What if the next big thing in tech does not arrive on your smartphone or in the cloud? What if it lands on your plate?
That idea is enticing a wide group of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley into making big bets on food.
In some cases, the goal is to connect restaurants with food purveyors, or to create on-demand delivery services from local farms, or ready-to-cook dinner kits. In others, the goal is to invent new foods, like creating cheese, meat and egg substitutes from plants. Since this is Silicon Valley money, though, the ultimate goal is often nothing short of grand: transforming the food industry.
“Part of the reason you’re seeing all these V.C.’s get interested in this is the food industry is not only is it massive, but like the energy industry, it is terribly broken in terms of its impact on the environment, health, animals,” said Josh Tetrick, founder and chief executive of Hampton Creek Foods, a start-up making egg alternatives.
Some investors say food-related start-ups fit into their sustainability portfolios, alongside solar energy or electric cars, because they aim to reduce the toll on the environment of producing animal products. For others, they fit alongside health investments like fitness devices and heart rate monitoring apps. Still others are eager to tackle a real-world problem, instead of building virtual farming games or figuring out ways to get people to click on ads.
“There are pretty significant environmental consequences and health issues associated with sodium or high-fructose corn syrup or eating too much red meat,” said Samir Kaul, a partner at Khosla Ventures, which has invested in a half-dozen food start-ups. “I wouldn’t bet my money that Cargill or ConAgra are going to innovate here. I think it’s going to take start-ups to do that.”
In the last year, venture capital firms in the valley have funneled about $350 million into food projects, and investment deals in the sector were 37 percent higher than the previous year, according to a recent report by CB Insights, a venture capital database. In 2008, that figure was less than $50 million.
That money is just a slice of the $30 billion that venture capitalists invest annually, but it is enough to help finance an array of food start-ups.
The venture capital firms helping to finance these businesses are some of the valley’s most prominent names, in addition to Khosla: SV Angel, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, True Ventures and the Obvious Collection. Celebrities from Hollywood (Matt Damon), pro football (Tom Brady) and the tech world more broadly (Bill Gates) have also joined in.
“Consumers are interested in sophisticated experiences that are beautifully delivered, which we’ve seen happen on the Web and with products like the iPhone,” said Tony Conrad, a partner at True Ventures, which was an early investor in the coffee companyBlue Bottle. “Now, we’re seeing that happen with food and beverage.”
Still, some tech analysts and venture capitalists are skeptical that these companies, with their factories and perishable products, can reach the scale and market valuations of big Internet companies.