Chris Kerr has more than two decades of leadership in financial and venture capital management, including his work as the investment manager for New Crop Capital, which funds the next generation of food industry disruptors.
Here at The Good Food Institute, he helps guide good food startups toward success as our entrepreneur-in-residence.
Chris has been building up his entrepreneurial muscles since the ripe age of seven when he got his first job cleaning cow udders on his next-door neighbor’s dairy farm. His obsession with animals and business has only grown over the years, to the benefit of a multitude of entrepreneurs. Chris took some time to talk markets, plant-based innovation, and the success he’s found by following his heart (and his stomach).
E: First off, could you tell me more about how you support good food companies?
C: Definitely! When you launch a startup, especially if you’re new to the space, there’s so much you don’t know. Part of my job is to help prepare companies for unforeseen challenges and let them know that whatever comes up, we can help them through it.
Entrepreneurs have to do so much and do it with confidence. I grew up on a farm, and growing up in that lifestyle you gain a lot of confidence—there’s nothing out there that can scare you or stop you, because you just have this belief in yourself that you can accomplish something, whether it’s climbing a barn or fixing a car, or even starting a business. And I love having the opportunity to work with people who are fearless about transforming our food system.
It’s fantastic to be perpetually and perennially involved in that fun blue-sky space where companies are just getting their legs beneath them and everything is still potential. As entrepreneur-in-residence, I get to be with people to help them through that stage, and it’s incredibly rewarding.
E: So why the focus on good food companies over any other business?
C: For better or for worse, my stomach led me to where I am. I literally went to work with plant-based cheese companies like Daiya and Miyoko’s Kitchen because I wanted to eat a grilled cheese sandwich. These were things that mattered to me personally, and I know myself well enough to know that for me to be effective, I need to be personally excited about something. It can’t just be about the business opportunity; there needs to be another deliverable in there.
And in this case, it was a grilled cheese sandwich.
I joke about that, but really, if you look at food, it’s the most direct way of addressing how we use animals in our economy. If we want to alleviate the problems of animal suffering and environmental destruction, there’s just nothing more effective than encouraging more companies to create and provide alternatives that will improve our food system. The more successes we have in this space, the more money and creativity we can attract to the cause of replacing animal-based meat, dairy, and eggs with better alternatives.
E: When did these issues associated with animal agriculture become important to you?
C: When I met my wife. Before her, I was on the wrong side of history on pretty much every social justice movement. She pulled away some of the veils I had over my eyes and allowed me to look at the world completely differently. Through her influence, I started to question ways I was being heavily manipulated by certain industries, especially through my food choices.
And when you start to question something so basic as your food decisions, you realize you need to investigate other things in your life too. I found that food is the thing that people are misled about the most on a day-to-day basis—about everything from where it comes from and its global impact to its impact on individual health. Moving to a plant-based diet was revolutionary for me, and after that, my wife and I agreed that from that point forward we would only put our money toward ventures that supported better systems.
That’s how I ended up doing this work, and it combines everything I love.
E: So beyond the tremendous opportunity to do good, why is the plant-based market something entrepreneurs should be looking into right now?
C: There’s just enormous pent-up demand for plant-based products right now. The demand is absolutely outpacing availability. And so you look at companies that you think are just knocking it out of the park, whether that be Gardein or Beyond Meat or even Hampton Creek, and even they can’t keep up with demand. Right now, the Beyond Burger is flying off the shelves in the U.S., and Beyond Meat just doesn’t have the bandwidth to expand internationally, even though the market is there.
That’s what I’m here to solve through my role at GFI: By providing resources and encouraging more capital and innovation to flow into this market, these good food companies can reach their full potential and better products can reach more consumers.
E: Are there any new products you’re particularly excited about?
C: I’m most excited about Memphis Meats, Perfect Day, Geltor, and Clara Foods! I’m excited about plant-based, but there’s something truly revolutionary about what these cellular agriculture companies are doing: making real meat, dairy, eggs, and gelatin, but without harming animals, and with a much more sustainable and less polluting process. And the products are cleaner, healthier, and more transparent.
And it’s also exciting to look at the innovations coming from the guys at Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. The new burgers from these two companies are even cooler to consider in context: If you look back just a decade, the plant-based options were miniscule. Tofurky wasn’t even in slices yet, Field Roast sausage hadn’t been invented, and the only alternative cheese on the market contained casein (a protein found in milk).
I’m really extremely excited about all these plant-based companies too. It’s been incredible to see them all grow and innovate. If you think about what happened just within the past 10 years with very little resources, the next 10 years could absolutely change the world. And the more money and innovation that comes in, the faster that will go.
E: So if there’s someone reading this who’s ready to turn their good food innovation into a business, what should they bring to the table?
C: I like it when people come to me with their ideas down on paper. It’s easiest for me to help entrepreneurs shape their ideas if I have a clear picture of their starting point along with their weaknesses. Knowing these pinch points helps me know where GFI’s resources can be used to help. For companies a little further along, a well-crafted pitch deck goes a long way!
Lastly, as a cautionary note, insects are not made of plants! For entrepreneurs reading this: Please don’t send me anything that doesn’t align with our goal of removing animal-based products from the food system.
E: OK, so no cricket protein for you! What are some of your favorite foods?
C: Easy: watermelon, ketchup, and everything bagels.
I am a major comfort food junkie. I was born around Philadelphia and grew up stuffing classic Philly cheesesteaks into my piehole on a regular basis. Now, we have animal-free alternatives to all my favorite comfort foods and I can’t get enough of them! I remember that when I first started working with the Daiya founders they sent me an unbelievable amount of plant-based cheese, which I proceeded to melt on every food item I came into contact with every single day—for both lunch and dinner—for about three weeks. I’ve since settled down, but only a bit.
E: And when you’re not eating, what else do you do for fun?
C: I like to build things. It started at a young age building tree forts. I built the house my wife and I live in in Woodstock, New York, and I’m regularly building things for our Eden-esque property. I have a full-blown woodworking shop, and sometimes I walk in there on a Sunday morning without any particular idea in mind, and by the end of the day there’s something new for the house or garden or for our myriad cats. And on that note, I spend as much time with our four-legged family as possible.
E: I wouldn’t mind if you constructed a little tree fort for me to live in by your garden—that setup sounds fantastic! Thanks for sharing your time, and thanks for all you do to help us build a better food system.
To learn more about GFI's work promoting plant-based and clean meats, visit our website.