Brian Halweil was recently named portfolio manager at Almanac Investments, a relatively new $30 million agrifood tech venture capital fund. Almanac was founded by David Barber, the co-founder of the renowned Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and Blue Hill Farm in upstate New York in January of this year.
Halweil is the co-owner and contributing editor of local food magazine Edible’s Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, East End, and Memphis editions.
A couple of weeks ago, Barber hired Halweil as well as Elly Truesdell, the former global director of local brands at Whole Foods Market, as portfolio managers.
“Elly Truesdell and Brian Halweil both bring stellar reputations and deep commitment to finding and supporting entrepreneurs that improve the food system,” said Barber in a press release. “From Elly’s foraging of local brands for Whole Foods and expertise in brand development to Brian’s industry-changing research and storytelling related to food tech, agtech, and supply chain innovation, we are adding two unconventional leaders to our innovative portfolio management approach.”
We caught up with Halweil to find out more about the role and why he’s made the change.
AgFunder Co-Investment Fund III is now open for investment. Closing June 15, Spots are limited.
Moving from a journalist to a venture capital investor is not a traditional career path. How did this job come about?
A few years ago, right around when we launched Food Loves Tech conference, I was going to more and more conferences about foodtech and agtech which overlap closely with the investment community, and I was bumping into David, whose family I’ve known for a long time, and other investors. I got a short-term position with TPG Rise, to help build out the food and ag companies in that portfolio, an $8 billion impact focused fund. I got to learn the ropes for a year or two, mostly listening and writing up short executive summary reports. I started to speak the language, understand a cap table, and build up my ecosystem. David and Valerie hit the ground running with Almanac at the start of this year. They were looking to scale-up, as the portfolio is growing. We talked about this role. It was a fit, which I’m really excited about.
It’s funny because a few years ago I asked a friend in the private equity industry if my knowledge and connections in the food space might be valuable for an investment group. He said he’d never seen anyone without an MBA or five to 10 years of investment banking experience muscle their way into the industry. He’s been tickled pink by my subsequent work.
What will the role entail?
It’s a mix of helping the existing portfolio companies to succeed and then finding other potential investments within my area of foodtech, agtech, retail tech and hospitality tech. Basically, software or hardware moving into the food chain. You have a pipeline of companies you are looking at, and you gather as much info as you can–and poke holes in their business model–in order to decide whether they have the potential to be a great investment.
What skills do you have as a journalist that you think will be suitable for this new role?
Research, investigating, asking questions, data deep diving, contact building. As a journalist, I’m not afraid to get to just keep asking questions to find out how strong the team or product or competition are.
Many of these companies are so head down in their businesses that they haven’t even activated simple things like social media. I’ve been on both ends of the pitch table, so to speak, for years. Now I can use that same content strategy to support a killer company like Spindrift or Blue Cart. That sort of strategy support makes Almanac unique. Especially with a team of people with deep ties in food media, food/agtech, grocery, restaurants and CPG.
What categories of food and agtech are most exciting to you right now?
I like the “alt” categories. Alt proteins and alt ingredients, but also alt pesticides and alt fertilizers. Agtech entrepreneurs talk about fixing the broken food system, so there is an avalanche of companies coming up with soil microbe innoculants that help reduce fertilizer use or water conserving soil amendments that use innovative materials science.
Cheap, tiny, connected sensors are showing up on cases of fruit, on cow ear tags, on John Deere tractors and of course throughout our homes and restaurants and Dominos. The sensors assist the farmer or eater with alerts or warnings, they also can help reduce food waste, improve the price farmers get, and generally provide a digital footprint from soil to plate and beyond. A recent Almanac investment is in Kickfin, a two-way smart safe tech that allows restaurants to track and store cash much easier than today: no more walking the cash envelope to the bank in the middle of the night. The bank comes to you.
There’s some very early things happening with burger-flipping and salad-making bots, and much more ready-for-prime-time stuff around small farm robots, like Naio Technologies and Rowbot Systems and EarthSense and RabbitTractors. The future of farm machinery is definitely small, not big. When you ask your Alexa what restaurant is open nearby or you place an AmazonFresh meal kit order, you are demonstrating how far we have changed as eaters.
How would you describe Almanac Investments’ investment thesis?
Almanac invests in companies that are a positive force throughout the food ecosystem. They use better ingredients than the competition–in the case of Sfoglini pasta, Spindrift soda, lunch at Sweetgreen–and they are transformative in that way. They tend to use technology–Bowery Farming, Blue Cart–to provide digital boost to traditionally analog businesses. Finally, these are narrative driven brands. That’s key. The strong narrative that will allow these companies to become the Quaker Oats and Oscar Mayer and trusted brands of tomorrow.
Will you still be editor of Edible?
Yes. I will be part of the amazing editorial team at Edible that I know and love. Ariel Lauren Wilson is taking over as Editor in Chief and Meghan Harlow is leading edit for Long Island. I am excited to be back as a contributor and will be writing for our Edibles in New York City and Long Island, and now also a collaboration with Edible Memphis. I’ll stay involved in planning for our mega event Food Loves Tech, which is Nov. 2 and 3.
There are some exciting things happening in the Edible community, nationwide. Look for big things in the next year or two.