Investing in the Future of Food: Pandemic slows investment dealmaking, but also opens opportunities

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Investing in the Future of Food Entrepreneurship coronavirus Innovation

After initially hitting pause on new deals during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, investors have steadily returned to the bargaining table, but the CEO of one venture capital firm warns the pandemic has raised the bar for and slowed the pace of dealmaking to allow investors a chance to better assess companies virtually.

Jordan Gaspar, who is the managing partner and president of the woman-owned VC firm AF Ventures​, adds that these new standards are unlikely to revert to those of pre-COVID once a vaccine is available and economies reopen fully.

But, that isn’t a bad thing, as she explains in this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Investing in the Future of Food​. Rather, she says, many of the changes – and opportunities – spurred by the pandemic will accelerate much-needed, true advancement in the industry and open new avenues for innovation and business development.

“My biggest hope is that we don’t go back to who we were before all of this. I think we have learned so much. There’s been so much progress applied to our industry. There’s so many new developments that we can continue to invest in once we have a moment to take our breath. So, my hope is that we can take the positive elements from the past, but really be focusing on what is true advancement in our industry, that’s accelerated by several years”​ in the past few months, Gaspar said.

Increased transparency, communication become top priorities

For example, Gaspar says, while travel restrictions during the pandemic hindered face-to-face meetings with fundraising companies, they ultimately fostered increased transparency and open communication – which will behoove companies and investors alike going forward.

“We invested in six companies this past year,”​ including ones evaluated virtually, which has been “an adjustment,”​ she said. “We realized that we had to become flexible and nimble in our own process because the world has changed a little bit. And so, we invested in companies where we did a supply chain audit over Zoom”​ and had “a couple dozen more Zooms to get to know each other.”

Likewise, she notes, supply chain and marketing challenges have given investors a chance to see how entrepreneurs and businesses perform under pressure.

“COVID is a real marker of the type of resilience that certain founders can have,”​ and “for us those are all markers of a different level of expectation of founders, which is a result of COVID where the bar is raised that much higher,”​ Gaspar said, adding, the pandemic also provided “a great opportunity to see what people were made of – essentially just to see what their chops were.”

White spaces revealed by the pandemic

For each challenge the pandemic has posed, it also has created new opportunities for entrepreneurs to appeal to consumers and investors, including, in AF Ventures case, new eating occasions, distribution strategies, and platforms for cross-category expansion.

“There’s so many lessons from this. … First and foremost, the categories of priority are going to shift or expand”​ to include more grab-and-stay options and at home lunch and snack solutions, Gaspar said. “I had no idea how important lunch options in my home were [before the pandemic] because I used to wake up, send my kids to school and my spouse would go to work, and there was this whole portion of the day where there were no snacks and meals to be responsible for. … Now have two snacks and lunch that I also am purchasing and thinking about in terms of stocking. So, we do have a change in use occasion.”

In addition, she said, the pandemic has revealed the importance of omnichannel distribution – not just for shelf stable products but refrigerated and frozen options as well.

Other areas of interest to consumers and investors include adaptogens, immunity-based platforms, functional ingredients, and solutions that prioritize physical health and mental well-being, Gaspar said.

Pandemic elevates importance of emotional intelligence

As important as the market potential and business savvy of a company is to investors, the pandemic also underscored the importance of entrepreneurs’ emotional intelligence and how they treat employees – qualities that increasingly are influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions.

“It can’t just be about business anymore. People are investing so much, and we’ve been thinking a lot about how we can support our teams,”​ how to be good employers and teammates, Gaspar said.

She explained that before the pandemic, AF Ventures would have considered potential partners’ HR policies, but now with the strain of social distancing and working from home, Gaspar says companies – including hers – need to be more proactive in ensuring the health and happiness of staff.

Worker welfare also has become an increasingly important priority for many consumers as the pandemic has shined a light on the value of ‘essential workers’ and the risks they take to help serve others.

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