n election day in America, ahead of an agonising wait for a result, we were delighted to present a poll in lickety split time on startups with sustainability hard-wired into their DNA, so they’ll last longer than any one or two-term presidency.
Eat or Delete opened with wise words from our expert panel.
Jonathan Lander, CEO of Volvere plc
I run an investment company that eyes businesses that are loss-making or in some form of distress. We’ve been looking to invest in other food businesses mainly because we’ve enjoyed the sector and made money.
Half what I do is invest in failing companies that need to be turned around. And with my other hat I like startups. I used to run an accelerator investing in internet and tech companies.
The environment today, it depends what you do. It’s always been easy to launch and get seed funding for a new vegan brand or new food-to-go concept, but getting to something that’s scalable, with proper finance behind it is extremely difficult.
You’ve got Covid-19 and in the UK you have Brexit. You can buy all sorts of things today at prices that are much cheaper than they were a year ago or six months ago.
So if you’ve got a new concept with lots of risk in it, it’s very difficult. Easy to start but very hard to get to the next level. Most of the things I see are in that category. Nice concept, nice idea but getting it beyond a lifestyle business, very difficult.
We’ve just launched a vegan brand because we think it’s a good time to be doing that. I don’t think the environment’s going to change for the next 12 months and five years is far too long.
There’s no doubt that food retail is doing really well in this environment, anything you can get into a supermarket right now is going to sell more than food service.
But because food retailers are so busy trying to supply their market, I don’t think they’re taking on new stuff the same way they otherwise would. The leadtimes are always long and now they’re pushing new products to the back of the queue because they know they can sell lots of standard stuff. But if you’re selling to food retail right now, you’re in a good place.
Matthew Cushen, Founder of Worth Capital
We have a startup competition every month hosted on smallbusiness.co.uk, and we aim to pick a business per month to invest in.
We look for B2C and B2B startups. Our thesis is it’s all about building loved brands because that’s what builds traditional exit value for investors.
I think food is a very hard sector. It’s relatively easy to get money in the first place but difficult to scale. It’s easier to get into supermarkets than it used to be but it’s much harder to stay with a supermarket listing. They’re more open to innovation but much more ruthless about clearing out businesses that aren’t performing that well.
So, we think it’s a really tough sector. We look at lots of food and beverage businesses but we invest in very few.
I think there’s lot of opportunity in businesses that are serving the food and beverage sector with business to business solutions.
Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder, Small Robot Company
My background is in user experience design. I was driving to work early one day and I was listening to Farming Today on the radio and a big tractor company was talking about the future of farming as bigger machinery and driverless tractors.
But then the next chap who spoke was from a university who said everything the previous speaker had said was rubbish. The way food is produced, particularly cereal crops, arable crops, had stopped working and rather than going big, mass producing and looking at food as an industrial process, we need to go small and look at how you can use small, lightweight, precise vehicles to produce more food, but use less inputs, very precisely applied or not at all, and have a much more sustainable system.
That was very exciting, and I spoke to that guy as soon as I got into work. He introduced me to Sam my business partner who’s a fourth-generation arable farmer and he saw the same thing from the inside.
I used my user experience background. Sam went out on the road for six months and sat down in the farm kitchens next to the Aga and patting the border collie and had conversations with farmers to find out what their problems were.
That allowed us to develop our service model – farming as a service. It allowed us to realise that what we needed to do was not automate single processes but really deliver a healthy crop at the end of the year. That’s how we came up with our model of Tom, Dick and Harry in farming as a service and how we managed to move forward. Rather than selling machinery to farmers we provide a per hectare per year service and charge just for that. It makes it easy for them adopt and much harder to move away from because we don’t provide any machinery.
On the funding side it started with pain. We went for our first seed round of funding. We found an investor who was really into what we were doing. They said yes. We said brilliant. We stopped talking to the other investors and then a month before we ran out of money they pulled out.
So we had to scrabble around and see what we could do and we ended up going to use Crowdcube. We were very lucky we’d generated quite a lot of interest, we’d had some interesting newspaper articles. We raised our first round purely on Crowdcube.
A lot of investors there were farmers. Twenty had pre-paid for our service. We had 150 farmers invest in us the first time. We raised about £1 million that time. And then the next time we went for funding we went straight back to Crowdcube and we raised an extra £4 million off the back of that.
And then we turned to our startups and their pitches
Willsow Books, with Tom Willday and James Coulthurst
Together we’ve produced the first ever plantable children’s vegetable book. All our books have roughly 500 seeds in the book. All the pages are made from post-consumer waste recycled paper. Instead of using glue or metal staples we bind our books with 100% natural cotton.
When you finish the story you plant the pages to grow real vegetables. Our aim at Willsow is get children spending less time with technology and more time in the garden planting and having fun in the outdoors.
When Covid-19 got in the way of selling via garden centres we started doing deals with online companies and selling from our own website.
We’re aiming to launch five books a year. We have two already about a carrot and a lettuce, and a trio about to land about dill, basil and parsley. Each one of our “read me seed me” adventures has its own meaningful message. The Carrot who’s Too Big for his Bed is all about teamwork. Our lettuce book is all about diversity. And the herb heroes do random acts of kindness.
We’ve sold 3,000 books.
The children’s gift and book market is worth £3 billion and we don’t feel like anybody is owning the space in sustainability.
Tom Willday is a fourth-generation printer in his family business. We managed to get the rights to put vegetable seeds inside the paper.
These books have led to children trying these vegetables for the first time. And one of customers planted the book to grow lettuce for their rabbit.
What did our panel say?
You made me smile, I thought your pitch was very good and what I liked about it most is that you focussed on the brand because ultimately you’re not pitching to save the planet or to make us eat better you’re pitching for money. Investors want to make money – and by the way these are sustainable businesses and so on, all the CSR boxes that you tick. If you focus more on a brand that’s going to employ people, you’ll create more sustainability in your business because it will last. So, I thought you were the strongest pitch.
You’ve definitely gained a customer because my great nephews will be all over those when I give them for Christmas. I looked at your website and saw £9.99, great price. What I want to hear as a potential investor is the potential market and I think £3 billion on kids’ books is not the market that you are going for you’ve got a much smaller group so I’d like to understand what age group they’re for because there’s 700,000 kids in each age group in the UK. I want to hear how many age groups you’re going for and what product development you’ve got going on to be able to extend the market. I want to hear about how you can scale something that goes beyond a beautiful idea into a proper business.
Willsow Books is a fantastic idea. The scaling of that to a significant business will be challenging because it’s very exciting but it’s very niche and repeatability might be an issue. But as everyone said I think you’ve got a customer in me there. I’ve got two boys who love this sort of stuff.
It started when I was cycling for one year in Asia. I came across Spirulina. It’s a micro algae which is a superfood. In 1974 the United Nations declared it the food of the future. Nasa has used it to feed astronauts on a special mission. Recently Nestle said it was actively exploring the use of micro algae as an alternative protein and micro nutrient source.
Our diet lacks micronutrients which causes health issues leading to 39% of the world’s adults being overweight. We have to spare natural resources and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by a third. Spirulina contains more protein, iron and minerals than most other food but it requires very few resources to grow and it emits very few greenhouse gases.
It can taste good and for that it has to be harvested gently and dried on a low temperature. Spinoa specialises in spirulina in a dried innovative form. And we integrate it into products like chocolate, honey and soap.
We’ve built an online community and work with restaurants and coffee shops in Romania.
We’ve opened in a farm in Romania and we aim to launch another farm near Bucharest. Spirulina grows almost everywhere but needs some specific conditions, it needs sunshine and a very high PH level.
In France there is a federation of spirulina farmers which was created in 2009 nine and today 150 producers. Most of them distribute their product in a short food-supply chain. Most of them are in the south of France where there is more sun.
We started two years ago distributing spirulina that we import from Burkina Faso and France to check if the market was ready for the product. Today we want a local farm in Romania, organised in a co-operative way to let other farmers produce. The selling price allows a good salary for farmers – twice as much as they would earn today. We want to launch this pilot farm next year.
What did the panel say?
I’m interested in hearing about a business that is growing a superfood and serving that up as a raw material, a product at the start of a food supply chain, rather than a business that’s trying to create consumer brands across a number of consumer categories. Creating a brand in one consumer category is hard so I wouldn’t fancy businesses trying to create consumer brands across lots. I’m really interested in the story about the superfood and how efficient it is to grow and what the end benefits are to the punter. But I don’t really want to see you go anywhere near branding that. I want to see you being a provider to the industry.
Romaine I see that you are growing, aggregating and distributing spirulina which makes perfect sense and if you find a way to reduce production and increase quality and increase sustainability, that looks like a really investable business, as far I can see.
Thomas Constant from BeoBia
Traditional livestock are responsible for 24% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions but there’s an amazing solution that’s 22,000 times more water efficient than beef and can be created in your home by reusing your fruit and vegetable waste. INSECTS.
Insects are eaten by over 2 billion people worldwide and growing. I’ve always been interested in nature and design. As a child I used to play in the garden and find insects and sketch them.
It was at university while studying design that I first came up with this idea. I realised there was loads of innovation around pre-made food. But there wasn’t a lot of innovation around empowering people to create their own food in their own home.
So, I created a small kitchen growing pod that empowers people to grow sustainable, healthy and nutritious sources of protein in their own home, re-using their fruit and vegetable waste.
It tries to help people reduce their carbon footprint, recycle their food waste and re-think their views towards protein.
I designed the first growing pod back in 2018. I then joined the Loughborough University business incubator in 2019. We believe in the circular economy. So, we design, ship and manufacture all the growing pods here in this facility using a fleet of three printers. All the printers use recycled British bioplastic for the growing pods.
We launched on Kickstarter in July 2020 and we reached over £21,000 worth of pre-orders in less than 30 days, with over 350 orders.
We are manufacturing and shipping out pods all over the world. From the UK to Peru to Australia to China and the US – everywhere.
We initially targeted our product at Western sales. But from our initial sales it looks as though we could have a huge impact on the humanitarian sector which we’re now exploring.
We’re living through a food enlightenment period. People are increasingly passionate and interested about the health of our planet.
BeoBia means food for life in Irish Gaelic and we believe we can produce food without compromising our planet’s health. Right now, we are looking to expand the team and start conversations with partners and investors. I hope you can join us to create a food revolution.
And the panel said…
Thomas feeding us with insects I’m worried about how much food waste I need to put into that device to make enough protein for my friends and family. I’m concerned it’s never going to be big enough. You start scaling that and an entire flat in Tokyo will be taken up with this great bit of plastic. It’s a nice concept but is it practical?
On the insects I’m absolutely intrigued. The $1 billion market as it stands at the moment – how much of that is individual consumers making a direct choice to eat bugs or is there a lot of primary supply chain into other brands that are making it a lot more palatable to eat bugs? Because my real fear is there’s a lot for the industry to do to change attitudes and habits. It’s really hard to do that directly with the consumer and really hard to do that with a live product, particularly one sitting in your kitchen wriggling around. I think you’ve picked a really hard one to change consumer behaviours. It’s easier when it’s packaged up in things that might be more comfortable to eat.
Thomas as part of the ag-tech marry-go-round in the UK and internationally I’ve been involved in and close to a fair few bug companies. It’s definitely a business, particularly for animal feed. I know the legislation in the UK and Europe is very tricky around this and changing it will take time. I’m not sure how providing the homegrown element will work into that but it’s a terrific idea. One piece of advice I would move away from 3D printing if you’re looking to mass produce. It takes a long time with a lot of waste in there. So as soon as you can move to having them produced, using the right plastic, but a different way, the better.
So we thank everyone and congratulate all our startups whose ideas were so inspiring and look forward to the next time!
You can watch the full event here.