Gert-Jan Brand

In “How I invest” we interview top FundsUp investors about their investing style.

In this How I Invest, we speak to Gert Jan Brand.

Investors are increasingly looking at social and environmental impact. This also applies to Invest International. Investment Manager Gerd-Jan Brand discusses what they invest in and based on what criteria, and describes how they offer various forms of financing to companies engaged in international business, including loans for startups.

Read the Dutch version on Emerce.

Can you tell us about your passion and how you ultimately ended up at Invest International?

“I once started as a credit derivatives broker straight out of school and also worked for years as an independent consultant with entrepreneurs. After five years at ABN AMRO Bank as a relationship manager for corporate lending, I eventually ended up at Invest International as an Investment Manager via a position at Vopak. Like many, I started with entrepreneurship – and it’s actually quite cliché – after a conversation in a café. During the first weeks of the 2008 financial crisis, I discussed with a friend who worked with credit derivatives what could be improved in the world of financial markets. From this came our own company: a broker in credit default swaps. After two years of hard work, we found that the barrier to entry into the regulated financial market was too high. Despite having a good product, we failed to attract enough capital and starting clients. It was a great journey and the beginning of my passion for entrepreneurship, something that still fascinates me. The experience in financial markets led me to the world of financing.”

What happened after that?

“After a period as an independent consultant, I worked for five years as a relationship manager for mid-corporates at ABN AMRO, where I really enjoyed working with real entrepreneurs. My time as Business Development Manager for green hydrogen projects at Vopak was brief before I returned to the world of financing in my role as Investment Manager at Invest International.”

The entrepreneurial experience you mentioned earlier, is that important to be a good investor, for example, in your current role?

“Yes, I think it’s very important that you understand who you’re sitting across from at the table. If you’ve been an entrepreneur yourself, then you can relate much better to your conversation partner. That helps a lot in conducting financing discussions and finding suitable solutions. If you don’t have that experience, you’ll still learn, but it gives you a huge advantage when you understand what an entrepreneur values ​​and what not, what he’s looking for, what considerations he will make, that helps a lot.”

‘It’s important to make long-term impact’

And you worked on green hydrogen projects before that. Was that also a kind of passion to move towards the impact direction?

“Yes, absolutely. At Invest International, we focus on impactful investments. I prefer to work in a dynamic market where real societal changes are being realized. Take, for example, green hydrogen and the energy transition: a market that aligns perfectly with this. This is also a priority for Invest International.”

What is your investment strategy?

“We invest in both equity and debt. The loans we provide go to both governments and businesses, but always in favor of Dutch companies engaged in international business. These can be large companies, mid-corporates, startups, or scale-ups. We have multiple funds and mandates for financing in these different segments. Specifically for startups and scale-ups, we have a dedicated team that is busy financing these companies all day long.

And in which sectors do you mainly invest?

“Our focus is on five key sectors: energy, agri-food, healthcare, water management, and sustainable production. Not entirely coincidentally, these are also sectors where the Netherlands is strong internationally. Although we have the opportunity to invest outside of these sectors, our warm interest and focus lie with these five. We also gather knowledge, share networks, and organize events within these sectors. Within the energy sector, we also have an above-average interest in everything related to green hydrogen.”

What is your exact role?

“I work for both the mid-corporate team and the startup and scale-up team and I am part of the energy expert group. From these teams, we can provide financing to companies with a minimum turnover of up to companies with a turnover of 250 million euros per year. Our financing options for startups and scale-ups include loans of up to one and a half million euros, but the limit depends on factors such as the creditworthiness of the company.”

And what does such a loan look like?

“Practically speaking, they are regular business loans. This means there is a repayment profile and the company pays interest. They are not convertible loans, so the upside remains with the entrepreneur. What’s also nice to mention is that companies usually can set up appropriate financing within about three months, from the start of the application to disbursement.”

I actually thought that startups, for example, without revenue, wouldn’t qualify for that. But you do offer that?

“We manage a number of funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For our startups and scale-ups, we provide loans with state aid. Normally, indeed, you wouldn’t qualify for a regular business loan because you don’t have a financial track record to support such a loan. Our goal is to encourage both large corporates and startups and scale-ups to engage in impactful international business. Our mandate starts with foreign investments, supporting companies that invest in, for example, factories, machinery, and working capital, such as inventory, receivables, and advance payments to strategic partners.”

What are the conditions for such a loan?

“For our startup and scale-up loans, we generally do not require collateral, such as receivables or inventory, for financing up to 600,000 euros. However, we do expect skin in the game and a well-founded business plan and financial plan that aligns with our impact objectives. It’s important that the companies we finance are viable and that long-term impact is made, so we consider a well-prepared financial plan essential.”

Do you have an impact framework?

“Yes, we focus on two SDGs to make an impact. SDG 8 concerns ‘Decent Work and Economic Growth’ and is especially important in relation to employment and strategic cooperation abroad, including with potential suppliers. It is essential that work abroad takes place under good working conditions, where employees earn decent salaries they can live on. This forms an important pillar for sustainability. Additionally, we focus on SDG 13, which aims to combat climate change. For example, we make agreements with companies to minimize their CO2 footprint. Currently, we are developing reporting standards for both SDGs and making specific agreements with each company we finance that are tailored to the size and stage of the company.”

Clear. And what are the investments you are most proud of?

“One very nice investment is in Wable, which places autonomous, containerized water dispensers in Africa, currently in Tanzania. These dispensers provide water of various quality standards. The local population buys water through a kind of pin terminal. Within this project, the hardware is sold and a long-term maintenance and operational contract is concluded. As a result, people in the area now have access to drinking water at fair prices and of proven quality, so they no longer have to travel long distances to access clean water. So, I find that a very beautiful case: it has a great impact on the lives of the local population there.”

Do you have another example?

Another one I find interesting is Johnny Cashew, a cashew nut brand. They set out a few years ago to reform the entire cashew nut supply chain. In the past, cashew nuts were often grown in Africa, then shipped to Asia to be peeled, and then transported, for example, to Europe. Johnny Cashew invests in processing facilities in Africa itself to prevent this unnecessary journey. They do this with decent working conditions. They offset their entire CO2 footprint. Additionally, they are truly building a brand with sustainability as its foundation. This is not very common in the nut industry. But if you look at what happened with chocolate, with Tony’s Chocolonely, you can see that it can indeed contribute to commercial success.”

That’s a beautiful project indeed, and how do they offset their CO2 footprint?

“They purchase CO2 emission rights through the Good Shipping Program, which replaces fossil fuels with sustainable fuels such as biofuel. They are also involved in reforestation projects in Tanzania. Additionally, although it doesn’t have an immediate CO2 impact, they try to reduce the ‘waste’ of the cashew nut to zero, for example, by selling all residues as an ingredient for cashew paste. It’s usually not a very profitable business, but it’s very sustainable. So, they aim for zero waste and zero pollution. Their impact report on their website is very interesting to read!”

Are you involved in anything beyond financial support?

“In addition to financial support, we have a strong international network. It often happens that companies we finance buy products or services from or sell to other companies in a particular region. Then we can use our contacts, sometimes in collaboration with an embassy, to find partners. For example, in Africa, we have and maintain local networks through visits and colleagues who are active on-site. They support Dutch companies and build relationships with embassies, governments, and local banks to further facilitate Dutch companies in their international ambitions.”

About the author: Pieter Bas is Startup Relations Associate at Fundsup.

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