Serial FoodTech entrepreneur, angel investor, and founder of well-known meal subscription service NOSH, Max Von Poelnitz, catches up with Hive Life on his entrepreneurial journey, important startup insights, and how he has pivoted in his career and entered into the global venture capital space.
Maximilian Von Poelnitz first entered the entrepreneurial space when he established Asia’s first meal-kit delivery service, Secret Ingredient Limited, and later on continued to develop similar technology-driven food solutions. The serial entrepreneur has not only innovated in numerous FoodTech concepts but also has actively scaled and grown many food enterprises, while also taking upon the role of investor and advisor for FinTech businesses.
Adhering to his entrepreneurial spirit, Max launched another startup in 2016, NOSH– the trailblazing meal delivery platform that introduced the Food 2.0 movement to Hong Kong consumers. Following its successful adoption in Hong Kong, the tech-focused healthy eating solution soon managed to catch the attention of the wider Asian market.
Now, Max continues to amplify his impact and influence in FoodTech, supporting the industry as the Investment Director at DSM Venturing. We caught up with the serial entrepreneur turned venture capitalist on his journey founding NOSH, the local startup ecosystem, as well as growth and investment prospects for emerging businesses.
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
Then, I went into a FinTech startup, a healthcare tech startup, and ultimately built NOSH because it was a combination of healthcare, wellness, and food, with an ever-changing consumer who is willing to purchase food online. It was something that did not quite exist around 10 years ago, and it was solving a personal problem.
Now that I’m in venture capital, [I have observed that] many great entrepreneurs tend to first solve a problem for themselves, their friends, or even their company because they see the problem, and I did the same,
Could you introduce your nutritional ready-to-eat delivery platform, Nosh, to us?
[As] a board member and the founder of NOSH, which I founded back in 2015 as a subscription meal-plan service targeting a healthy lifestyle. Initially, we started with the concept that we would provide meals for less than 500 calories per portion to people, to help them track their calories. It has now evolved into a fully comprehensive, nutritional ready-to-eat platform that caters to a vast variety of tastes from vegetarian, to paleo and keto, to just weight gain.
When we started, the target consumer was primarily expats and that has now massively transitioned to nearly 60-70% local [subscribers] in Hong Kong.
We recognise that you are not going to eat healthy all the time, but having seven days of a healthy lifestyle, with someone tracking everything you consume, you would be amazed how good you feel after those seven days.
How did NOSH manage to grow and scale so remarkably?
We had great investors, and incredible staff, some nearly from the beginning. I believe it is the classic combination of a bit of luck, a good product, great investors, and wonderful staff.
It is quite fantastic that after nearly six to seven years we are still operating and growing at over a hundred percent year on year- that is something exciting to build. We were quite fortunate and had some incredible investments- the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund had funded us initially, as well as when we grew into Singapore. We started exploring Kuala Lumpur a few years ago.
Most of the success in young businesses is about survival; if you can stay, persevere, and be there, the consumers will find you.
What market gap does NOSH intend to fill?
We have seen quite a few players compete and fail. The market gap is a simple market gap, with 65-70% of our customers looking for a weight loss strategy.
It is input versus output, so that the market gap will never disappear. We look for healthy solutions, and not fad solutions. The consumer habit continues to focus on convenience among anything else.
Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, and even China, health is not at the complete forefront and I have seen it for the last 12-15 years. I think that is a bit of the cultural aspect. The sustainable eating movement has always been relatively niche in Hong Kong, Southern China, and Kuala Lumpur, but less so in Singapore- but that will evolve.
How has Hong Kong’s startup ecosystem changed over the years?
Hong Kong is very supportive of young businesses. I recently read a Bloomberg article about a FinTech Association launching with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority for young [entrepreneurs’] financial training. I believe Hong Kong at its heart is an entrepreneurial city even though many call it a financial hub.
I used to be a mentor with Cyberport, and invested in a few companies across Southeast Asia, and I am still involved in Hong Kong’s startup ecosystem.
Your entrepreneurial experience is not just limited to Hong Kong’s F&B network, what other ventures are you currently pursuing?
I lead the United States’ venture investment arm of DSM Venturing, a Dutch conglomerate. We recently announced a EUR$41 billion merger to become one of the largest BioTech players in the world.
We are a small team that leads venture capital investment globally. I still had over 30 angel investments before that, which I made and continue to oversee, it’s exciting.
It has been an exciting transition from being an entrepreneur over the last 10 years and getting into the investor side to playing a role in the FoodTech movement in the United States and not just that but women’s health, hormonal health, personalised nutrition, and pet care. I get to hear amazing people talk about their passions every day.
Can you tell us more about your new role as a venture capitalist?
It is quite an interesting time for venture capital with a lot of resets in the market on valuations and startups, and the public markets have plummeted 80% for some of these younger and growing companies. There are growing questions about what sort of companies are going to get funded and what kind of companies need to be built right now.
It is interesting to monitor those trends and still be an active investor. We are actively investing. and we want to continue to support the startup ecosystem.
How do you keep up with changing industry trends and navigate which startups are most suitable for funding?
We get quite a few deal flow because of DSM. I [recently] spent a whole week at a huge venture capital conference in Chicago meeting startups there, so my network is quite broad in the United States. We are active investors, and I actively help the companies we fund.
Challenging times are really when startups get the most creative and often when some incredible businesses get founded. Although it is still hard to find those companies, there are certain trends that I am now quite good at assessing, not just the market dynamics, but also the founding team and whether or not they are going to persevere and build something truly transformational.
You use research, instincts, and your own past experiences to assess what investments make the most sense, and then you try to help them.
Is there any particular industry you have backed recently that you see great potential in?
There are quite a few, we have backed a personalised nutrition company which builds customised multivitamins based on your DNA tests and certain self-assessments. We funded a fish alternative protein business that is building whole-cut sushi, and also a sugar reduction business that is looking to change how sugar is placed into our foods.
There is innovation happening, everywhere and that is always a fun thing to experience and be a part of.
What are the key factors you look for before backing a startup?
There are plenty of key ones, but what it comes down to [oftentimes] is the early stage of the business, the team, the founder story, the founder’s mentality, how complementary the founders might be to one another, and the market size.
At the end of the day we are in venture capital, and many often forget that we are not angel investors, or friends and family- we are looking for a return. That means quite a number of the investments we make fail so the good ones need solid results.
One of the things Hong Kong founders struggle with is they are unable to present a large enough market opportunity because they are only thinking about their world, whereas I need them to think about China or all of Southeast Asia, and ideally the whole world.
Part of it is also how gritty they can demonstrate they have been. If they know how to hustle with no money [while showing] a firm understanding of their financials. We are giving some of these founders millions of dollars to build on our behalf and we need to trust that they will do a good job as fiduciarily responsible people.
Do you have any advice for venture capitalists on how to make calculated investments?
Most of it has to do with taking a calculated risk. I continue to rely on the individual. I believe there is quite a lot driven by the founding team, their past experiences, and if they have put in the work before raising money.
So it [all comes down to] assessing a business and trying to find flexible individuals. Nearly all of the remarkably successful businesses we funded look very little like the business they initially pitched. It comes down to being able to pivot. It is a matter of asking questions, engaging, and doing the due diligence yourself.
Being an entrepreneur is no easy task, what is your favourite aspect of it?
The best thing about being an entrepreneur is dreaming of something, creating, and making it. Some of the truly rewarding elements are watching staff who just joined become just as passionate about the mission or the product, as you are, which is incredible.
Then, to watch customers get excited, and become extremely loyal. In NOSH’s case, we have customers that have spent hundreds of thousands and are the backbone of our business in some respects.
What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs trying to get their brands off the ground, stand out, and gain funding?
Most importantly, recognise what it means to gain funding. Also, there are plenty of businesses that do not require venture capital money; where you can just hustle hard, develop, and build an incredible life for yourself.
Aspiring entrepreneurs need to understand what they are building, how big that market is, and who needs to fund that, because the best thing you can do is fund it all yourself, and control that process, while being completely in control of your destiny.
My advice is to focus on solving a problem for your customer. The more effective you are, the more your customers will be loyal.
Is there anything new you are looking forward to venturing into?
I am not jumping into the entrepreneurial boat just yet. I [would not want] to put my wife through all the trials and tribulations that she experienced for 10 years- it is funny how we normally do not talk about how important it is to have a support network around you.
I am focused on continuing to be a venture capitalist, investing in the next generation of great entrepreneurs, and hopefully making a difference in the FoodTech and BioTech spaces.
Featured banner image: nosh.hk