Nathan Jin co-founded in 2016 and led the Ag-tech software product from conception to completion with three successful pilots, including one of the first pilots in the world to implement blockchain in the food supply chain. Now he’s started another supply chain tech company, Ivy Food Tech, which aims to be the information exchange platform for the food system by eliminating redundant paperwork and creating a new way to trust your vendors’ vendors.





In This Episode

Nathan Jin has transformed his early love of baking into a chemical engineering major at UC Berkeley and the creation of blockchain technology in the agriculture industry. In addition to sharing how he spotted the need for blockchain in the food industry, Nathan explains why he believes learning to code will improve his business and how he comes to terms with the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

Topic Timeline:

1:04 Assisting Our Food Supply Network

Nathan aspires to use blockchain to shed light on the inefficiencies in our food supply network in order to reduce waste.

3:11 Getting the Behemoths of Industry Involved

You have to sell them on solving their problems, saving them time and money.

4:31 Be Comfortable With Uncertainty

The jump from college checklists to entrepreneur with no set formula causes you to face uncertainty head on.

6:58 Connecting the Puzzle Pieces

Seeing both the technical side and business side has allowed Nathan to foresee the need for blockchain in the food industry well ahead of the others.

8:04 Onboarding

Getting customers onboard in a not-so-techy industry can be grueling work.

9:03 Know What It Is You Are Actually Selling
Nathan, a chemical engineer by trade, is learning to read and write code so you can better understand the technology behind his business.

10:17 What’s the Motivation?
The food industry has been a passion ever since baking classes in middle school, so being able to impact his passion in a big way is a huge driving force behind his actions.

12:35 Passion for Change
Being an entrepreneur in the modern age is about seeing the need for change and having the power to enact that change.

I started baking in middle school and I realized that baking is science and, when you understand the science, you can control the process.

– Nathan Jin

Show Transcript:

LR: Welcome to Modern Ontrapreneur. Today we have Nathan Jin who co-founded in early 2016 and served as the head of product there. They won all sorts of awards for their Ag-tech software. While there he led the product from conception to completion with three successful pilots, including the Blockchain Tomatoes Project, and one of the first pilots in the world to implement blockchain in the food supply chain. Now he’s started another supply chain tech company called Ivy Food Tech, which aims to be the information exchange platform for the food system by eliminating redundant paperwork and creating a new way to trust your vendors’ vendors. Thank you so much for joining us today.

NJ: Thanks for having me.

LR: Blockchain Tomatoes, tell me about how you feel like the blockchain is going to help our food supply network.

NJ: So, the food industry has kind of grown up as this really antiquated monster of maximizing yields, minimizing information and really the only information that’s transferred through supply chains right now is cost. Price is everything. Price dictates what people buy and there’s not a lot of information transfer along other factors. But if we could coordinate the information between different people, say sourcing information, cold chain information, temperature data along the way, what chemicals or processes were used, we could get a much better picture of the food system and identify where the inefficiencies are.
You hear the statistic that like 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted every year. The report for that actually said, “Yeah maybe but we don’t actually know where those inefficiencies are because we don’t have enough information to tell.” So blockchain can serve as kind of a recording ledger for the information capture, but that’s all it is. I want to be clear about that’s all it is. It doesn’t do all this magical supply chain transparency and all that stuff by itself.

LR: There’s no Tomato ICO?

NJ: No Tomato ICO, yeah. It’s just a recording ledger for data and that data could be bad when it goes in.

LR: So what is the role that you intend to play in this process?

NJ: So we’ve shifted from what we were doing before at Ripe. What we do now at Ivy is we focus on how information transfers between, directly between two different people. That’s a pretty manual process. People are still faxing, people are filling out single use web portals, and basically if I sell, like a tomato, and I sell it to 10 different people, I’m going to 10 different peoples sites and sending them the same information about that. That’s a super laborious problem that we’re trying to solve. So it’s not real, what we’re doing now is not a blockchain.

LR: It’s not a blockchain.

NJ: Yeah. We think that there’s integration down the line in terms of certificate of validation, like if you get certifying bodies on board and have a digital signature for certificates and documents that are passed through our system, that’s a use case, but besides that we’re not.

LR: How do you propose to get these, sort of, archaic behemoths to get on board with a 21 year old’s random Blockchain Tomato idea?

NJ: You tell them that we’re not selling the future, we’re selling a problem you have today, which is, “Why am I filling out the same form to send to 10 different people?” The Blockchain is in the background. That’s not something we …. it’s there because it helps the system, but it’s not the selling point of the system. The selling point of the system is you’ve hired one to two full time people just to chase this paper trail.

LR: Does it feel like its got the same sort of challenge that any network based business would where you need to kind of get all the players on board in order for there to be value there?

NJ: No. So our initial application has kind of a linear growth pattern. It’s not because we can solve the need for one person’s burden of sending those documents to all their customers or receiving those documents on the ingredients side and reception side. So, for individual users ‒ and this is something we really focus on ‒ how do we design for individual users to have value? Because when you have a network it’ll be great for the network to see these like large scale benefits but in order for me as an entity to buy from you, I want to have value. You have to design for that and so that’s what we’re focused on.

LR: That’s what you’re going to do. What do you think that your older self would tell you, if they could right now, about how to make your next steps smoother?

NJ: Is to be more comfortable with uncertainty. When I got into college and before I started doing all this stuff, I was very on like the checklist for success, you go to school, you go get good grades, you get an internship, you go on a career path. I was never the kind of person to be like, oh I want to do my own business, I want to be a CEO, et cetera, et cetera. Then when I started doing all this entrepreneur stuff, that had to change, right, there was no longer a set formula ‒ if you check these boxes, you will succeed ‒ because that doesn’t exist, right? If it was that easy a lot of people would be doing it. Even now, even though we’ve won national awards for what we did in the parent company, it’s still that kind of uncertainty and that kind of fear that I have to face constantly, and becoming more comfortable with that is really important.

LR: Yeah, and what do you think it is going to be that will get you through the sort of valley of darkness that stands between you and getting thousands of people to use this software that you’re building?

NJ: Continue to learn is really important and being able to talk to people about what their problems is, because the learning from my parent company was really that … build something that the world wants and not something that you think the world wants because what we were doing before was pretty much what we thought the world wanted but I don’t think the world’s ready for that. We need to solve problems that are real problems for people today.
Getting, for me, getting customer validation, talking with these supply chain managers and hearing their pains and hearing how if we, we’re not public yet, but by the time that this is published we should be. In hearing how our software could solve their problems, like what we’re saying is the problem they are facing is extremely validating for me.

LR: Yeah, and that’s a super valuable insight, and something I certainly run across, you know run up against in my career, more than once which is, imagining that I know what people want and spending a lot of time, just continuing to hit my head against the same wall in disbelief that they don’t want that.

NJ: Yeah. Right.

LR: And finally going, alright, fuck it, I’m just going to give them what they say they want, and it seems to work so much better. So good on you for having figured that out. So what do you think your unique skill set is?

NJ: I think it’s about being able to see all the puzzle pieces and how they can connect together in a way that people haven’t seen before. So, back in early 2016 when we were doing, thinking about blockchain in the food system, no one had done that yet. The first company to actually say something came out like five months later.
When I talked to investors they were like, “You’re crazy. What would you do this for?” and now media’s just like, “blockchain in food, blockchain in supply chain transparency blah, blah, blah, blah.” So the other part of that is being able to say, I know that this could work. So being able to say, yeah there’s doubt but this has potential and this could be something real that could enact change.
I do have a combined skill set of being able to see the technical side and the business side and understand things at varying levels of depth to be able to bring it all together.

LR: Yeah. Are you a coder?

NJ: I don’t code, but I can code.

LR: So right now you are, you have not yet released the product that you’re about to release, but you’re nearing release, so it’s going to be a little bit hard to ask you what’s working in your business right now, what are your plans to create a successful launch of this thing?

NJ: It’s very different for the big players as, same with entrepreneurship, but it’s also a not super technologically advanced industry, so a big burden is onboarding. We’re trying to make that process as easy as possible, with how we get documents into the system, but really getting customers for us is a word of the mouth process. You go to conferences, you shake hands, you talk to people. Getting that is probably the biggest challenge that we have to face.

LR: Getting customers is always the hard part.

NJ: Definitely, yeah.

LR: Well good. Good luck to you on that.

NJ: Thank you.

LR: So what do you feel like your cutting edge is right now? What do you, what is the most important thing for you to learn next?

NJ: So I’m improving my coding skills, you asked me if I’m a coder, so my background is in Chemical Engineering. Then I know some amount of code but being able to, so I do everything up to the wireframe and prototyping, and then do the project management and product management and then give it to a developer to actually implement.
I’d like to be able to pick more of that, to go deeper and to say, I can read code now, but also say, is this sufficient code? Is this going to be scalable? Is this a model that we really want to go with moving forward?

LR: And you think it’s important because?

NJ: I think that it’s really important to have a good, strong understanding of the technology you use. Especially in an industry like blockchain, and text processing and these kind of enterprise software things. If you lose sight of what you’re actually selling, if you don’t know what you’re selling, which may or may not be true about people actually in companies, you’ll have issues down the line of “what are you actually selling and can you communicate that effectively to your customers?”

LR: Good. So I’m not even going to bother asking you what you want your legacy to be but I’m curious, I’m curious like what is the motivation? Apart from just like, you know, yachts and airplanes, what is it that like the big picture motivation for you to invest your precious time in this particular project?

NJ: Sure. So I’ve been interested in the food industry for a really long time. So I started baking in middle school and I realized that baking is science and when you understand the science, you can control the process. So I decided to become a Chemical Engineer with the intention of going into food processing. While I was at Berkeley, when I got there, there wasn’t a student food community there. I was told the cooking club had died a few years ago. So I kind of grew the student food community from starting a club and then learned more about broader food systems and the challenges that are in it.
Worked a little bit in food manufacturing, decided that I could enact change with this blockchain thing, that happened, and decided that we should just do it. I think that’s still true now, that I have unique knowledge from knowing all these different puzzle pieces like I was talking before, that we can enact some kind of change that affects people today.

LR: Specifically, what is the effect that you want to have on people?

NJ: Well there’s two parts. One is having a tangible effect on people’s everyday lives and two is growing the people who work with me. In the organizations I’ve run, like that food club, I started it from just me and now it’s 30 active people. Which is one of the largest for a student group that’s not on campus in like a major form or identity base.
Watching the people in that organization grow is really empowering for me. Then in terms of our platform, I like the quote that you hire programmers because the, laziest programmer, because they’ll find the way to do, they’ll find the easiest most efficient way to do something so they don’t have to do it again.
You look at the food system and they’re doing these repetitive manual tasks and that’s just a waste of their time, right? There’s no reason that it should be that way and we can solve that.

LR: Yeah. So what do you feel like it means to be a modern entrepreneur?

NJ: It’s really about having passion for changing something. You want to do something in the world, you have some area that you think needs to change and you have the power to change that.

LR: Yeah. Awesome. Well hey Nathan, thank you so much for spending the time, really good to meet you. Would you sign our wall?

NJ: Yeah definitely.

LR: Awesome, thanks a lot.


Want more Modern Ontrapreneur Podcast?

Check out the previous episode featuring Rachel Schnorr of Merkle.

About Ben Cogburn
As Ontraport’s Traffic Manager, Ben Cogburn spends most of his time in our parking lot. Just kidding, he’s our resident digital advertising guru. As a geology enthusiast, Ben graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a degree in Environmental Studies. So to say that he likes rocks is an understatement. You can find Ben hanging out with his rock collection, playing video games or hunting down new figurines to add to the impressive display he has on his desk.