The round led by Pat Robinson of CircleUp Growth Partners and including new investors S2G Ventures and Pentland Ventures will allow the young company to scale its team, accelerate brand growth, expand retail distribution and invest in new science technologies to incorporate “untapped and underutilized” ingredients into the diet in a way that is better for the health of people and the planet, Sara Cullen, CEO and founder of GEM, told FoodNavigator-USA.
She explained that she launched GEM in 2019 as a subscription business to deliver to consumers’ doors whole food-based daily “bites” packed with key nutrients that could replace traditional supplements, which she views as “outdated” and “reductionist” because they isolate vitamins from “the co-factor nutrients, phytonutrients and antioxidants and replace them with a lot of sugar and artificial fillers and binders that aren’t doing any favors for your body.”
Operating on the premise that food is medicine, Cullen says she “reinvented” the multivitamin with the launch of her Daily Essentials bite, which combines superfoods, vitamins, minerals, probiotics and more into a “in a totally new form factor that is designed to do so much more for you than just fill the gaps. It really addresses your body and mind holistically.”
To meet these lofty goals in just one bite, GEM uses nutrient dense ingredients that Cullen describes as often “overlooked,” like algae.
“There are thousands of different strains of algae. We use two in our products: spirulina and golden chlorella. And algae really is a unique plant system – it’s a single-celled bacteria that is packed with nutrients,” Cullen said, noting that one gram of spirulina has “all your major vitamins and minerals, all the amino acids typical of protein.”
Cullen says she plans to incorporate other often overlooked and underused ingredients and phytonutrients into her products by using the new funds to further develop the company’s proprietary science and technology platform to “deliver nutrients in a more compact, dense and convenient way without being overly processed.”
Many of the ingredients in GEM’s bites, such as algae, also are more sustainably produced than their more common conventional counterparts – helping the company strive towards its “ultimate goal to create carbon negative food,” Cullen said.
For example, Cullen noted, algae is grown in water at a higher density and faster rate than many traditional crops, such as soy, corn and wheat, which account for more than 70% of most Americans’ diets.
“A lot of the plant-systems that are rolling out don’t require a lot of inputs, like land or water or fertilizers, like a lot of traditional land plants, which are typically grown in ways that degrade our soil,” she added.
GEM’s focus on sustainability extends to its packaging and distribution strategies as well.
Cullen explains: “We deliver our products in a sustainable packaging system with compostable refill pouches that arrive in recycled mailers. The bite refills go in a reusable tin. So, we try to create an ecosystem of delivery that is marching towards the sustainable path with less waste.”
Cullen acknowledges that GEM is not yet completely carbon negative “by any stretch,” but she sees the company’s approach as an evolution to thinking and speaking about food to raise awareness of the interconnection between people’s health and that of the planet.
“We know that when you grow things that are bad for the planet, ultimately, that’ll just come back to hurt your own health care,” she explained.
Alignment with emerging values fuels fast growth
GEM’s focus on sustainability and functional food are well-timed to align with the sharp increase in consumer interest in both of these trends during the pandemic – as illustrated by the company’s fast growth of more than 400% and more than 8 million bites sold since launching in 2019.
“A lot of that growth is fueled by a desire to have a more involved and new way of nourishing ourselves and the adoption of food as medicine,” Cullen said, adding, “COVID has helped push this paradigm shift so that many people are looking at their health more holistically and are more willing to use discretionary spending to invest in their own health and realize the cost savings later.”
The company’s early success and the pandemic also laid the foundation for its next phase of growth, which includes launching two new bites – immunity and sleep – that appeal to a broader consumer base.
GEM’s first bite – Daily Essentials – was originally aimed at women, but the new bites a positioned to appeal to men and women, a move that Cullen describes “as a big change for us,” but which allows the company to reach and help more people.
The new Sleep bite and upcoming Calm bite also speak to consumers’ increased interested in mental wellness and not just physical health.
“This has been a very stressful period of everyone’s life, and we are seeing how our health and mental wellness are interconnected. So, people aren’t just looking for ingredients that will help them sleep, but also ones that will provide stress support so that when they sleep they wake up actually restored,” she explained.
While consumers are more interested in holistic health and food as medicine, Cullen says many have a long way to go to understand how their health is interconnected and what benefits different food ingredients can deliver.
That is why Cullen says GEM provides easy to find and understand explanations and scientific support for the benefits of different ingredients – something she says many other companies fall short delivering.
“This is really a core differentiator for us and highlights the importance of what we are doing, and how we are building a community that is incredibly discerning,” and ultimately loyal, she said.