Why CircleUp Thinks Machine Learning May Be the Hottest Item in Consumer Goods

Persephone Kavallines
  • Initially a crowdfunding platform that connected accredited investors with food and beverage start-ups, CircleUp has evolved into a consumer goods data platform that also operates its own venture fund and credit business.
  • That focus on data comes as the industry is rapidly changing alongside consumer interest shifts and the success of products moving well beyond just retail placement.
  • Overall consumer packaged goods volume sales grew 4.3% in 2021, and CircleUp CEO Danny Mitchell expects the category to remain resilient amid inflationary forces.

In this weekly series, CNBC takes a look at companies that made the inaugural Disruptor 50 list, 10 years later.

Disruptive companies have shaped the ever-growing consumer packaged goods industry in recent years, from the rise in plant-based products from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods to an increased focus on personal care products from CNBC Disruptor 50 companies like Beautycounter and Dollar Shave Club.

Consumer behaviors, demands, and expectations have started to flip the industry as well, with shoppers willing to go well beyond a grocery store shelf to find a product they want to buy. The viability of businesses built around direct-to-consumer, e-commerce, and social media has only further accelerated that.

In fact, the top 20 consumer packaged goods companies are estimated to grow five times slower than their smaller category competitors, according to an Accenture report. Add the growth of the category on top of that – overall consumer packaged goods volume sales grew 4.3% in 2021 – and the emphasis on finding the next big thing has become even more important for companies and investors in the space, as well as the desire for founders with those ideas to access funding.

CircleUp, whose start as a crowdfunding platform that connected accredited investors with food and beverage start-ups landed it on the inaugural CNBC Disruptor 50 list, has looked to evolve alongside the industry. Having already launched its own early-stage investment fund called CircleUp Growth Partners and a credit business that has helped it support more than 500 different brands, its next step is to open its data platform up to the industry to further facilitate more investment.

Danny Mitchell, recently named CircleUp CEO after previously serving as CFO, said that with how quickly the industry is evolving on top of companies like Amazon and Instacart changing how consumers are purchasing products on top of social media platforms, the importance of data in this space is only growing.

"You may have point-of-sale data, or something focused on social media, but you need that holistic view to get a true picture of the category, the trends and the categories, as well as individual companies," Mitchell said. "The Fortune 100 companies in this space are concerned about their existing brands being cannibalized by up-and-coming brands that you may have never even known about or went from 1,000 followers to a million followers on Instagram in six months."

That has also meant staying on top of flavor and ingredient trends with consumers perhaps more willing to try new products than ever before. Mitchell pointed to Asian-inspired sparkling water brand Sanzo, which CircleUp Growth Partners led a $10 million Series A round in February and which features flavors like lychee, calamansi lime, and yuzu ginger.

"You're asking these open-ended questions like is an ingredient as popular today as it was three years ago or even three months?" Mitchell said. "These are the kinds of things that we're trying to constantly analyze and that we can provide clients." Mitchell said Helio, the data platform, should appeal to those Fortune 100 brands trying to stay ahead of the curve with new products while also looking for possible acquisitions, investment firms, and even smaller companies looking for market insights as they grow revenue.

Answering those sorts of questions will likely become even more important as concerns over inflation and a potential recession heighten the focus on consumer spending.

Mitchell said that he believes consumer staples will continue to perform better than peer companies and that many of the early-stage companies that CircleUp is drawing attention to "have product fit but generally have revenue," making some of those bets a bit less risky.

"It's a difficult time but I think that the consumer space will perform better and the opportunities in M&A, and from a bottom-line return from an investment standpoint, are better than the other sectors that we face," he said.

While CircleUp is hoping to facilitate more activity in the CPG space, the company itself does not have any plans to enter the capital markets this coming year, Mitchell said, adding that he expects to the company to "start looking at potential fundraising" next year.

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