Real Time Farms, From Former Android Developer, Offers Crowdsourced Local Food Guides for Farmer’s Markets and Restaurants

12/15/10Follow @xconomy

“Android kind of felt like a startup,” Ann Arbor native Karl Rosaen says of the original development team for Google’s mobile phone platform. Rosaen says the entire team could fit inside a single conference room at the company headquarters. As a software engineer he saw Android go from the initial device launch to a technology platform that’s giving the iPhone a run for its money. The whole experience made Rosaen want to try his hand at his own venture.

“I had the entrepreneurial itch to start something new and something I cared about,” he says. So he and his wife Cara packed up and moved from the Bay Area back to Michigan last fall. You might expect Rosaen would start a new company focused on mobile apps. The thought ran through his mind, but ultimately he settled on a field that’s getting a lot of attention in the Detroit and Ann Arbor areas lately—locally grown foods.

Rosaen launched his Real Time Farms website this past May, as “a nationwide local food guide,” as Cara calls it. The site relies largely on crowdsourcing to provide Web-based, up-to-the-minute guides on the inventory at farmers markets and other purveyors of locally grown food. “As a user, you can participate by figuring out where food comes from,” says Cara, who joined the company full-time after the website launch. “The other big piece is that you help to create the guide.”

Shoppers at farmer’s markets throughout the country can snap pictures of produce, homemade jams, and other items while browsing, and send the images to Real Time Farms. Over time, the user-submitted content develops into comprehensive guides on what the markets and farmers are carrying. (Check this out to get a peak at what a listing for a farmer’s market looks like.) Users can search markets for particular produce items, like mushrooms, squash, or radishes, and the site will notify them which farm stand has what they’re looking for.

“It’s helping to generate most recent information about what’s available at a farmer’s market,” Cara says.

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Karl and Cara say that knowledge of where food originates will help Real Time Farm users eat better, by informing them where to buy fresh produce. But that doesn’t have to apply just to those who cook their own food at home. Real Time Farms is working closely with Ann Arbor-area restaurants, to enable them to post their menus on the site and highlight where ingredients have come from. “It’s a tool for showing off how they’re sourcing locally,” Cara says.

The restaurant piece is where Real Time Farms makes its money, and where it’s putting much of its focus in the coming months. The site is free for shoppers, farmers, and market managers to post, but charges restaurants a monthly fee to post their menus. It currently has around eight restaurants and caterers in Ann Arbor as clients. Ultimately the company is hoping restaurants will use its software not as an extra step, but as the main system for their menu management, Cara says.

The Rosaen’s move from the Bay Area to Ann Arbor follows a reverse pattern for many tech entrepreneurs, who often head west to the Golden State to make it big. They both acknowledge that their family in Ann Arbor was a big draw for the move, but Karl says he’s been “pleasantly surprised by the resources in Ann Arbor.” And the increasing push for urban agriculture and locally grown food in greater Detroit makes the area a great fit for Real Time Farms, he says.

“The people in Ann Arbor are just as smart as people in the Bay Area, there’s just a higher concentration of resources out there,” he says.

The team is hoping to be profitable by the end of next year, and is looking to add hundreds of restaurants to its menu-showcasing platform. They’ve raised a “modest chunk of money,” from family to cover marketing and staffing costs, but are looking to raise up to $200,000 in outside funding. Karl says. But Real Time Farms may not be the best fit for traditional venture investors, as it’s not likely to be the next $100 million company, he says. The startup might make for a better match with socially conscious investment funds, grants, or low-interest loans.

At launch, Real Time Farms left the site open to users everywhere. A bulk of the content has come from Ann Arbor, but the company also seen a strong concentration of submissions in California, Connecticut, North Carolina, and even abroad. But throughout next year, they’ll be making a big marketing push to showcase the local food picture in five new areas: New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boulder, and throughout the rest of Michigan. To fuel its national marketing push, the company is hiring college students as “food warriors”—to amp up content from farms and farmers’ markets throughout the country, much the way restaurant review website Yelp sought key contributors in each city when it expanded nationally.

Like most foodies, the Rosaens have been pacing themselves so far, but they have an appetite to do more—a lot more.

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