Sustainable Foods Institute

From left: Panelists William Rosenzweig, Ali Long, Kellee James, Eileen Gordon Chiarello and moderator Sarah Nassauer talk venture capital for sustainable food startups.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, May 12-13, Monterey Bay Aquarium invited scholars, policymakers, industry experts and reporters together for its 10th annual Sustainable Foods Institute.

I've been lucky enough to attend for five or six years running now, and it always leads to a fresh harvest of new story ideas, unique ways of looking at problems and really smart sources.

Stay tuned as we spread those stories out across the coming days and months. We'll start with the May 13 panel on a pretty un-foodie-sounding topic: venture capital.

It’s not easy being eco in a mostly conventional world. Or starting up new businesses in food and agriculture, sectors that don't tend to scale nearly as quickly as tech does. That makes growing hard for the founders of ecologically responsible food startups—like Kellee James, founder and CEO of Mercaris, a trading platform for organic and non-GMO products.

Still, there's a value to being picky. James said her company hasn’t broken even yet, but she’s still willing to turn away investors who don’t share her mission. “The wrong investor can ruin the company, to be honest,” she said. “There’s sometimes a fundamental disconnect between what the investor wants and what the entrepreneur wants.”

Once an entrepreneur finds the right investor—someone who both shares the business' vision and can also afford to lose money on it—she has to convince them to take the risk.

William Rosenzweig, dean of The Food Business School and founding CEO of The Republic of Tea, says the secret ingredient is gumption. 

His personal rule: Entrepreneurs have have to come to him at least three times before he’ll consider investing. “If they don’t have the persistence or grit to come back to me,” he said, “they don’t have the persistence to be an entrepreneur.”

James takes it a step further: “You have to stalk just short of getting law enforcement involved.”

And if you're treading water, Rosenzweig added, don't be afraid to shift directions. One of his Food Business School students, Danae Ringelmann, tried to launch a food company, hit a wall founded Indiegogo instead.

The talk reminded me of a Weekly cover story that ran two years back, looking at Monterey County startups and their quest for venture capital. One of the entrepreneurs I profiled, butcher/charcuterie specialist Jonathan Roberts (aka PigWizard), does exactly the kind of small-scale, ecologically responsible food production the panel was talking about.

And he struggled to get funding. “There are people investing in startups here," he told me then. "Finding those people is not easy.”

Still, the panelists said there are some unique opportunities in eco-friendly food ventures. Rosenzweig noted they fall right at the intersection of two hot sectors, sustainability and wellness. It just might take more patience to see a return on investment.

As he put it: “It takes 15 years to become an overnight success in the food industry."

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