been and what the food has come into contact with. Connecting the lifecycle of food and providing traceability and transparency for food safety and sustainability was vital. 

The pandemic has exposed these flaws in the supply chain. There’s a huge need for food tracing and supply chain transparency, so that’s how TheoryMesh came about,” Stephanie remembers. “We were in the right time and right place. So we just jumped in head first – combining our tech and ag experience to build a digital platform that will drastically improve food safety and sustainability.” 

The risk:
This was a risky venture. Stephanie has a solid understanding of risk and was comfortable jumping into this Marianas Trench type of venture. “We had lived outside of Canada for almost 20 years in the Middle East and Africa. I ran my own consulting business in Istanbul, Turkey. I also did projects in Senegal, Ghana, Oman, and Morocco. I quickly learned how to run a company as a businesswoman in those countries and came across many cultural differences and obstacles, which I handled with grace. 

Part of those adventures and experiences included a leap of faith, diving in, and going for it, with a plan,” Stephanie laughed, “but also putting yourself in that uncomfortable but exciting position at first..”

The goals:
TheoryMesh’s company goals are three-fold:

  1. To build a comprehensive data management platform to help with the food supply chain, traceability, and transparency to improve food safety and sustainability. 
  2. To build our headquarters here in Winnipeg. This city has incredibly talented people, and we want to tap into this local resource.
    TheoryMesh QR Code
    Transparency by TheoryMesh will enable consumers to scan a QR code on the grocery store item to see the path their food took from farm to store shelf.

    Transparency by TheoryMesh will enable consumers to scan the QR code to see the path their food took from farm to store shelf.[/caption]TheoryMesh QR Code tech coming soon![/caption]

  3. To build our business internationally. Part of this big, bold goal is to have a “Transparency by TheoryMesh” QR code on consumer products globally. 

“With North Forge as our guide, we will be able to see these three goals come to light,” shared Stephanie.

Jumping in head first:
When they first came up with the idea for TheoryMesh, Stephanie and Chris knew they wanted help from an incubator accelerator. “We thoroughly investigated our options and found the North Forge Founders Program to be the best fit,” Stephanie said.

I had experience running successful projects and programs with my own consulting firm prior to TheoryMesh, but I soon realized, by entering the Founders Program with TheoryMesh, that I didn’t yet have the precise business vocabulary or model mapped out in my head,” Stephanie shared. “I didn’t have a business model canvas. I wasn’t sure what the value proposition was exactly.”

After completing the first two stages of the Founders Program, “Theory Mesh honed in on their niche market. We now know our competitive advantage, our value proposition, who our customer is, and have a business model canvas. 

Actively listening to customer problems:
Listening to your customer’s problems was key for us. You really need to actively listen to what the customer wants solved and be able to pivot very quickly without being attached to one idea. 

Something else to keep in mind is that not every client will have the same issue. It’s up to you to decide which of the customer’s problems you want to solve,” noted Stephanie.

Stephanie has benefited immensely from the guidance she received from her mentors, EIRs (Entrepreneurs-in-Residence), and from her fellow founders in the program. “This was huge for me. I really just listened to the feedback. I was open and flexible to all of the suggestions. If you can open yourself up that way, you are better equipped to recognize valuable opportunities.

Stephanie Westdal, Co-Founder of TheoryMesh
Stephanie Westdal, Co-Founder of TheoryMesh

Women in entrepreneurship:
I am also a woman who has an opinion, and having the ability to bring my thoughts forward in this safe space has been incredibly valuable,” shared Stephanie. “I have a 15-year-old daughter, and I’m her role model. She is learning how to navigate the startup world with grace through North Forge and me.”

Looking forward to the future:
There are many areas Stephanie looks forward to while being a part of the Founders Ascent Program. “The one-on-one meeting with her EIR Mike Simpson has been invaluable. He has new things for us to think about with each meeting and gives us fresh resources to tap into. 

What I also look forward to is the networking. We can get bogged down in the business of the day, but it’s important to keep reaching out, keep diving in, and keeping the doors open. All of those little connections can turn into big things,” Stephanie mentioned.

Stephanie Westdal COO of Theory Mesh
Stephanie says to dive into the Founders Program because you will become a better business person with North Forge’s guidance.

The unexpected takeaway:
Stephanie found the size of North Forge’s network unexpectedly vast. “The diversity of their network was fantastic and unexpected,” Stephanie noted. “A roadblock would appear, and then we would be introduced to an industry expert who could help us. Then another roadblock would appear, and we would need to go down a path we had not yet travelled to answer a question for our startup’s growth, and we would be introduced to another person who has expertise in that specific area. Wash, rinse, repeat. This ongoing learning cycle has made everything easier. We have been shown many doors and paths to take, but North Forge’s guidance consistently continues to help us steer away from those that would not help us solve whatever issue we are facing.”

Tips for starting a business:
Stephanie has some tips for founders applying to the Founders Program. “I would say jump in. Don’t give it another thought. Dive in  –  I would not hesitate. It’s worth the education, the resources, the networking, the feedback. You will know exactly what your business is about and who your customer is,” reassured Stephanie. “So I would say you cannot go wrong. You will come out a better business person.”

Accomplishments:
With Stephanie and Chris’ two other Co-founders Anne Kirk, and Paul Westdal, TheoryMesh was recently accepted to Microsoft for Startups and secured a grant from EMILI and BioEnterprise for startup acceleration.

 

 

_____

Next Steps:

Are you a professional who has identified a gap in your industry? 

Do you have an idea that would solve a problem but need help with starting a business?

Have you experienced a life situation you suspect is common to others, and you want to propose a collective, innovative solution?

We would love to hear from you! Tell us about your idea (don’t worry if you don’t have the answers to all the questions yet), and Programming Team will contact you to set up a meeting to chat about it.

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