Startups as interested in having a social impact as developing their products can find it difficult to communicate to investors how their mission can translate to business.
It’s a struggle especially felt by Hillsborough-based Seal the Seasons, which has technology that flash freezes farm-grown produce to later sell to consumers at local community grocery stores, all while donating 20 percent of profits to end hunger.
But in 2016, investors and consumers started listening. The founders closed a seed round and grew from selling produce in seven local stores to more than 500 across the region.
And that momentum helped draw the attention of a national social impact accelerator for food businesses in New York City. FoodFutureCo helps support the growth of food companies already on track to earn over $1 million in gross annual revenue.
Seal the Seasons shares a mission with the four other food startups from around the U.S. in the accelerator’s second cohort—to end hunger while helping local farmers.
The timing of the accelerator aligns with a plan to expand the farm-to-freezer operation in Georgia and Florida, in order to scale its North Carolina-grown model while maintaining the startup’s value of selling local produce in local communities.
Connecting the Florida and Georgia communities with their local farmers will help the startup expand its footprint to even more geographies, says CEO Patrick Mateer, who believes the multi-demographic component of the product is what impressed FoodFutureCo’s application review board.
When he was a UNC-Chapel Hill senior in 2014, Mateer started the business as a service capturing and flash freezing produce farmers were unable to sell.
Seal the Seasons took off in 2015, joining the Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center, a coworking space and food startup incubator in Hillsborough. This provided the equipment and space needed for operations, as well as guidance and support from the local social-impact food industry.
It later landed deals with Harris Teeter, Whole Foods South and Lowe’s Foods, and closed a seed round in 2016 with Self Help Credit Union, USDA and local angel investors. (Our company profile from November tells more of this growth period.)
Marketing manager Daniel Woldorff expects the accelerator to bring some major opportunities for the company.
First, it offers access to expert mentors like FoodFutureCo managing director Gigi Lee Chang, who founded natural baby food brand Plum Organics and sold it to Campbell’s in 2013, and Shen Tong of the international food innovation accelerator Food-X. Both have extensive networks within the industry.
“They have incredible experience to share about building natural food companies,” Woldorff says. “As we grow, that mentorship will be critical, especially in the sales and marketing.”
Another point of excitement for the founders is the “mission-driven community” offered through the program, as the startup will work alongside other businesses tackling important issues in the food system, such as “access to clean water and healthy food in schools,” notes Woldorff.
FoodFutureCo will also introduce the startup to new consumer engagement channels, help with clearer brand messaging and give advice from marketing mentors.
Mateer expects to drastically increase the number of consumers who know about the brand, helping the startup far surpass that $1 million revenue goal.
Beyond that, he believes the program will help Seal the Seasons raise new capital to continue to expand to other regions. The social impact focus is often hard to conceptualize into profits.
But finding investors who “understand that values are an essential part of making money in an ethical way” will help Seal the Seasons address that challenge, Mateer adds, as the team discovers new ways to capture and share the startup’s story and impact mindset.