Building on her background in retail and logistics, the member of the founding team of the Luxembourg venture capital fund discusses retail and rate of sales strategies for sustainable food brands
By Murielle Gonzalez
Mariana Gonzalez grew up in Mexico and her family built one of the country’s most successful retail businesses – Comercial Mexicana. “I basically grew up inside the store!” she tells me, noting her dad has been Costco Mexico Director since the early 90s. “I spent most of my free time watching him work.”
I can see her recalling memories of her childhood because she smiles as she speaks. Gonzalez tells me about her work in logistics and as a buyer at Costco and in sales at Kipling Mexico, so I’m not surprised when she argues this background, together with her qualification as an engineer, has shaped the way she engages with start-ups at Blue Horizon Ventures, the venture capital fund that Gonzalez helped launched together with her husband Michael Kleindl, Roger Lienhard and Dr Regina Hecker.
The venture capitalists got together through friendship and a mutual interest in sustainable food. Lienhard had been backing vegan companies as an angel investor since 2016 and realised those companies will require an extra cash injection to support their growth. Partnering with Kleindl, a close friend of his for more than two decades, was a great opportunity to continue supporting those businesses.
At that time, Kleindl was running Seaya, a venture capital fund in Spain investing in technology in the country and Latin America. “Together as partners, we decided that launching the fund was the correct move for us to start doing something that’s more meaningful,” says Gonzalez. “Even though we give priority to financial performance through the implementation of our investment thesis, we do true impact.”
Two-and-a-half years have passed since they decided to establish Blue Horizon Ventures. Today, the fund manages nearly $220 million – it expanded the initial target of €100 million in Q4 2018.
A change for the better
“We lived in Spain, but we packed our bags, grabbed our kids and moved to Switzerland,” says Gonzalez, noting the choice was strategic. The location in Europe and the sound economic and environmental climate of the country were a boon for the fund, which was set up to invest only in plant-based and sustainable food.
“Michael and I turned vegans at that point because we thought that to convey the message of sustainability, it was very important also to change our lifestyle,” she says. “If we are part of this movement, then we also have to experience it – and it was not hard at all! We really enjoyed the change.”
Gonzalez notes that Blue Horizon Ventures is not in the market to impose veganism on people. She explains: “We’re not against people eating meat. But we’re in this to help people reduce their animal-based meat consumption. I think the amount of meat that we eat is astonishing, and we all know the impact it has on our health and the environment. We just want to be part of the change.”
Blue Horizon Ventures: Investing in sustainable food
Plant-based food was an emerging consumer trend when Blue Horizon Ventures launched, but now it’s truly taken off. “Many products are now available in the market, they taste good and are affordable,” says Gonzalez, noting the ecosystem has developed in a way that today people can access it everywhere.
Gonzalez tells me the primary focus of Blue Horizon Ventures is to invest in Europe, but the fund is open to exploring opportunities in the US and Latin America – especially in Mexico, building on her connections in the retail marketplace. Asia is also on the horizon.
“We’re helping companies not only by injecting capital but opening doors,” she says. “Some of the companies we invest in need a bit more than just money – they need support from us, and they really want us to be active investors, helping them to connect in the industry, scale up or get their patent set up in shape.”
Blue Horizon Ventures declares it is stage-agnostic. Gonzalez explains that what matters is the company’s transformative prowess because the fund’s goal is to support efforts that eliminate the animal from the supply chain. “We need to have the flexibility and to have the foresight to invest in the novel technologies and ingredients, in solutions to food waste and sustainable packaging,” she says.
Gonzalez notes the sweet spot of the fund would be investing in Series A funding rounds. “We like to see some traction of the companies we invest in or certain shelf rotation in the supermarket,” she explains.
To the point
Your portfolio has companies with business-to-business and business-to-consumers models – why is it so diverse?
We decided not to focus on one area to mirror the broad reality of the food and supply chain – and one of the things that being in logistics for a big retailer taught me was that you have to think broadly. Some call it as well portfolio diversification.
Food touches many industries, and many people are involved. It goes from sourcing raw ingredients to manufacturing and processing to the retailer and consumer, and there is also food waste and packaging. So we look at everything.
How do you assess the traction of a company?
In terms of traction, we like to see proof of concept and market/consumer acceptance in each market segment the start-ups are targeting. Traction drives revenues and revenues drive traction, so it’s important to have the right combination of both.
Do you see retailers interested in sustainable food?
I think retailers are looking for novel products to stock on the shelf, but their priorities will always be volume and price. They ask how much can companies produce? and is the price affordable?
New companies can provide in volume, which is required to get the product at the price the retailer needs. But the product also has to have the taste that the consumer is looking for. So, I think volume, price and taste are the main criteria for these companies to really win in the marketplace.
What’s the best way to get Blue Horizon’s attention?
The obvious answer is food samples because, at the end of the day, it’s something we can touch and put in our mouth and taste.
But it’s also about being persistent. So many companies reach out to us, and we reach out to so many companies, too. We are very busy, but I like to see those emails coming in, reminding us to give feedback on the samples we received or asking for more information.
I’d say to founders: do not get discouraged if you get rejected because that will happen a lot.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of food entrepreneurs at the time they reach you?
Since Blue Horizon Ventures focuses on a very specific goal – to take the animal out of the food supply chain – we have had the pleasure of meeting passionate, mission-aligned founders from all parts of the world and different backgrounds.
On the not-so-positive side, many entrepreneurs reach out to us at a very early stage and would rather benefit from an accelerator or incubator programme.
Creating a food company is much more complex than people think. It requires doing proper market and consumer research, identifying main roadblocks and planning to overcome them.
Looking at main competitors and positioning the company with a clear differentiation will help founders in the future when they talk to investors. Founders need to be experts in what they are doing.
Reflecting on your family retail business, what’s the best way to get a listing?
It’s a combination of various factors. If I were starting a CPG company, the first thing I would do is create a strong brand identity, a clear differentiation, and a strong USP, so I don’t get lost in the competition.
Then, I would approach the retailer that targets my main consumer because the buyer in that retail is already looking at my competitors.
Buyers are well informed about trends and are on a constant lookout for the next best thing.
What can brands do to improve shelf rotation in-store?
A good tip to pass on would be to do in-store checks. Go to the stores your product is listed in. Check that your product looks good and it is positioned correctly on the shelf. Talk to the store manager and ask about the consumer feedback and if any support is needed from you to increase sales, such as in-store sampling.
Getting the store managers to love your product will automatically make them brand ambassadors. Some founders forget this essential part of the equation.
It’s clear to me that Gonzalez loves the journey she has embarked upon for the past couple of years, and I’m in no doubt Blue Horizon Ventures will continue to attract industry-changing start-ups to its portfolio.
“Every day, I get emails from companies that are doing such amazing things one couldn’t even imagine it was possible! I think we see the tip of the iceberg of the amount of innovation there is,” says Gonzalez. “We have great capacity. We’re engineers, and great engineers are creative and think outside the box – and this is what excites me the most,” she concludes.
About the author
Murielle Gonzalez is the editor of NutritionInvestor. She is an experienced journalist with 20 years in the media industry, including work at B2B magazines in the UK and Latin America.
Gonzalez holds a Master in Journalism from the University of Westminster and flair for all things online and multimedia storytelling.
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Date published: 7 January 2021