No strings attached: How one venture capital firm is helping restaurants and front-line workers through the pandemic

Toronto-area health-care workers thank ResQ for meal deliveries, funded in part through Lumira Ventures’ “double bottom line” initiative. Lumira Ventures

Every Tuesday, the team at Lumira Ventures gathers virtually to pitch ideas on how to invest their latest fund—without any expectation of a return on their investment. 

The Toronto-based VCs, who have traditionally had a healthtech focus, have a long history of philanthropy. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, managing general partner Peter van der Velden told The Logic, they realized the firm was spending less money—“not travelling, entertaining, things we’d normally do in terms of expenses. We wanted to put it all back into the ecosystem.”

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Talking Point

Toronto-based Lumira Ventures has launched a donation program for opportunities with a “double bottom line”: where its money can help the hospitality industry stay afloat and its workers gainfully employed during the pandemic, while also feeding frontline workers and those who are hungry and homeless. Their funding comes with no strings attached, and they’re hoping to encourage more venture firms to follow their lead.

That inspired Lumira’s $100,000 Double Bottom Line Challenge. Through it, the fund makes donations to grassroots food-service businesses and non-profits that are feeding frontline workers during the crisis, as well as people experiencing unemployment, food insecurity or homelessness. 

The funding comes with no strings attached, and the goal is to identify opportunities with a “double bottom line”: where Lumira’s money can help the hospitality industry stay afloat during the pandemic and keep its workers gainfully employed, while the workers themselves help feed those most impacted by the pandemic. “As a firm, we’re always thinking about [the] double bottom line,” van der Velden told The Logic. “We invest and build health-care companies with the goal of increasing returns financially, but also in terms of their social impact.” 

In the month since the challenge was launched, Lumira has spent over a third of the $100,000 it initially allocated, making a donation of between $1,000 to $5,000 to a different organization each weekday. Many, van der Velden said, are food-service businesses that have pivoted to a new model; some are volunteer-driven efforts; others are organizations that buy food in bulk.

A volunteer with Food for Thought, a catering service Lumira Ventures supports, prepares a meal. ResQ

One such initiative is Sustain the Line, which matches restaurants that want to deliver meals to frontline workers with donors who can fund those meals. Aron Solomon, president of the Toronto-based Mission Watch Company, launched the program two months ago because he wanted to help the food industry “generate a path to survival.” 

Solomon used a portion of Mission’s seed money to get the initiative started. Since then, it’s launched in 19 cities across Canada and the U.S. and has evolved to become “a collaboration of companies and investors,” with Lumira being the first participant. 

“The line we’re trying to sustain is the restaurant line,” Solomon said. “There’s a very, very small chance they’ll be back at full capacity in the near future, so we need to help them for a very long time because they are helping families in need.” 

Lumira has also given to ResQ, whose platform connects restaurants with contractors for equipment repairs; the company has pivoted to hiring out-of-work restaurant staff to deliver meals to frontline workers. 

Kuljeev Singh, ResQ’s CEO and founder, said he’s used the donations the company has raised from several venture capital investors to buy meals. Doing so “essentially brings in revenue in a single row, so [restaurants] can hold onto their staff,” Singh said. He said the company has helped deliver almost 4,400 meals from approximately 100 restaurants since April. 

The majority of ResQ’s funds have come from the VC community, Singh said. “We’ve received unexpected cheques in our mail with no names on [them],” he said. “The VC community has been really positive for us. They have capital and have been more than willing to contribute.” 

Of the $65,000 ResQ has raised since April, around 80 per cent came from 10 venture capital funds in Canada and the U.S. Singh said he pitched the cause the same way he’d pitch his company, and investors were “very, very interested,” with many delivering “an immediate yes.” 

Van der Velden said he’s in talks with several investors about contributing to Lumira’s challenge or setting up one of their own, and hopes to expand donations to businesses outside the food industry and country-wide. One is iGan Partners, which has committed $36,000 toward 19 organizations—including its portfolio firm ResQ—that support health-care workers and boost food security. 

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“As long as people are in need and as long as we’re in this environment, I suspect we’ll continue doing this,” van der Velden said. He’s been in Toronto only once in the last seven weeks. “I went for an hour-long walk and saw at least 70 people and families living in tents. That doesn’t go away overnight.”