Feminist VC The 51 on why the future of food is women-led

The 51 co-CEO Judy Fairburn and board member Alison Sunstrum provide solutions to the challenges female-led founders are facing when sourcing funds
Female-led VC The 51 is providing women-led tech start-ups with a platform for growth Source: The 51

What separates The 51 from other food and agtech VC funds?

Judy: The 51 was formed two years ago by women with lived experience. Two serial entrepreneurs and myself. I come from a managerial background and rose to be a senior executive and along the way I set up corporate venture funds and was very involved in the Canadian innovation ecosystem.

Women have foresight and perspective for innovation so we saw a real opportunity to drive and invest and create this flywheel of women-led capital and women and co-led start-ups. Our mission is really to bring together the investors, the founders and those that are inspiring the broader community.

Judy Fairburn is co-CEO at The 51 and has vast experience in assisting early-stage tech businesses with scaling beyond the concept phase

We’re a community of over 15,000 globally. We have over 100 LPs from all walks of life in our first fund although they are all Canadian and 90% of our investors in Fund I are female. We’ve invested in 14 companies in our first fund and even before that we were investing in special purpose acquisition vehicles.

As it comes to food and agtech we have agriculture roots among us as I’m from a fourth generation farm family. The 51 is very much a 50/50 leadership model and between the two co-founders and the broader team, we also have a lot of tech and science knowledge with deep experience in consumer-driven innovation, which I think is a major driver within the food and agtech realm.

Alison and I came to meet each other four years ago at the Canadian Economic Strategy table and we’ve since met each other through the Creative Destruction Lab, which is a major effort accelerating science-driven innovations to really go to scale with a lot of business judgment. Alison is an investor in our first fund and has been a real champion of our second fund focusing on food and agtech.

Alison: I started making my first investments back in the late 80s. But in 1999, I invested in an agtech company that was doing some pretty amazing things. I joined the firm and doubled-down on my investment. For the next 20 years we grew the business globally, creating an advanced data acquisition and analytics platform that collected data from livestock. It was used to developed genomic markers for feed efficiency and cattle. We collected data from animals and their environment, improving profitability, and reducing livestock impact and animal welfare.

Alison Sunstrum supports and invests in The 51, bringing with her a background in agtech

In 2016 we divested our business and then in 2018 sold the remainder to a UK private wealth firm. When I divested, I realised what a challenge it was for agtech entrepreneurs to grow their businesses effectively. I strongly believe that the fact I was a woman played a big role in how difficult it was to find financing over many years. Once I was very involved in the Creative Destruction Lab and met Judy, I just loved what The 51 was doing, particularly with Judy’s past as a farmer. Together we realised what an incredible opportunity there was for agtech and food investment, particularly those that were being grown by female founders that may have difficulty finding funding.

Can you provide any personal experiences in which you felt being a female hindered your ability to raise funds either for a business or an investment vehicle?
Judy: Although there are challenges, there is an opportunity here, and this is one of the barriers we’re going to work through. In Canada, and I’m sure it’s probably similar in countries like UK and the States, by the end of this decade, it’s projected that women will be controlling two thirds of the wealth. Pair that with the fact that women are also making 85% of the consumer decisions and we see that so many sectors are increasingly being consumer driven.

Financial feminism is actually an economic imperative to be equal in all matters financial. It means really grabbing the opportunity and shifting the way things work. We are marrying those economic opportunities. Women-led companies are over-performing by 35%, versus all-male teams. This is an over-performing and under-funded asset class.

As we crossover into the agricultural realm, it’s interesting that nearly one in three farm owners here in Canada are actually women and I think it’s similar in the States. Canada is one of the world’s top exporters and agriculture is a large part of our economy. I think there’s something here that’s been hidden for some time and when you put all those key trends and statistics together the future of food is women-led.

Alison: I’ll say something that might be a little bit controversial, and maybe The 51 might not say it, but if we look at where most of the ag/foodtech deals have been made, Silicon Valley being the primary area, the funds are typically very conservative, male funds. And they like to invest in people that look just like them. We see that 2% of venture capital funding is provided to women across all sectors.

If you look at the ag/foodtech sector, it’s actually less, so we see the greatest opportunity for unlocking this. We have to help mentor women to give them high-growth opportunities and help get them to a point that they understand that they can compete as well if not better. And that also goes for minorities and people of colour.

Judy: When we looked at the Canadian scene, 95% of Canadian women in agtech will say there are significant barriers to their success. And the Vegan Women’s Summit last summer found that 75% of female founders felt there was significant bias against them.

Alison: In the developing world, 60% of workers are farmers and the majority of those are women. We see a lot of insecurity in food because those women don’t have equal access to land, capital and technology and that technology is going to be the industry’s driver.

Why are female-led businesses now starting to gain exposure?
Judy: One of the things people even said to us early on as we established The 51 was ‘is there enough women-led companies and diverse founders in this space?’ We built our pipeline by being visible and once they had a spot to come to, the founders came. Allison and I do a lot of mentoring young businesses and we’re willing to work with founders at the earliest stages. That’s part of why we’ve been fairly public with our fund, so the great founders out there know we’re here to help them scale their companies.

Alison: A big reason that men are successful is they’re very good networkers and they have built huge networks. I would call that the old boys network. I think a similar type of global network for women will really assist them in growing their businesses. I do believe that if we create strong networks in the developed world, very quickly we can start reaching into the developing world and transferring some of those skills.

What’s The 51’s deeper investment mandate beyond the female founder connection?

Judy: Our Fund I, which we closed earlier in the year, invested in 14 companies including two food and agtech companies. Some of the tech we invest in provides digital sensors and machine learning for dairy farms. It really enhances cow’s health and produces better milk, which is ultimately better better for consumers.

On the other end of the spectrum one of our portfolio companies develops personalised food for those that suffer from gut ailments. The company is called BelliWelli.

Alison: These are investments that will return on a venture basis. They’re not companies that we’re involved in just because they’re women-led and they need support, we’re looking for good science and technology, good possibility for growth, coachable founders, strong integrity and a measurable ESG capability.

What’s the timeline for your Fund II?
Judy: We’re currently raising for our food and agtech fund. We’ve been working hard to develop our pipeline and we’ve already started to invest via our second fund. Our view is that capital plus community makes the difference, and in our first fund of over 100 investors, Alison is one example of the amazing networks we’ve been able to establish.

The fund’s investors have backgrounds in food and agtech as well as banking, private equity, law, teaching, healthcare etcetera. It’s an amazing group to draw upon as we consider our next investments and carry out due diligence. We are driving to close Fund II in the first quarter of next year.

Why spread your capital across various sectors over narrowing in on one specific niche?
Judy: In the first fund there was a natural intersectionality between women and technology and so in the world of finance and fintech, increasingly, the wealth routes are looking to female-led companies. In healthtech we have a unique experience as women and this area has been underserved for some time.

Alison: I actually think that if you take a look at food and agtech it’s been very under-invested as a spec for VCs. Food and agriculture is an $8 trillion a year global market representing about 10% of global GDP. It requires about $200 billion in investment every year just to meet current market demands. New agtech investment doubled from 2019 to 2020 and I think the 2020 to 2021 numbers are going to come in even higher.

But the Covid-19 pandemic shifted some of those numbers. Over the next 30 years about 60% of our physical inputs in farming could be bioengineered and completely reimagined. And that’s a $4 trillion annual opportunity. I actually don’t think investment opportunities get much bigger than this. Ag and foodtech as a specific type of investment is going to bring better returns to investors.

Judy: If we take our investment thesis, there are really three interlocking circles, like a Venn diagram of sustainable food. From farming to reimagining the supply chain, which has been largely accelerated through Covid and brings in a digital realm as well as consumer-driven innovation.

You’re clearly looking at companies that are starting to bridge the gap between health and food and nutrition with their products and services. How do you foresee this trend developing further?

Judy: Can we increase the nutrient density of our food? Can we prescribe food to solve illness? If we actually look at technologies and different approaches to our food we will have a difference in our healthcare costs and we’ll have a difference in our physical wellbeing and animal welfare.

In terms of the consumer-driven shifts, we’re now moving from convenience to transparency and healthy, personalised food. So we need to reimagine that dynamic between consumers wanting fresh and healthy and personalised and customised offerings.

Have you had much interest from male LPs? Do you feel as though any of your investors are trying to fill a diversity quota with their interest in your fund?
Alison: I’m blown away by the number of men I speak to that want to become a financial feminist. It’s a fabulous change. There is not a restriction on male capital in our network at all. I like to see the equity that we’re bringing about and I actually believe that some of the male investors believe that we can perform and want to be part of the journey.

Can you provide some insight into the companies and potential investments you’re considering for your food and agtech fund at the moment?
Judy: We have a very strong pipeline that’s grown rapidly this autumn and is well over 50 or 70 companies now. As we’ve come to the UN’s climate change conference COP26 we’re very much looking at tying in sustainability with our search for innovative food and agtech offerings.