Editor's note: "A Balancing Act" is the fourth in a series for Food Dive, where experts examine trends uncovered in earnings reports and discuss strategies that impact the balance sheet. You can read the first piece here, the second here, and the third here.
Follow the money and the recent trajectory of the food and beverage industry reflects a string of venture capital investments. While it doesn't rival Silicon Valley, investing in food and beverage is becoming attractive for those looking for high-growth opportunities in a category that continues to be important to consumers and their daily lifestyles.
Food Dive spoke with a number of investors and analysts to take a look back at the past five years of venture capital investments. Their observations highlight why certain categories are disrupting the status quo today—and where to place a calculated bet tomorrow.
Where VC money has gone over the past five years
Plant-based foods and beverages
We challenge you to fool anyone with this plant-based cheese today! We promise, no one is going to know. pic.twitter.com/SEVKYvdkHa— KiteHill (@KiteHillCheese) April 1, 2016
Across the board, plant-based foods and beverages topped analysts' lists of places VC firms and manufacturers invested during the past five years. The category attracts so many VC investors because plant-based products resonate with consumers on several levels, the analysts said.
For starters, the plant-based category is "where the attributes of being fresh and organic are rooted in the authenticity of the ingredients," said Zach Grannis, business operations manager at CircleUp. These three attributes have become increasingly important to consumers of all ages.
Plant-based products also offer sustainability benefits. Concerns about animal welfare and environmental impact of meat production has caused some consumers to move toward plants. This has given rise to everything from plant-based meat replacements, like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods, to plant-based egg and dairy alternatives, like Hampton Creek — which is currently seeking a $200 million expansion investment — and pea-based milk producer Ripple.
Plant-based alternatives can also cost less than traditional categories, such as dairy, Ripple co-founder and co-CEO Adam Lowry said at Fortune's Brainstorm E summit in May. As plant-based producers grow through VC investments and expanded distribution, they can pass those cost savings onto consumers, which makes the category still more appealing and disruptive, he said.
But portable proteins — like protein bars and shakes — have also become an attractive VC investment. Categories ranging from the fast-growing sports nutrition segment to breakfast sandwiches have grown to meet consumers’ demand for both health and convenience.
Right now, protein-enhanced products have what Grannis called a "halo attribute" in the eyes of consumers. Consumers are looking for protein as one of a food's key functional characteristics, which has given rise to everything from artisan jerky producers to algae-based ingredients makers, like TerraVia (formerly Solazyme).
Interestingly, protein-based product launches fell from a high of 481 in 2013 to 265 last year, according to recent Mintel data. Still, 38% of U.S. adults say they want to increase their protein intake, and 57% said they consume more plant-based protein products now than last year, according to a recent study from the Natural Marketing Institute and Informa.
The market for proteins is still alive and well, but the market has become so saturated that manufacturers will have to continue to innovate to stand out.
A focus of many VC investments has been startups that contribute to what AccelFoods co-founder and managing partner Lauren Jupiter and other analysts describe as the "snackification" of the food and beverage industry. Snacks are not a new category, but sub-segments, like salty snacks, continue to innovate to meet the needs and health-related expectations of modern consumers.
Grannis also called snackification a manifestation of other popular trends in VC, such as proteins and plant-based products.
"We see a continued disenchantment with the traditional three-square-meals framework," said Grannis. "If you are going to snack all day long, you need extremely nutrient-dense products to sustain your energy."
And snacking isn't limited to solid foods. Liquid meal replacements are another fast-rising category, as nearly 40% of American consumers said it’s easier to obtain the nutrients they need in the morning via liquid rather than solid foods.
This drive for convenience is forcing manufacturers to look internally for ways to make their current products more convenient and snack-friendly, such as disassociating cereal from milk.
But as Hormel found out with its attempt at Spam Snacks, which were discontinued last month after a disappointing half-year run, sometimes manufacturers need to look not just outside the box, but outside their brands portfolio for the right snacking innovations.
While health and wellness are often at the center of VC investments from both firms and manufacturers, neither investors nor consumers have overlooked the sustained appeal of indulgent foods. It’s why candy sales continue to rise even as a category like soda falls due to concerns about sugar consumption and obesity.
But the great equalizer among these VC investments is often the startups’ use of higher-quality, better-for-you ingredients in products that may not otherwise be readily viewed as "healthy."
"Regardless of the health trends, we're seeing that people still are just as happy to have that indulgent product during the day, and the invest focus is following all of those trends," said Jupiter.
Natural and organic
And where do all of these categories overlap? Their use of natural, and often organic, ingredients. Every example named in the previous categories utilizes natural or organic ingredients in their products.
"All of it is 100% driven by consumer profile," said Anthony Valentino, deputy editor at Mergermarket. "The health and wellness craze is driving every little decision. It's sort of that trickle-down effect."
Where VC money is going over the next five years
Overall, these analysts tend to agree that VC investments will stay the general course they're on because many of these categories are just starting to hit their stride.
"It's looking at general market dynamics and the category, and it's looking at consumer demand and what we call 'sustainable shifts in consumer behavior' rather than 'fads,' " said Jupiter.
Sherri Wolf, member of Edible Ventures angel group and partner at Newport Board Group, said the products and categories that serve the millennial market — from natural ingredients to convenience — will continue to attract investors, she said.
"At Edible Ventures, we really see a whole range," said Wolf. "There's no one particular area, and I think that speaks to all the investment that's out there that's looking for food and beverage now. I used to think what you would see is a lot of focus on a particular area, and now because there is more money out there for food and beverage, that it is being more diversified. There are more types of food and beverage companies looking for capital, whereas before you had to be in only one hot segment."
Grannis echoed this sentiment.
"Overall, products that are authentic, with a laser focus on quality and that meet a more specific set of demands than many of the 'big food' products do, [will see more investment]," said Grannis. "It seems the more personal the need the product caters to, the stronger the brand."
But beyond specific brands and categories, the future of food and beverage VC investments is also about ways to make these popular segments more profitable. Jupiter said that food tech and ag tech, or "thinking about products from seed to store," could be another area where both VC investment firms and manufacturers’ venture arms focus some of their capital. Nestle's open innovation platform Henri@Nestle could be one way to facilitate those types of tech partnerships.
"Those strategics that think of the VC arm almost as an education platform for them are going to be interested in jumping into food tech and ag tech in addition to just new areas of packaged food," said Jupiter.
More manufacturers continue to launch venture capital arms, including Hain Celestial, Kellogg, and Danone in the past two months. As they compete with other food and beverage VC firms to invest in the same promising assets, the exit strategies for some of these investors could begin to evolve. That may lead to a shorter life cycle from founding to investment to acquisition for these startups.
"You think of some of these brands that got started five, six, seven years ago that have since received investment, but you wonder if they had started today, how much different their life cycle would have been," said Valentino. "You almost wonder if their paths would have been different — whether they would have been acquired at a much earlier stage by one of these venture arms."
The "A Balancing Act" series is brought to you by BMO Harris Bank, a leader in commercial banking. To learn more about their Food & Beverage expertise, visit their website here. BMO Harris Bank has no influence over Food Dive's coverage.