Our S2G team was thrilled to co-host the Crusonia Forum last month with our partners at iSelect Fund alongside the events of the UN General Assembly and Climate Week NYC 2022. Throughout the day’s events, the audience of institutional investors, entrepreneurs and corporate partners explored the potential for food to drive better health outcomes and the related investment opportunities emerging at the intersection of food and healthcare.
Carter Williams, CEO of iSelect Fund, kicked off the day with a discussion on The Next Investment Arbitrage: Food is Health. He explained, “We spend $1.7 trillion on food in the U.S. We spend another $1.9 trillion in healthcare to reverse the bad choices we have made in food. $3.6 trillion is the market opportunity to create better food, at a lower cost that keeps us healthy.”
Challenges and Opportunities for Food to Drive Better Health Outcomes
Following the opening remarks, multiple discussions laid out many of the structural forces influencing the state of our current food system, as well as possible solutions to drive better health outcomes. Nancy Roman, President and CEO, Partnership for a Healthier America, and Michelle McMacken, MD, Executive Director, Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine, Office of Ambulatory Care and Population Health, NYC Health & Hospitals, discussed the need for more training for physicians in nutrition and, in turn, education and techniques to encourage diet behavior change in patients. McMacken shared that integrating plant-based nutrition into her practice has had tremendous results for her patients by helping to prevent and treat chronic disease, and for her own passion for changing the trajectory of our healthcare system towards one that incorporates nutrition and lifestyle change. She said, “I’ve found that many of my patients are hungry for the information I share. Most can relate to the idea of healing through healthy eating, and they want to learn specifically what to do.”
Roman and McMacken were joined onstage by Lianna Levine Reisner, Network Director, Plant Powered Metro New York, and Scott Morris, CEO, Church Health, to explore the challenges in helping people to make healthier food choices. The group discussed that food insecurity and the long-term impacts of poverty are barriers to getting people to change. For most people, avoiding disease is not a motivator, while cultural food choices that may not be as healthy are often a source of comfort. The panelists shared perspectives on ways to encourage positive behavior change, from identifying and influencing community leaders, to promoting authentic and non-judgmental approaches to meeting people where they are, and the power of incremental change and providing culinary instruction.
The group shared stories from their work highlighting the positive outcomes that changes in diet and lifestyle can have for those at risk of chronic disease. McMacken reinforced this theme saying “My experience is that many people - just like their physicians and healthcare providers - don’t realize what’s possible. They think that ‘I’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I’m going to be taking medication for the rest of my life, I’m going to have an amputation. I’m at risk of going on dialysis.’ They have no idea that when type 2 diabetes is first diagnosed it is remarkably treatable with lifestyle changes. Actually the paradigm now, among major endocrine organizations, is that we should be aiming for remission. Every person that is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, if you catch it within the first four to six years, your goal should be remission.”
As a case in point, Eric Adams, Mayor, City of New York, joined the forum to share his journey with using a whole-food, plant-based diet to cure his type 2 diabetes, which had progressed to the point of him experiencing nerve damage and risking the loss of sight. After learning of his diagnosis and seeing a specialist who told him to change his diet, he shared, “I returned back to the city, looked at my cupboards and saw all of this food-like stuff I was eating, and just emptied my cabinets and went on a whole food, plant-based diet. Three weeks later, my vision came back. Three months later, my nerve damage went away, my ulcer went away. I don't even recall when it went away. No medicine, just food.”
This experience shaped his perspective and influenced his priorities as mayor. He is working to scale programs focused on nutrition, including bringing more plant-based meals into the Health and Hospital System, developing education programs for children and using the buying power of NYC to influence the market to offer healthier solutions. He offered this perspective to the investors in the room, “Everyone in here, you know someone that's experiencing chronic disease. When you have a chronic disease, it hijacks your life. You're no longer who you are. You're worried about the next test, worried about the next outcome, the next operation. This is so avoidable and preventable. It just means a shift in our thinking, and boldness in this time. Those of you who are investors, those of you who are looking for places to really invest money with a good return on your investment, it's about the food.”
Innovations at the Intersection of Food and Healthcare
The forum offered an opportunity for investors to hear from companies working on solutions at the intersection of food and healthcare. Here are a few highlights from the company leaders who spoke about their company's impact and important takeaways for investors.
Equitable Solutions for Healthy Eating
Ellis McCue, CEO, Territory Foods, spoke about how her company has transitioned from being a direct-to-consumer fresh food platform that goes to market solely as a consumer brand to a broader platform that can reach more customers through new channels.
“What we have built over the last 11 years is an incredible infrastructure and technology that allows us to match thousands of health-seeking customers every week with pockets of supply all over the country through a distributed network of 55 chefs, restaurants and caterers. Now we’ve said, ‘How do we use our infrastructure for good? How can we turn our investment over to more pockets of demand and reach different types of people so that more people can be on a health journey?’ That’s the power of what we’ve built and the power of our platform.”
Food Security in an Increasingly Insecure World
Speaking about Benson Hill’s recent partnership with ADM, a global leader in food ingredients, Matt Crisp, CEO, Benson Hill, said, “Investors will come to appreciate, perhaps for the first time, that a more bespoke model for delivering differentiated ingredients isn't just specialty.” He cited the power of the company’s execution playbook - which focuses on a vertically integrated channel and gravitates toward a licensing and partnership model - to dispel the notion that specialty is niche.
Crisp continued, “In our case, at the ingredients level of the value chain, it's a half a trillion to a trillion dollar addressable market. You can do that beyond your walls, and beyond your fields, and beyond your plants and beyond the reach of your sales and marketing organizations. You can do that in collaboration with incumbents that have dominant market positions.”
Kendall Singleton, Vice President of Partnerships, NourishedRx, spoke about how the company is using food as a therapeutic and partnering with health payers to drive lasting and sustainable dietary behavior change. She said, “Our healthcare system has been traditionally been prone to ‘fee for service’ which is essentially rewarding the downstream effects of poor nutrition. We are breaking that cycle. We are purposefully aligning the financial incentives of healthcare payers with the power of healthy food.”
Singleton shared that NourishedRx drives “two-fold margin” by both reducing medical costs through their food-as-medicine programs and unlocking top-line margin for health plans in the ways they engage with members. She explained, “We are also an engagement tool - a care management platform - and that has the potential to really unlock top-line margin with health plans. Star ratings are a really important driver of topline margin, and those star ratings are related to member engagement and satisfaction. We are driving really exceptional member engagement, high satisfaction and net promoter scores, and also helping to identify insights and gaps in care that we can help close. There is a real potential there.”
The Power of Biology and Data
Dan Cosgrove, CEO, Growers Edge, spoke about the company’s focus on “fintech for farmers” and its thesis around economics. He shared that Growers Edge creates fintech tools based on data-driven, actuarial analysis of a farmer’s land, soil health and past 10 years of yield to predict yields for the coming year. This approach has enabled the company to provide incentives for farmers to adopt new technologies, or in the case of their partnership with The Nature Conservancy, to adopt new sustainable agriculture practices.
Cosgrove announced a new milestone for the company. He shared, “One of the things that we are doing today - literally today - is we just launched a mortgage application and land valuation process. Today was our first mortgage application process that was digitally applied for, digitally appraised and will be granted all in the period of 24 hours. This is a process that normally takes about three to six weeks in farmland. We are excited about bringing data analytics - specifically around yield prediction and land value - to create an ecosystem between the farmer, ag lenders and ag retailers.”
A Call to Action
The Crusonia Forum provided an open dialog about the real challenges our current food system poses to the health of our communities, but also hope for the solutions that may emerge to change the way we approach food as a driver of health and wellbeing. The conversation set the stage for last week’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health where S2G Ventures, Food Systems for the Future and nearly 20 other investor partners launched the Food, Nutrition and Health Investor Coalition (FNHIC), a call to action to drive $2.5 billion in private investment over the next three years to improve hunger and health outcomes through food. We look forward to working with iSelect and the members of FNHIC to continue to educate the investment community about the opportunities to invest in a healthier future food system.