Meeting local foodie-entrepreneur JD Kemp, I thought of Frodo from The Lord of the Rings — he's got the same compact energy, arresting pale eyes, and slightly manic fix on a big vision. Kemp is the tech whiz who helped rescue a floundering JP culinary incubator and transform it into CropCircle Kitchen, which has helped launch the likes of Clover and Voltage Coffee. Then he started playing matchmaker for local farmers and food producers and their wholesale clients with FoodEx, an algorithm-based fresh-food distribution system. And just this month, at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, FoodEx and Portland, Oregon's FoodHub announced a joint venture to take Kemp's creation national — or at least to the Northwest.

You are a tech guy. How did you get into the business of trucking fresh local foods? I'm from Texas, and as a Southerner, I was used to great local food. My partner and I came here so I could work for an MIT spin-off. We had deep passion for good food. We wanted all the gorgeous local produce and protein and couldn't find it. We found that all the local chefs had the same problem. I am a systems engineer, and my PhD is for an algorithm for problem solving, using computers to solve enormous logistical problems. I saw the local food system as a classic systems problem — regional, diverse, and complicated, but ultimately solvable.

How did you get the idea for FoodEx? Producers were producing — fishermen and farmers, ice-cream makers, apple orchards — but they had no way to get their product to market when it was really fresh, after the carrots came out of the ground. We decided to take on the meat of the bigger problem: getting trucks to the farm the morning the carrots are dug, or when the milk is still in the cow, getting the freshest food from farm to table at the best price and in the shortest possible time. Local strawberries, for example, have a shelf life of five days and shouldn't spend three of them sitting on a truck.

Is FoodEx a nonprofit? No. We are a mission-driven for-profit. We make profitable deliveries every day. But like a lot of deep tech startups, you dump a lot of money before you turn a profit. You get up to scale, and you can make money. We're still 18 months to two years away from turning a real profit. . . . The "aha" moment happened in fits and starts last year when we realized that there are a couple of products — apples, potatoes, squash, and fish — where we can deliver food for better than a commodity price and make a profit. We can actually get a gross margin of 40 to 50 percent on some products and still get farmers a higher price and chefs a lower price by cutting out four or five levels of inefficiencies, the middlemen.

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