Investing in the future of food at Expo West

by Monica Watrous
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Natural Products Expo West
Natural Products Expo West was held March 9-12 in Anaheim, Calif.

ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Emerging brands in the natural and organic marketplace have captured the attention of institutional investors in the past year — a trend that was as clear as coconut water at Natural Products Expo West, said Ross Davisson, vice-president of business operations at CircleUp.

Ross Davisson, CircleUp
Ross Davisson, vice-president of business operations at CircleUp

“The show was a good place to see firsthand how many of these larger companies with V.C. arms are looking for investments and trying to figure out how to play in this early-stage space,” Mr. Davisson told Food Business News.

CircleUp is an investment platform that connects food start-ups with venture capital firms. The company has partnered with Campbell Soup Co.’s Acre Venture Partners and General Mills’ 301 INC to facilitate investments in such brands as Back to the Roots and Rhythm Superfoods.

“When you think about the size of Expo West and how big it has gotten, so much innovation in food and beverage is happening in the natural food space,” Mr. Davisson said. “It’s interesting how the line has blurred between the natural food industry and the general food industry and how much of the growth and innovation is coming from that space.”

Health-Ade mushroom and chocolate kombucha
At Expo West, Health-Ade unveiled a new kombucha flavor made with reishi mushroom and chocolate.

Bone broth, bean-based snacks and kombucha were among some of the hottest trends Mr. Davisson spotted at Expo West, which was held March 9-12 in Anaheim.

“Kombucha is a space we’ve been watching for a while,” he said. “There have certainly been some breakout successes there… We think it’s not just a passing fad. We’re seeing a blossoming of that market and a second wave of companies coming out.”

Other beverage trends Mr. Davisson identified include drinking vinegars, cold-brew coffee, matcha tea and enhanced waters.

Blume honey water
Blume Honey Water showcased its enhanced waters at Expo West.

“We saw a lot of different takes on waters,” he said. “Maple water is one … but there’s also cactus water, honey water and other things like that.”

Additionally, a number of brands at the show featured snacks or pastas made from chickpeas, beans or lentils.

“There is definitely an interest in alternatives, instead of starch having a bean- or legume-based food,” Mr. Davisson said.

Blue Star Farms organic sprouted lentil and ancient grains snack crackers
Blue Star Farms Organic Sprouted Lentil & Ancient Grains snack crackers debuted at Expo West.

What makes a business attractive to investors? It’s a combination of brands, teams and distribution, Mr. Davisson said.

“We think about those three dimensions when we’re evaluating investments, and we think investors think about those three dimensions,” he said. “It can seem like on paper two companies are very similar if they both have chickpea snacks, but we’re looking at how does the brand position itself, and what is the social engagement with that brand?... Is there traction in the market? Is the brand resonating with consumers?

“Does the team understand the space very well and has a demonstrated track record? Hypothetically, looking at two different companies, if one has a founder that has done this before, who started another healthy snack company, he or she is going to know lots of different distributors. He or she is going to know about co-packing and will know the challenges that come with early stage brands.”

Biena chocolate covered chickpeas
Biena Foods launched its new line of chocolate-covered chickpeas at Expo West.

CircleUp typically works with businesses that have up to $10 million in revenues.

“There’s a lot more you can sink your teeth into when you’re investing in a company that has $10 million in sales,” Mr. Davisson said. “Even at that stage, you can start to tell that this company, which grew 100% last year and has $2 million, is doing a lot better than this one that has $2 million that only grew 10% last year.”

For 301 INC, the new business development and venturing unit of General Mills, Inc., the formula is relatively straightforward.

John Haugen, 301 Inc., General Mills
John Haugen, vice-president and general manager of 301 INC

“Remarkable products with brands we think can stand for something and become growth platforms,” said John Haugen, vice-president and general manager of 301 INC, during an interview at Expo West. “Not necessarily defined by category but defined by consumer experience. And really talented management teams.”

The latest investments by 301 INC have included Farmhouse Culture, a maker of sauerkraut and fermented foods, and D’s Naturals, which offers plant-based protein bars and nut butters. The company also recently increased its investment in Rhythm Superfoods, a producer of kale chips and beet chips.

“If you put a filter on everything we’ve done, it’s a lot of plant-based,” Mr. Haugen said. “In terms of spaces, we’re continuing to look at high nutrient density, closer to real food, closer to source, really thinking about proactive nutrition in a differential way…

301 Inc. investments: Farmhouse Cultures, D's Naturals, Rhythm Superfoods
301 INC has invested in Farmhouse Culture, D’s Naturals and  Rhythm Superfoods.

“I think we’ll continue to look at things that are more on the omnichannel side or across a number of different formats in retail, e-commerce — those are significant and interesting to us as well since we’re seeing such a migration in channels and how people are discovering and finding and buying.”

He added, “We haven’t invested in any unabashed indulgence brands. They have always been better-for-you brands. I suppose there’s nothing that says we couldn’t. Globally, we have a business called Häagen-Dazs. It ain’t a health brand.”

Rather, businesses that are attractive to investors offer products featuring some kind of functional benefit, Mr. Davisson said.

General Mills Haagen Dazs
301 INC could expand its investments into indulgence brands, Mr. Haugen said, as General Mills has a Häagen-Dazs business.

“I think that there’s this overarching trend of functionality,” he said. “It might be a cleaner label, still indulgent but playing loose with the term functional.

“The sense I get is there’s absolutely room for that indulgent stuff, but people like a different twist on it. It’s still fat and sugar, but maybe it’s a healthier version of fat and sugar, like a coconut milk ice cream.”

At Expo West, Mr. Davisson and his team at CircleUp introduced a number of investors to entrepreneurs.

Coconut milk ice cream
Consumers are seeking healthier versions of indulgent treats, such as coconut milk ice cream.

“One of the ways we try to leverage an event like Expo West or Fancy Food is take an investor to go meet the company,” he said. “At the end of the day, even though CircleUp has helped change some of the dynamics, where a lot more can happen remotely, there’s no substitute for face-to-face. We had a couple investors meeting some companies. One was an example where there was a deal on the table, and it was an opportunity for the c.e.o. and this investor to connect, and the meeting went really well…

“We met with investors. We didn’t necessarily have a deal to put in front of them right there, but it was a great chance to walk around with them and make sure we introduce them to some of the brands we’re working with. We love being at the show. We find it very valuable.” 
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