By Jessyca Dewey, contributor via Underground Group
⏰ 6-minute read
A biologist at her core, Riana Lynn founded Journey Foods in 2018 to help food businesses save money and create better, healthier products efficiently.
Lynn started her personal journey to serial entrepreneurship with a chance meeting at Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential inauguration.
Her decade of experience culminates in Journey Foods’ software platform, which uses data to optimize price and healthiness of foods while eliminating cumbersome back-and-forth between food brands, manufacturers and supply chains.
Resilience, strength and mental acuity were qualities Riana Lynn, CEO and founder of a food-tech startup, honed during her time competing in track and field at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With the top coach in the world and Olympic athletes as teammates, she was pushed to be her best, no matter the challenges. And as an African American female founder, she’s certainly seen her fair share of them.
Lynn’s company -- along with her natural curiosity and passion for improving public health through food and business -- has influenced the way food companies develop, launch and optimize products in a new, unprecedented way.
An unconventional journey
Finding creative solutions to challenges in order to achieve her goals is nothing new to Lynn. Her tenacity and ingenuity emerged long before she founded Journey Foods.
Her first stop on the road to entrepreneurial success was by way of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential inauguration. Lynn’s friend got her a press pass to the inauguration, but it only allowed access to a few events. Lynn solved the problem by launching a website and news service that published election and inauguration coverage. She used this experience to get press passes to all the inauguration events that she and her friend wanted to attend.
It was there she met biologist Rick Kittles.
Kittles, an entrepreneurial scientist, was a top researcher in Lynn’s hometown of Evanston, Ill. and founded the top DNA testing company for African Americans, AfricanAncestry.com. Lynn approached Kittles and gave him her business card.
Finding creative solutions to challenges is nothing new to Lynn, whose career launched after networking at Barack Obama's inauguration.
When she moved back to Evanston a few months later to attend graduate school at Northwestern University, she interned with Kittles. Lynn, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry, had always been interested in genetics and nutrigenomics, specifically how immigration, food and the agricultural system affect morbidity and public health. So, it felt natural for her to work with Kittles on identifying genetic variations for complex diseases that disproportionately affect African American and Latino populations.
Lynn parlayed her experience with Kittles into co-founding raw foods company Peeled Juice Bar with her uncle in 2009. The project laid the foundation for her to continue innovating in the food landscape. It also helped her build relationships with and mentor other entrepreneurs.
Riana Lynn is a multiple-time startup founder. Journey Foods is her latest venture.
Climbing the food chain
In 2013, Lynn leveraged these relationships to launch Rivive, an e-commerce development platform that helped grow food-based online businesses. It caught the attention of businessman Marcus Lemonis, who hired Lynn to consult on his CNBC show “The Profit.” The following year, Lemonis’s investment firm acquired Rivive.
Lynn continued on. She next founded FoodTrace, which provided end-to-end traceability solutions for food and beverage companies, in 2015.
Lynn's third startup, FoodTrace, was her first that relied on technology as its product.
With technology as its product, FoodTrace was different from her other startups. It also required more money to keep in business.
“Prior to that, I had been bootstrapping businesses. I was never focused on raising venture capital or scaling companies that didn’t have some sort of inventory or brick-and-mortar or more of a packaged goods element,” said Lynn.
“While I had been dabbling and really picking up skills in technology, I’d never been focused on a pure technology play, and so launching the traceability company gave me a lot more access to a broader network of investors [and] other founders in the technology space.”
The company also gained the attention of Google, who invited Lynn to be part of its entrepreneur-in-residence program. There, she spent time mentoring and meeting other founders while learning how to grow her technology company.
Lynn sold FoodTrace after two years and joined venture capital firm Cleveland Avenue in 2017.
Building foods with software
She laid the groundwork for what would become Journey Foods while working for Cleveland Avenue.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the impact packaged foods can have in the world,” said Lynn, citing that processed food is thought to comprise some 70% of our daily calorie intake yet not be very healthy.
Lynn's latest startup, Journey Foods, offers a software that helps snack companies choose ingredients that are more nutritious and affordable for consumers.
The goal for Journey Foods “was to sell and track a tremendous amount of data around a food product that was healthier and could be optimized around flavor, taste [and] nutrition.”
Her vision included software that would aggregate data around ingredients and their relative healthiness along with availability and pricing from suppliers. This would replace the traditional research and development process at food companies, which requires internet research, calls to numerous suppliers and multiple rounds of formulation and testing in order to launch, say, a new kind of energy bar or fruit snack.
The Journey Foods software shows snack companies the nutrition facts for up-and-coming ingredients.
Lynn knew she could use her technology to help food businesses save money and create better, healthier products efficiently. She first needed to prove it could work. So, Journey Foods launched its own test product called Journey Bites, a small-batch “smoothie bite” snack, in 2018.
The team used its own software to aggregate supply chain and ingredient data. The tool gave them suggestions on how they could use the most nutrient-dense, plant-based ingredients to make their Bites. It also told them about the source and price of these individual ingredients.
In just over a year, Journey Foods manufactured more than 1 million Journey Bite cubes and sold them via Shopify, Amazon, The Wally Shops and subscription box partnerships.
Boom -- it had a success story in the form of its own product.
To prove the efficacy of its software, Journey Foods launched its own snack product.
In 2019, Journey Foods officially made its proprietary JourneyAI platform available to other food companies. Just like it did for Journey Bites, the software helps companies use data to find the most nutritious ingredients at the lowest price. It also makes countless recommendations for ingredient swaps, such as healthy alternatives to sugar that won’t cost an arm and a leg -- for neither the company nor its customers, whom Journey Foods believes need better access to healthy food that’s also affordable.
“On-demand food science reduces the amount of time spent researching so you [companies] can focus on mission-critical tasks,” Lynn added.
Journey Foods customers now include Ingredion, one of the biggest ingredient companies in the world, and Unilever, which makes foods from noodles to ice cream.
Hard times on the journey
But the road to customers wasn’t without some drawbacks. Lynn had her fair share of challenges to overcome, including microaggressions and subtle forms of racism and sexism, as an African American woman.
“There have been times when people will mistake a white intern for leadership of the company, and not me,” Lynn said.
The road to customers wasn’t without drawbacks. “There have been times when people will mistake a white intern for leadership of the company, and not me,” Lynn said.
She has also been taken less seriously due to what others have called “having a younger face.”
But setbacks aside, she’s excited about the opportunities.
“There are still 8 billion people to feed, so I’m invigorated every single day by all the opportunities, but I have definitely faced challenges,” Lynn said.
Paving the future of the food industry
Journey Foods is seizing those opportunities. Roughly 80% of its revenue is generated through its technology platform vs. its Bites. It’s aiming for that number to grow to 95% in 2020.
Lynn has built a small team of seven comprised of food scientists, engineers, marketers and business development experts. Today, her team is focused on getting new clients onto its platform and further using AI to analyze huge amounts of data about nutrition and sustainability. That analysis will generate recommendations that can improve existing products via better-priced or newly-available ingredients -- CBD-infused Journey Bites are coming -- as well as serve food companies’ oft-changing regulatory and management needs.
“There are always ingredients that are either new to the industry or are being manufactured in a different way, maybe more sustainable. We’re always looking to optimize and create optimization scenarios for their supply chains,” Lynn said.
Lynn's current goals for Journey Foods include expanding her team of seven and using artificial intelligence in more ways.
Journey Foods has recently built integrations with larger, existing supply-chain software so it can offer its product as a full-service business intelligence tool.
Lynn is also working on closing a round of funding, with another round to come in the next couple of years.
Lastly, she is aiming to have almost doubled her team of full-time employees by year-end. Her description of the ideal squad reflects the ambitious mission of Journey Foods as a whole:
“It’s key that we hire people who are very strong on the data and technology side and then young fresh or seasoned talent who wants to think about the process of food product management differently.”
Bring on the diverse, multi-faceted future of food.