Interview with Christophe Maire, a mission-driven investor in food tech space
With over 20 years of experience as a founder and also investor, he plays a prominent role in the rise and growth of diverse startups in the city.
He founded Atlantic Labs, a Berlin-based seed investor dedicated to identify and invest in innovative digital startups, such as Clue, Mimi Hearing Technologies, SoundCloud, HeyCater, Good Bank, Selo, Nouri, Mitte and many more.
Atlantic Food Labs, a division of Atlantic Labs, is an incubator for food startups – under which we first received our funding. Name the best “European Seed Investor” by Techcrunch for two years running, Christophe’s investment in each startup is significant – not just in terms of capital, but also guidance and mentorship.
We spoke to Christoph recently about his active involvement in the Berlin startup ecosystem, profound interest in food startups, and his projections of future changes in the industry.
You first came on the scene as startup founder, and became an investor later – what prompted this change?
I was initially driven into investing through an early-stage angel investment, and then decided that this is what I want to do forever, simply because I see so many interesting ventures worth supporting.
I think there’s a big opportunity for genuine innovation in Europe, because there has always been very strong IP and also many talented engineers here. In the past, these advantages have not been used fully, but now, there is so much potential for companies to wield them and achieve global impact.
You invest in startups at the seed stage, and usually founders have nothing more than an idea at this point in time, so what do you look out for?
I call it mission-driven investment – if the mission of the startup or founders is impactful and big enough, then they are most likely able to overcome difficulties and succeed.
Out of so many industries, why do you have a special interest in food startups?
I came to food through health, where I invested in quite a few digital health startups – Clue is one of them, along with Medigo, Mimi, among others. When you deal with health, you very quickly come to the conclusion that nutrition is the number one factor impacting it. The convergence of nutrition and health is interesting; you can do as much sports as you want, but if you consume 40 grams of sugar a day, you’re in trouble. So that sparked my initial interest in food.
Another reason is that I cook often and healthy, it is the first step to gaining awareness to what you’re eating. A main problem with food today started with the industrialization of food that happened in the last 60 years. Initially, the number one priority was availability and cost. But that evolution has been taken to the extreme, resulting in a lot of unnecessarily unhealthy industrial food being available today. I think there are many opportunities for startups to come into this space and disrupt it.
Where do you think Berlin stands in the global food startup scene, and how does it compare?
Generally speaking, what we have here in Berlin is an emerging ecosystem, but one that is very healthy. I think that you will see more and more serious companies rising here. Similar to Silicon Valley back in the days, Berlin is an easy place for people to come together and start something. It’s not just inexpensive, but also the capital of a large country with an open minded population and access to talents. These are factors that form a robust and dynamic ecosystem.
I feel that the quality of entrepreneurs in Berlin now are also a huge improvement from what I saw six year years ago. It’s a product of this virtuous cycle and ecosystem. And what is unusual about Berlin is that it all starts from the grassroot level; there has been very little top-down initiative to foster entrepreneurship.
In the long run, the Berlin startup ecosystem will keep doing what it’s doing, which is producing good companies. I see a lot more companies dealing with subjects that are fall under German (or European) strengths, such as manufacturing, robotics, and AI.
And where do you see Mitte in five years’ time?
I spoke about mission-driven investment. Water is such a mission. Water quality is one of the biggest challenges out there, something that we’ll have to tackle for the next 50 years at least.
When it comes to Mitte, I think the room for building a very large company around water quality is significant. I think we have the opportunity to impact the consumption water, to improve the experience of the end user, and to expand the product line to a global audience. We’re just starting in the US and Europe, but we can clearly go further, as everyone in the world needs a solution like that.
How do you see food and technology come together in the near future for consumers?
The industry used to be one that was not prone to change. But with the availability of various digital media and free flow of information, the pace of change is being impacted by changes in consumer behavior. The cycles of innovation are getting shorter and shorter.
Consumers have become more aware of provenance, as knowing where something comes from is important. More and more, you will find groups of consumers that are aware on such issues, including carbon footprint, food education, meat replacements and so on. So you’ll have a large part of the population that is not just content with consuming what they are being given, but also want to apply their own values and aspirations to the product. These are obvious mega trends, the question is how founders can turn them into into viable companies.
These are consumer-induced changes, but the industry dynamics are also changing. Clearly, the role of retail is being changed and challenged by online distribution channels. Amazon and a few others play a big role in changing retail behavior, just look at how empty malls are in the US, and soon, Asia. These are very interesting transformations to look out for.
Post-investing, how do you stay involved and active in a startup’s growth?
As much as necessary. Investing in the early stage also doesn’t work remotely. So if you get involved early on, it means that you need to have face-to-face time. A startup is a bit like Super Mario, where you require different skills for different stages. I see myself as a coach for the entrepreneurs, helping them find those different strategies needed along the way.
What is an important insight that you have collected along the way?
Building a company takes a lot of resilience, and a lot of time – more so than usually expected. This is why I think that it’s so important that the teams are inherently motivated – a key criteria I have for every startup that I’m involved in.