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Joyful Ventures is an early stage venture capital fund that invests in alternative protein sources
Venture capital used to be a cottage industry, with very few investing in tomorrow's products and services. Oh, how times have changed! While there are more startups than ever, there's also more money chasing them. In this series, we look at the new (or relatively new) VCs in the early stages: seed and Series A.
But just who are these funds and venture capitalists that run them? What kinds of investments do they like making, and how do they see themselves in the VC landscape?
We're highlighting key members of the community to find out.
Jennifer Stojkovic is General Partner at Joyful Ventures.
Stojkovic is the founder of the Vegan Women Summit, a media and events platform of over 40,000 women founders, investors, and advocates. She is the author of the bestselling book The Future of Food is Female, the world’s first book focused on women in alternative protein. She is an Independent Director of Natural Order Acquisition Co, a publicly-traded company focused on sustainable protein. She built her career under Ron Conway, Founder of SV Angel. Stojkovic worked as the industry’s leading lobbyist for the world’s largest tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Meta.
VatorNews: Let's start at a high level and talk about your philosophy, your methodology, and where Joyful sits in the venture ecosystem.
JS: Joyful Ventures is a climate fund that's focused specifically on food transformation. We focus on pre-seed and seed opportunities, specifically related to sustainable protein, so all different ways that we can recreate and reinvent the center of plate protein, in particular. What that looks like, from a practical standpoint, is everything from improving plant proteins and crop resiliency all the way to cultivated meat and B2B infrastructure for how to build some of those future food technologies.
VN: When I think of that space, I think of Impossible and Beyond Meat, but I'm sure it's more than that, since it’s an up and coming space. So, talk to me about what's happening in that space and what the opportunity is right now.
JS: Impossible and Beyond are great examples of the 1.0 of the alternative protein space; they're about 10 years old or so now and they really paved the way for showing what a realistic, technologically advanced plant based protein could look like. So, for decades before we had tofu and veggie burgers and things like that, but it wasn't until about a decade ago or so that folks really started working on how do we create meaningful, scalable products that can actually replace meat. These are products that are not for vegans and vegetarians, these are products for meat eaters. The plant based industry overall is currently more than a $40 billion industry, but that is just the tipping point of what the overall alternative protein industry is. So, alternative protein is everything from cultivated meat all the way to precision fermentation; I can explain some of these technologies a little bit more if that’s helpful. Also, plant based protein, mycelium, and all of the B2B infrastructure building, from which it is buttressed underneath.
VN: If you want to go into some of those areas and explain what exactly those are and how they work, that would be great.
JS: Plant based protein, that one's a little bit obvious. Impossible and Beyond were some of the early contenders in the space, but there's over one thousand plant based protein companies all across the world. Plant based dairy, in particular, is in 40% of US households currently, it's growing faster than dairy milk, with plant based milks growing at 6% a year. That's the one that most people are probably going to be familiar with because plant based dairy is the oldest part of the category, so to speak.
Now, some of the newer technologies, such as cultivated meat, precision fermentation or mycelium, you might not have heard of. Cultivated meat is also unfortunately known as "lab grown meat," but a decade ago a guy named Sergey Brin, founder of Google, many folks probably know the name, funded what was the world's first lab grown hamburger. That burger was the cells of an animal that are retrieved harmlessly, fed a growth medium, and then spun up in a bioreactor; it looks really similar to how we do regenerative organs currently in a hospital, technologically wise. That created the first burger and that burger, which was over $300,000, has now been scaled to become a real consumer item for everyday people. Two years ago in Singapore it was regulated for human consumption, so it's been sold for two years to consumers and in the United States we now have two companies that have passed the FDA’s approval to begin the process to sell to American consumers. So, it's expected that, by the end of this year, we will likely see cultivated meat products being sold in the United States of America. They've been deemed completely safe from a regulatory standpoint, the meat that is grown is identical to that of a slaughtered animal, however, the cells, because they are grown outside of the body of the animal, do not require the slaughter.
Then we also have precision fermentation, which is essentially how we've been making insulin for decades; it's taking a microbe or bacteria and we're able to recreate bio identical proteins, the same way that we would have fermented wine or beer or any of those other types of products that have been fermented for thousands of years. As they ferment and create new substances, we can actually control the exact protein that is created, and so this is another way to make real animal protein. Currently, most of the products that you would have seen in stores are whey protein; whey is a very important ingredient in milk, and we can now create it, along with many other proteins, without the use of the animal. So, the big golden ticket when it comes to precision fermentation is, of course, casein, which is the protein that makes the ooey gooey stretch of cheese. You've probably heard about how cheese is literally addictive, it gives you a similar response in your brain to taking morphine and things like that and it's true, those are real studies. Casein is a huge piece of unlocking how we can create scaled dairy and cheese without the use of cows which are increasingly becoming extremely an expensive way to produce cheese due to the drought and other circumstances. So, that is another way to create animal protein.
The last one that I'll touch on real briefly is mycelium, which is a root structure underneath fungi and it is a tremendous opportunity when it comes to creating high quality protein options for consumers. So, it is not meat, it is not related to an animal, but, in fact, folks like Meati, you might have seen just got a huge investment from Chipotle to create the world's biggest fungi farm, as they called it, they're creating realistic mycelium steaks and chicken cutlets and things like that. That product, as well, could be an amazing way to start replacing the center of plate protein.
VN: There's obviously a lot of technology and a lot of advancements, but I'd really like to talk about how this has changed from a cultural standpoint. It's hard to imagine 10 years ago saying to somebody, “you're going to eat a burger that was great in the lab.” My girlfriend, actually, refuses to eat Impossible or Beyond, even though I always tell her it tastes like meat, but she won't do it, because there’s still resistance to it. So, what changed in the last decade or so so that people are now willing to accept this?
JS: The culture actually has evolved quite a bit over the last decade or so, in good and bad ways. The “it's made in the lab” is something we're actually hearing quite a lot from consumer sentiments over the last few years and I'll explain where that came from. Plant based protein, by far, people are looking for it, usually from a health perspective. So, the number one reason that people are going to plant based dairy is health and the biggest reason for a lot of people is lactose intolerance. We have the most diverse demographics of all time now; a few decades ago we had a predominantly white consumer buying class, but Gen Zers and Millennials are much more diverse. And so, because we have a lot more Black consumers, Asian consumers, and consumers from around the world, they are not going to be able to consume dairy in the way that other consumers can just because of the prevalence of lactose intolerance in different racial groups. So, that's a huge, huge piece to the plant base dairy piece and that is why we see a lot of Black consumers, in particular, coming into plant based because of the health aspects.
Now, taking it towards some of the other things that you hear about, obviously from a climate perspective Gen Zers Millennials are very, very aware of their climate footprint and how meat is a part of that; 20% of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, unfortunately, are from meat, dairy, and eggs. And so, for those that want to be more climate conscious or reduce their meat consumption, plant based proteins thus far have been the best option. I do expect that that's going to shift a little bit because if we have real cultivated meats and things like that then you're going to see people probably looking at those as well. And then, from a more recent side of things, we have seen a huge uptick of people pushing back on plant based. So, five years ago, it was like up and up and up and up and then, culturally, you did really start to see people saying, “well, it's a long ingredient list, it’s processed, it’s grown in a lab,” which is not true: Impossible Burgers are made with soybeans that are grown in the United States of America. You can go visit the farm fields. But what actually happened in 2019, when Beyond Meat IPOed, they had the single biggest IPO in 19 years, and so there was a very, very strong marketing push back that was created by a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom that was targeting specifically how to have consumers believe that plant based proteins are not healthy, that they're processed, and that they're made in a lab. That campaign really kicked off about six months after Beyond Meat's IPO in 2019, they spent $5 million on a Super Bowl ad to tell people that plant based meats are synthetic and ever since then it's really skyrocketed. That campaign has grown legs of its own, you're hearing it from your girlfriend, I hear it from my mom, my dad, people completely unconnected all across North America have been getting those exact same talking points and that is because, when you see everybody repeating the same thing suddenly within a short period of time, with a precision to what they're saying, it is by intention. Any marketer can tell you that that's what a successful marketing campaign looks like.
VN: You mentioned the Beyond Meat IPO, I know that they've been struggling more recently and their stock has been down quite a bit. What does that tell you about the plant based market at the current moment?
JS: One of the biggest things that's going on right now is retail is down just across the board; I mean, seafood numbers are down, beef is down, everything from a retail perspective is down. But, with that being said, plant based meats in particular are getting hit quite hard. A big part of that, of course, is because there was a huge boom of sales that happened for the past three years when people were not going out to restaurants, there were no food service contracts. And so, retail across the board just went to astronomical numbers that were never going to stay. Now that has leveled off and that retail drop has been quite significant. At the same time, we are seeing record growth in food service. So, food service from a plant based perspective is growing quite a bit in the US and, if we move out of the United States, Germany, the UK, various other markets around the world are seeing quite a bit of growth in plant based meat, whereas the US is seeing a dip.
VN: I wonder if that also has to do with the pandemic and bad behaviors. During the pandemic, addiction would went up, and that's very bad behavior, obviously, but just in general, there was a feeling that maybe of, “I'm dealing with so much stuff, I want to reward myself,” and maybe they looked at a plant based burger and said, “you know what? I want the real thing, because I'm dealing a lock down for three months,” and health didn't really seem to be as much of an issue for people.
JS: One of the things that we saw in the pandemic was a big push for people worrying about their health, so that was part of why there was a big adoption of plant based. But, it's interesting, I haven't read some of the studies that you're saying, although I've seen from a political side, the cultural war, the pushback of, “No, we want to go back to basics and tradition,” so that's being seen as a cultural element. The other thing that is really interesting is that people don't have a lot of money now. So, the installation costs of food and the recession and the layoffs that are happening, are having a profound impact on the way that people shop. You can see that the reason beef consumption is dropping precipitously is because people literally can't afford beef. And because, unfortunately, a lot of these plant based products are still fairly high priced, just because we haven't been able to get some of the costs down to where we want them to be, it's seen as unaffordable to folks as well. And so, when you look at what the shopping carts of America look like today in an average grocery store, versus a year and a half ago, when people had a lot more disposable income, they're not willing to try these fancy and expensive products anymore; they're buying milk, eggs, if you can afford them, a lot of people aren't even buying eggs because of things going on, chicken and bread and that's it. It really is moving away.
VN: I actually bought eggs the other day and they weren't too expensive, but what it was was ketchup. That was like $10 or something like that. So, things fluctuate, one thing goes down, another goes up.
JS: This is an entire topic that we can talk about, but the supply chain disruption that's going on right now in the way that we make food, it's bananas. Like, it is totally wild what's happening because of the war in Ukraine, which isn't going anywhere as we've all figured out by now since we're over a year in, that global disruption to the crop supplies has had a profound impact all across the world. Animal feed costs are through the roof, and the oil crisis, not the petro oil crisis but the sunflower oil crisis, was a very, very serious thing about a year ago, because Ukraine was the top sunflower oil producer in the world. And so, there have been a lot of ingredients that have been hard to source from a geopolitical point. Also, because of what's happening with the hostilities around China and Russia, Russia is also a pretty big breadbasket to the world as well. That's something we don't really talk about, but there's actually quite a lot of agriculture there. And then China is a huge piece of it, not just from a manufacturing perspective, more than a quarter of every single product in the world is made in China, but also from a supply chain perspective for food, that's yet another one. That is all coupled with the worst drought in world history, we had a drought in Italy, we had a drought in Spain, we had a drought in India, we had a drought in the US, the worst Midwestern drought of all time happened in the US last year, and it barely really made the news. Dairy production was down 20% in the United States last year because of how hot it was. One of the things we don't really talk about is that, from an actual realistic perspective, the drought, the water shortage, the rising climate, and the temperatures are all drastically affecting livestock. You can't make a cow produce milk when she's too hot. That's just a fact and so we had a 20% reduction in milk production just this summer from that. And now that the winters are more volatile, and they're colder, the cattle are requiring more feed to stay warm. And so, you're getting hit double on both sides.
VN: There's so many interesting thing to talk about in terms of the topic but I do want to talk about your fund and your firm. So, what is the size of your current fund? How many investments do you make per year? And what does that come out to in dollar amount?
JS: We just did our first close in November, so we are still of course raising for the next chunk of the year. So, we're aiming for between a $25 and $30 million fund, and we've raised over $23 million so far. We are going to be focusing on pre-seed and seed investments, average check size probably about $500,000, sometimes $1 million.
We are focusing on doing probably about 12 to 15 investments over the life of the fund. The reason that number is a little bit in flux is because from the time that we started raising the fund until now, there's a pretty big difference in the amount of people starting companies. So, we have closed in on a little bit in terms of the amount of follow-on that we're now doing, and the amount of initial investment. So, we were on an 80/20 model, but I do expect that we're probably going to increase the follow-on quite a bit and shrink that portfolio size a bit, go a little deeper with the folks that we do invest in.
VN: So, you're investing very early, and with an average check of $500,000. I would imagine you’re some of the first money that these companies are raising. At that point, when you're putting money into them, do you want to see any traction? Do you want to see any kind of ARR, do they have to have a product, do they have any have to have any customers? Or is it just too early for that at that point?
JS: It really depends on the type of investments. Because we're sitting in food, we have this unique thesis in the sense that we have these technological pieces that we're looking at, which could be something like a gross serum for the cultivated meat industry; obviously if you're doing a gross serum for cultivated meat, which isn't sold in the US yet, you're not going to have an ARR. But we also do look at CPG products and so forth, particularly exceptional CPG products that we feel like have a lot to offer in terms of having a strong technological differentiator and really tapping into a white space; there are quite a few whitespaces in food. There we're probably looking at about $500,000 in ARR, just to just to start, and that would be for a seed investment.
We mostly do seed investments, so for a lot of folks this would be their first big check; we do get a lot of folks from some of the incubators and accelerators and some folks have done a little bit of pre-seed. You're going to see a little bit of a change, one founder I know raised a pre-seed that was like $8 million but you're never going to see that again, or at least not for many years to come, so we're going to be in flux a little bit because the market has changed so much in the year that we've been building the fund.
VN: It sounds like if you're investing in something that maybe software based then you'd have to have a product, but if it's an actual meat protein, you’ll invest pre-product at that point.
JS: It really depends because, depending on what the science is, from a seed perspective you absolutely should be taking a look and working with other companies in the space. So, if you're coming to us and saying, “we have this amazing solution for all the precision fermentation companies, they need to use it,” and you don't have any working deal with any of them in the space already, that's a big red flag for us. This is an extremely accessible space, so you, at the very least, and this is obviously what Y Combinator is a big proponent of, should really have LOIs and be testing the product, the prototypes, with certain companies in the space.
VN: What's your due diligence for the market? Obviously, you're investing pretty early, this is a 10 year journey, maybe even longer, at which point there will be an exit. So, how do you diligence whether or not there will be a market for this product at that point?
JS: Well, this is a part of why a lot more people are focusing more on the plant based space right now, because there's a defined market category for plant based. Also, especially if you go into the agtech side of things, so we're looking at even improving the amount of water footprint to grow plant proteins, that's something that the entire world needs. From a plant based perspective, there's pretty clear data. From a due diligence perspective, when you get into some of these future technologies, like cultivated meat, are completely speculative; we are assuming with the launch of the United States going well, which I'm sure it will, there's several dozen countries that will then regulate and begin to sell in their countries, but it's all hinged upon in the US right now. So, until that floodgate is open, it is very, very difficult and that's why a lot of folks are focusing on the actual infrastructure and scaling challenges with plants or with cultivated meat. There are over 100 companies that are focusing on making meat right now but there's not 100 companies that are focusing on making the bioreactors that the meat goes into. So, we're a lot more interested in B2B, in that aspect, whereas mycelium is a great example of a technology where there's a lot more companies that are going to be born out of it. I mean, Meati just raised $150 million a few months ago, and if they are able to launch successfully with Chipotle and others, you're going see some very, very big investments into that industry, in particular.
VN: What’s the due diligence on the team? When they come and sit across from you, what experience do you want to see them have, but also what are the intangibles or that person, that founder, that makes you interested in investing in them?
JS: One of the things that's really important to me is having a really honest conversation with the founders about where they expect to go with their company. I have that exit conversation from day one, that's extremely important because food was not a venture backed industry before, it's new that food is venture backed, and so the first thing you have to really do is pick apart who is actually going to be a venture bankable food company, and who is simply going to be a really great small or medium sized business. That's one of the biggest mistakes that VCs in this industry have made: they saw Beyond Meat grow exponentially and then a ton, A TON, of me too companies came into the space and most of them never had venture bankable potential. So, it’s figuring out if there is a true multiplier effect and if there is a good, strong exit mindset and mentality. We're seeing a lot of companies that are now over a decade old in plant based that did not have that strong exit plan in mind and so it's been a really, really big challenge since these companies did not really get themselves teed up to get acquired or to go public in the way that Beyond or some of these other acquisitions happened.
VN: How do you set them up for that success? Or how do you determine whether or not they're set up for exit potential?
JS: A lot of it has to do with, obviously, talking to the founder and getting to know them a little bit but one of the things that we do really well as a pre-seed and seed investor is having that strategic investment from day one. So, we make sure that they are actually integrated into the larger food and beverage space. We work with people that are in the meat, dairy, and egg industry, I've got lots of folks from Cargill that I talk to on a daily basis, and really making sure that they are teeing up and talking to the big food conglomerates. Meat in the United States, 85% of it is produced by four different companies, so you need to make sure that you've got conversations going or have some through way to one of those four different companies from day one. We've seen incredible acquisitions that have happened in this industry with some of these big producers of dairy and some of these big producers of meat, but to assume that they're all going to IPO and to not assume that acquisitions will be the majority of the exits is a little bit short sighted. Because Beyond Meat IPOed, they all thought, “we're all going to go public,” but the reality is they should have planned to get put into a portfolio of suites because, from a supply chain perspective, that's the best thing that can happen to you.
VN: You mentioned earlier that a company got an $8 million pre-seed; I haven't heard of that but it’s not that surprising considering where the market was. But let’s talk about where the market is now. Obviously we saw some real highs during the pandemic but the market in general has been down for the last year or so. So, where do you see companies now coming into the space? Where do you see valuations? What does that mean for the companies that did raise those big rounds when that bubble was still inflated? Where are they now?
JS: Those companies are raising extensions and a lot of those companies are not going to be able to keep those valuations. We're seeing people marking themselves down, probably on a monthly basis right now and that's not just specific to food, I'm sure you're hearing this from people, especially if you're crypto or FinTech. There were some very, very hot spaces in the last couple of years.
I am going to be completely honest: this is the worst time to ever raise a fund but it really is the best time to be investing because we have valuations that have come back down to earth. There's a lot of generalist investors that got into alternative protein in the last few years, and they jumped into these me too products because they just didn't understand food very well, and they're going to be in trouble. A lot of VCs that raised easy capital and went into food, just like, again, crypto and FinTech, all of these other industries, I've heard of a lot of folks that are going to be underwater. I've heard they're estimating, probably within the next three years, 50% of VCs will be zombie VCs, which is pretty staggering. If that's the case, unfortunately for them, there are going to be companies that are going to close their doors because they just raised at such a high valuation and they didn't really tee themselves up to get across the valley of death. And that's what we're seeing with a number of folks, unfortunately. You're seeing a lot of crowdfunding as well; that's been something that a lot of food brands have been taking advantage of and, if you're an early enough brand, you can get a decent penny on that. One of the ones that I saw just recently raised like $750,000 and so, if you're an early stage friend, and you've got a strong community, you'll see a lot more people doing that, rather than having a pre-seed. It will probably be a crowd fund.
VN: Do you think that not being a generalist, but having a specific area to focus on, puts you in a better position? I hadn't heard about what you mentioned about zombie VCs, that’s very interesting. There are not many funds in your space; I did actually just talk to Stray Dog Capital, which is another fund that’s investing in food and plant based protein, but there's really not very many. So, do you think that it's better for you to have this very focused area than to be a generalist fund?
JS: Lisa is a good friend of mine, so I know Stray Dog very well; we have a very similar thesis, but Stray Dog is doing later stage investments at this point.
I believe that we have a very strong, compelling thesis because we know for a fact that there's going to be a consumer dip right now, we know that that's how the S curve of innovation always works, but in terms of the truly catastrophic, converging factors that are coming upon the way that we produce meat, dairy, and eggs in the world right now, we are global experts when it comes to this industry and how we produce food. Because we have this deep knowledge of how we produce food, we know that, from a political and from a climate perspective, these governments are looking for solutions. We are in on those conversations to see that there is significant, significant government concern about national security around food. It might not be in the next couple of years, but certainly in the next five to 10 years you're going to see a true transformation from a policy standpoint around supporting the alternative protein industry. We're the ones that are going to be teed up with the founders that we invest in today to be ready to take hold there.
VN: Obviously, you're very knowledgeable and passionate about this industry and I assume that helps when pitching to LPs. Like you said, food is not a space that was venture backed for a long time, it's fairly new, and so when you're going to LPs who have probably never put money into this space before, especially not into a fund that's dedicated to this, what is your pitch to them? How do you get them on board and say, “This is really important, this is something that you should be involved in”?
JS: More than 60% of all dry powder from a deployment perspective is expected to deploy into climate solutions. Everybody on earth from the VC space is talking about climate all of the time; they're talking about carbon capture, they're talking about all these technologies to help trap and mitigate the system the way it stands today. We have a much more compelling value proposition: rather than trying to deal with the carbon in the methane and the nitrogen that we're putting into the earth, we can prevent it from happening. So, if you want to invest in climate, your single silver bullet, best solution is going to be food transformation. Boston Consulting Group found, in the summer, that investing in plant based protein is 11 times more impactful from a climate investment perspective than EVs, it's three times more impactful than decarbonizing cement, and four times more impactful than green building, and yet that's where you keep continuing to see most of the investments go. We know that those solutions are going to take a very long time, we know that building a nuclear power plant takes over a decade, but we can start to transform plates today. So, if you are interested in investing in climate, and you want real, scalable, quick solutions, there's nothing better than food.
VN: That's the pitch?
JS: That’s the pitch.
VN: And it works?
JS: It works. It works because 50% of people are interested in climate solutions. That's where every single conversation is going and it's very important and very unfortunate that food is left out of that conversation almost 100% of the time. People do not see food as a climate technology, but it is; it’s 20 % of greenhouse gas emissions. It's a $1.4 trillion industry, so the market potential in what we're doing is insane. Meat, dairy, and eggs are some of the biggest industries that exist on the planet and one of the reasons why they exist is because the government upholds them to exist. And so, as the government increasingly has concern around the way that we produce food, when we can start to get the same subsidies and get the same support to produce our food this way, that's when things are going to skyrocket, that's when you're really going to start to see that tipping point. And we're already seeing it: Singapore announced the 30 by 30. Temasek and the Sovereign Wealth Fund are some of the most active investors in the space, and the reason why is because Singapore produced less than 5% of their food going into the pandemic, leading to a massive food shortage. Their people couldn't eat, so they launched the 30 by 30, which is producing 30% of food in Singapore by 2030. They're not going to be able to grow cattle around skyscrapers, so they are going deep and hard into plant based and cultivated innovation. Israel is doing the same, Qatar is doing the same, we're seeing it pop up all over; the Government of Malaysia just announced they're investing in cultivated meat protein. It is happening everywhere because the food instability challenges that this world has coming on the horizon, both political and climate, there is nothing that we can do other than reinvent the way that we're producing the way we eat.
VN: What's the pitch to entrepreneurs? You're one of the few, like I said, firms that are really focused on this, but what do you really offering them that other firms maybe can’t?
JS: We offer not just our advisory board with every CEO and founder in this industry, we offer them an unparalleled network from a strategic advisor standpoint that they're not going to get anywhere else. I can have the CEO of Beyond Meat or the founder of Oatly on the phone this morning if I want to. To be able to have that mentorship opportunity from real founders that have grown and exited companies in this space is extremely rare. And because we have such a strong network, that's probably the number one reason every single founder comes to us. The first thing they say is, “we know that you are ingrained and entrenched in the industry.” One of my partners built the Good Food Institute, Mercy For Animals, and New Crop Capital; that’s the leading think tank for alternative protein, that's the biggest farm animal nonprofit on the planet, and that's the first alternative protein fund. So, when it comes to people that have been in the thick of it, there's nobody that's more connected and more knowledgeable than us.
VN: Talk about some of the companies that you've invested in, maybe highlight two or three of them. What was it that those companies were when they pitched that made you want to invest in them?
JS: We've done two investments so far, we just did our first close in November, so I'll do the two.
Our first investment was New School Foods, which is a hyper realistic plant based seafood company with a proprietary technology that's been invented that can actually retrofit directly into a seafood processing facility, which is extremely exciting because we know that what's happening right now in the commercial fish decline is pretty staggering. Again, relating to climate, there is no way with the warming waters that we can actually combat the amount of fish, so we are going to need to start producing fish another way.
The reason that I was really excited about New School Foods, first and foremost, was that Chris, the founder, sold his first company to Instacart. Obviously being able to have founders that have exited companies come into this industry is huge for us because there have not been the same amount of food exits. So, that was a huge piece of it but, more than anything, because I'm from Canada, I was really, really excited to see the amount of non-dilutive grant funding that the Canadian government is now giving. This is something that a lot of people don't realize, but founders outside of the United States, particularly if they're in places like Canada, where there's entire industries that have been stood up to fund these folks, can be extremely lucrative for investors. So, 40% of his entire seed round was non-dilutive grant funding from the Government of Canada at three different levels, so it's very appealing for investors to invest in a place like that because you're getting the same amount of capital for your founders but, obviously, from the cap table perspective, you're going to have a bigger piece of the pie. So, that was what was really exciting about New School Foods and, of course, the technology that they have is pretty incredible. Having a strong tech stack to bring into food is very difficult but, because Chris was a previous founder, because he had spent quite a bit of money and time working with a research university in Toronto to develop it, they were able to create innovation pretty rapidly. We're seeing a lot of these developments that are happening at universities in particular, there are certain universities that are starting to emerge as leaders in this space.
Our second one that we invested in was Orbillion, which is a cultivated meat company. As I said, there are a lot of cultivated meat companies in the space but what really excited us about Orbillion is the fact that they have created a full stack technology for cultivated meat production almost 30 times faster than the other main competitors in the space. They also have been able to get their price point to a much better space because they target wagyu and beef and some of the other pieces of the meat industry that other folks are not focusing on. One of the challenges we're going to have is that cultivated meat generally costs the same regardless of which meat you're making, but they don't all cost the same at the store. So, the value proposition to a consumer that's buying a steak versus the value proposition of buying chicken, we really need to start thinking about how we can have higher margins as soon as possible. So that's what was really appealing about Orbillion.
VN: If it costs the same to produce, why is it different at the store?
JS: That gets into the way that we produce meat. So, a cow is raised for three years, whereas a chicken is raised for less than 30 days. There’s a reason why you get 50 cent wings, chicken is extremely cheap, and that is why, even with the egg crisis that's going on, we lost 5% of the entire egg laying chicken population in the US and, yet, we were still able to get eggs at the store. And that's because it only takes another 30 days to grow another chicken. That's why beef costs are going to take a very, very long time, if they do ever stabilize again, to what folks are used to because, when you call a herd of cattle, it will take three years to bring that supply back up again. So, the very real constraints of the specific animals is something that we need to think about as we target certain product groups.
VN: Let's talk about you and your career. It'd be great to learn about what got you into venture in the first place, why that was something that you were interested in, and what you wanted to achieve by being a venture capitalist.
JS: I was very fortunate that I was able to really start my career in Silicon Valley. So, I worked mostly during the post 2008 boom under a man named Ron Conway, and spending six years working under Ron was a very exciting experience. We were very much part of that post 2008 tech boom, so we did a lot of gig economy, Airbnbs, Ubers, things like that. And so, cutting my teeth, I was able to see a lot of things: first and foremost, what a culture of innovation looks like, what it means to be a supportive VC, the kinds of lengths that you're really going to need to go to get these founders over the hurdles. I, specifically focusing on lobbying for these startups, learned very quickly that consumer sentiment and getting ahead of the game when it comes to how you're going to actually reach that market, and how you're going to do it with the barriers of government and consumer challenges, is really important to look at from the very beginning. That's why I think about food very differently, that's why I think about these cultural issues that are happening around food, the regulatory issues that are happening around food, that's really what I focused on in tech, and it was existential for some of these companies. I don't know if you remember the Uber protests five years ago, people were bashing Ubers in and they were chaining themselves outside of buses, they were lighting scooters on fire. So, this is a very real challenge, so having had a front seat and working on that I've been able to develop a very unique perspective.
I got into the food space in particular a few years ago. I built an organization that's now the biggest platform in the world for the future of food called the Vegan Women's Summit, and we have about 60,000 women professionals in the future of food. And so, my focus was, if we want to bring the culture of innovation to the food technology industry, we need to do it in a way that is more inclusive than the tech industry. And, selfishly, let's be honest, it actually makes sense from a food perspective because 93% of consumer food purchases are made by women. That is a real competitive advantage if we can utilize the expertise of women, because they really do control the grocery carts of this world. You go to the store, you see moms buying things, you see guys FaceTiming their partner who's telling them what to buy, which would happen to me on a weekly basis with my husband. We bought the same product for a decade but he still has to double check that he gets the right one, and that's because women are the head of household purchasers for food. So, if you tap into those women to grow this industry, we can really take off. I started with 250 women, we now have over 60,000, we do pitch competitions, we do job networking, we do a giant conference every single year. And so, really the last piece of that puzzle was, "I've got thousands of founders I'm talking to every single year, men, women, people from all backgrounds, they're all coming to us, because we have this massive media platform. How can we make sure that they're getting funding? We have this unparalleled network of people coming to us, why are we not funding them as well?" And so the fund is really bringing it full circle so that not only do we have the investment to put into these founders, but we also have that media platform, we have that arm to lift them up, to give them the limelight in a way that other funds do not because we are such a strong social media presence, because we have a flagship summit that sells out every year with a thousand people coming in from around the world. Our goal is to create the South by Southwest for food. We're going to have cultivated meat next month at our summit. We are really going to be the world's first for pushing the future of food innovation out into the world for people to experience it and having a fund can be a part of that is a huge, huge asset.
VN: Do you make diversity part of your mission? As you said, it’s a benefit having women be a big part of the space, so do you look for female founders?
JS: Absolutely, 100%. Our goal is to have at least half of our deals go to underrepresented founders, that's the case right now. So, in terms of our diversity, it's really focusing on how we can reach people that may be tapping into consumers or demographics that you otherwise wouldn't be able to tap into. So, yeah, that is part of our mandate. We've been doing it thus far, our portfolio shows thus far. I wrote a book called The Future of Food is Female, it's the first book ever written about women founders and CEOs in the food space all together. And so, just because I have so much inbound of women founders, it just naturally is a lot easier for us to invest in women, which is like the opposite of what a lot of VCs say; they don't get access to women founders. There is something very unique about a woman VC: there’s only 5% of us out there and so there is a connection and the calls, the texts, the DMs that I get from women founders, it provides a different experience. I think there is a trust that they feel immediately just in being able to speak to another woman and so I do think that gives us quite a competitive advantage, to be honest.
VN: What is the thing that really motivates you as a VC? What's the part of the job that you really love the most? When you go to work every day, what really motivates you?
JS: That there is such an incredible opportunity for us to take the general population sentiment that things are going in the wrong direction and to empower them with the ability to create the solutions and take action to change the world. That's what's so incredible to me about entrepreneurs because it's one thing to say, “I want the world to be different,” it's one thing to go on social media to complain, it's one thing to even vote a different way. But to actually put your blood sweat and tears into saying, “this is a problem in the world and I will put everything I've got into changing that,” that is very special. Founders are very special people, most people aren't cut out to be them, and we need to really find a way to celebrate in our culture that a lot more. It's become maybe a little bit taboo, we saw it with the SVB collapse, politically speaking, everyone was attacking and saying, “Silicon Valley elites, they’re just entrepreneurs, they're just founders.” And so, there's a clear sign that we've got a little bit of a branding problem. I think it's the exact opposite: these are incredible human beings and we really need to support them, especially going into these next few years. And so, that's what gets me amped up, finding people that give a shit.
VN: I can definitely see that in the space that you're in; there are certain spaces, like healthcare investors and climate investors, where there's a different sort of motivation, I think than in other spaces, because it really does change people's lives. You have a real chance to really change the world in a way that maybe other spaces, as important as they can be, don't have that kind of material impact.
JS: I know for a fact, numerically, by every measure, this is the right side of history and this is the direction that the future is going in. I'm willing to stake my life on it. This is it, because we cannot turn back the clock on certain things that have happened on this planet. So, it may take a little while for people to realize that this direction is not going to change, they may kick and scream. There will be a messy next few years, let's be honest, but we must not be dissuaded from marching forward because, sooner or later, there is going to be some really serious, serious stuff going on if we do not account for what a food shortage could look like. And we are on track for a very real catastrophic food shortage in the United States and beyond if we do not change the way that we are producing our food.
VN: That's probably pretty scary for a lot of people if you put it that way but if you put it in a way where you're coming up with a solution for that, I think that eases people. You say this is going to be a problem but you actually then follow that up with, “and here's how we actually fix that. We fix that through plant based protein, etc, etc.” that eases the potential panic.
JS: Yeah, of course, and that's what a fund is, it's the solution. We are packaging up, “There is a serious problem. Most of you have figured it out by now, but we have a solution.” And for the people that have that foresight right now to start literally seeding what that future food system is going to look like, it's going to be very lucrative because, again, we don't need crypto, we don't need 10 minute delivery. I mean, we've seen so many industries get really eviscerated; I think Bitcoin is going to become more and more important in the future but there's just so much that is getting washed away as we get back to the basics of of survival in a lot of ways. Money is getting tight, people are going back to basics. What does everybody buy every single day? It's food. It's always been food, and so we will always have a consumer. It might not even be a consumer that's willing, it might not even be a consumer that knows; I mean, the reality is people have no idea how their meat is made and you're likely going to be eating a lot of cultivated and plant based meats all the time and you'll have no idea. Neither of the top two fast food nuggets sold by major restaurant chains in the United States test more than 50% positive for me. So, you're already having plant based nuggets to begin with.
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