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First published in NAFSN NEWS


Featured Innovator: Holden Lindblom

Disruption, discontent, and disparities make local food systems ripe for start-ups. COVID-19 made clear the need to prioritize shorter, fairer, more resilient supply chains. And economists using local food economic multipliers have consistently shown net financial gains for communities that invest in their food systems' infrastructures.

But what about the fledgling, risk-taking, proudly agile, small businesses that help create these opportunities? Statistically, the odds are stacked against them, with drop-off highest in that critical first year. What does it take for start-ups designed to support local food economies to thrive past germination?

The story of Holden Lindblom, a young Afghanistan War veteran turned entrepreneur, provides us with a window into this ongoing conversation.

Holden is the founder and CEO of Picomart, a start-up based in Boston, MA. Picomart designs and manages custom-built, glass-fronted, refrigerated kiosks, which they install in apartment building lobbies. The kiosks act as smart vending machines for fruits and vegetables and other staple foods, most grown locally by their current primary partner, Ward's Berry Farm, of Sharon, MA. Customers swipe their credit cards to open the kiosk door; the machine automatically calculates what's been taken from the kiosk when the door shuts; and the card is charged accordingly. Items can be sold by piece or by weight, which lends more flexibility to the selection. Kiosks are installed, maintained, and restocked free of charge to the building, apart from electricity and wifi.

As it approaches the end of its first year, Picomart is now operating at two locations in the Boston area. It has five more apartment buildings lined up, ready for installation, once the second shipment of kiosks arrives from the Chinese manufacturer. Picomart aggregates food from its partner farms twice a week and rents a 1200 sq. ft. warehouse in Braintree, MA, for storage.

Three months ago, Picomart hired its first full-time employee, Jon Pollak, as vice president of supply chain and procurement. Holden expects the number of employees to increase considerably by 2023. "I'd like this to grow as big as it can be," he says. The team describes Picomart as "the first ever autonomous grocery kiosk located in apartment lobbies."

Holden explains that he "bootstrapped" the project from his own pocket for the first few months before procuring "pre-seed investments" from two venture capital firms: GoAhead Ventures and Context Ventures. He plans to approach investors for a "seed round" soon.

As bold as the plan is, the story of Picomart starts in the founder's front yard, like so many start-ups do. Having had to reluctantly step away from a promising European business opportunity when the global quarantine set in, Holden moved back in with his parents in Providence, RI, jobless. He felt compelled to help his community in whatever way he could, and food was a natural go-to for him. As a kid, he says, he was always in the kitchen, "a real Anthony Bourdain, Iron Chef fan." He'd also worked as a line cook at age 23, so the food industry had long felt familiar.

"I knew a lot of farms were struggling because of COVID," he remembers. "Restaurants had closed down, farmers lost those wholesale markets." He also knew there were people in his own community who were afraid to go to grocery stores at that time. Holden called up a few farmers in the area, bought boxes of produce from them, and started selling it to neighbors, outdoors, from a table in his driveway. The experience, he says, was profound.

In these day-to-day community interactions, selling fruits and veggies to passersby, Holden says he learned to "listen to people in the streets and hear what they like" and what they need. "I love that this is local, I love that this is in my neighborhood," he says.

"You have to think, 'what is the problem we're trying to solve here?' … and not just (imagine) what you think they want," he says.

"You have to be in love with the problem, not the solution."

The problem, he learned, is that a lot of people "just don't like going to the grocery store." They gave him a wide variety of reasons for this dislike -- traffic, distance, waiting in line -- and COVID just made it more so. However, he notes, people also consistently report that they like seeing fresh produce before buying it.

With help from friends, Holden went about solving that specific problem. "We went from selling food from a table in the front yard, to a kiosk we made from stuff we bought from Home Depot, to a beverage fridge that we rebuilt, to now having a manufacturer build our kiosks … all within 10 months of when we started."

While Holden exudes enthusiasm for the new enterprise, the road that led him to this point was not always paved with motivation.

Holden was born in Lulea, Sweden, and has dual citizenship with the United States. His parents decided to move the family back to the U.S. when he was six years old, just as his school years kicked in. "I was a terrible student over my entire upbringing," he says. "I was lost, with not a lot of motivation for doing well academically." Cooking and video games pretty much summed up his middle and high school years. He would have stopped going to school entirely, he says, but a military recruiter offered him a financial incentive to finish before enlisting, and he took it.

Fifteen days after graduation, Holden was in basic training, where he also struggled, having never really been athletic. Despite the challenge, Holden finished the grueling eight-week training and felt, for the first time, he says, like he'd accomplished something.

Holden served in the U.S. Army for four years, training in Oklahoma, Italy, and Tennessee. In 2012-2013 he was deployed to Afghanistan, serving as a "forward observer," where he "walked with the infantry, providing target information to let them know what's going on, where friendlies are, hazards are." He finished at the top of his class during his military schooling, but when he got out and applied to college in the civilian sector, he was told he needed to start in community college to get his grade point average up from his dismal high school record.

Eventually, Holden was accepted to Stanford University in 2017 through the Service to School program, where he earned a degree in political science with a concentration in political economic development and international relations. He recalls one class at Stanford in which he learned about the world's challenge to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050, and he remembers thinking, "how do we develop supply chains for that … and what do those supply chains even look like?"

During the summer of 2019, Holden completed a 10-week internship in start-up strategies at ZX Ventures, the global investment and innovation group of AB InBev. Inspired by that experience, along with the realization that "staring at Excel sheets was not my calling," he entered the start-up economy. His first attempt was a food-centered start-up in Miami, FL, in early 2020, but it didn't take hold. For reasons he is still discovering, Picomart appears to be sticking.

Holden reflects on the transfer of "soft skills" from his military career to the myriad of tasks required by Picomart. In the Army, he says, he learned how to work well under pressure, how to interact with company commanders, "and how to keep a million different things in your head and keep everything moving."

Start-ups are all about addressing the problems, he says, at every point of the process. "We had to figure out all the ways why it wouldn't work. We had to ask, what are the problems? How do we solve them? How are people gonna get paid? … What do we like? What do we change? What do we keep?"

Holden laughs remembering their prototype kiosk, which was 80-½ inches tall, and then realizing, upon delivery, that the apartment building had standard 80" doors. "You really only figure that stuff out when actually doing it."

As Picomart tests and fine-tunes its model, the company also works to build and maintain relationships with more farmers and value-adders at the front end (think regional cheeses and kombuchas). It's also developed connections with food waste companies for unsold produce on the back end. The kiosks feature little to no packaging for produce, and also promise interesting future data points in consumer preferences and behaviors, a topic of interest to both investors and farmers.

Perhaps the most promising vote of confidence for the Picomart model thus far comes from participating farmers themselves. Notes Ryan Marshall of Ward's Berry Farm: "Although Ward's has been around for over 35 years, Picomart offers a unique opportunity to continue to grow our brand through their approach to marketing. By emphasizing locally sourced products, Picomart encourages consumers to ask, 'where does my food come from?' and educates consumers about food production close to home."

For more on these topics, search "last mile," start-up," and "economic multipliers" in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 

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