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Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers

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Hungry tech investors are jumping into the food revolution

Silicon Valley’s venture capital (VC) firms have long been known for their investments in technology companies. From the early days of computer chips and networking to software, mobile technology and even “apps,” VC investments have focused primarily on technical products that have made business processes simpler for corporations or  enhanced life for consumers.

But over the past few years, Silicon Valley has turned its attention to “disrupting” other industries by applying technological solutions to business models that have remained largely untouched by the digital revolution. One need only look to examples such as Apple’s iTunes, Uber or AirBnB to see how these disruptions have affected how the music, transportation and hospitality industries operate.

Revolutionized decades ago by modern farm implements and Henry Ford-era mass production and manufacturing methods, until recently the food industry had yet to experience the kind of widespread digital disruption that Internet technologies have already brought to other industries. But if you look at the spate of recent investments into food start-ups and the food industry—with a five year quarterly high of $688 million in Q3 2014 alone—it’s becoming clear that venture capital is not just for software startups anymore.

VCs, incubators and crowdfunding – oh my!

One of the most interesting aspects of these new investments in food-related businesses is not just that money is being pumped into the food industry—that’s not necessarily anything new—but by whom. Silicon Valley has been jumping on the chuck wagon in droves, with both long-established tech investors and prominent tech founders doing the investing.

For example, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers (KPCB), which is better known for investments in companies such as Google, Amazon and Twitter, recently invested in Beyond Meat, a company making plant-based meat substitutes, as part of its sustainability practice. Another firm known for very technical investments, Benchmark Capital, has invested in Potbelly, a sandwich and salad restaurant chain, that recently went public. And even Valley stalwart Sequoia Capital was an investor in The Melt, a grilled cheese chain.

Tech-company founders turned investors are also getting in on the food action. AOL founder Steve Case’s venture fund, Revolution Growth put $30 million into the Oakland, Calif. school-lunch company Revolution Foods. Tech founder turned NBA team owner turned celebrity Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban has invested in two gluten-free food startups, an app called “Find Me Gluten Free” and a pizza chain specializing in gluten-free crust. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has reportedly invested in the Lyfe Kitchen restaurant chain, along with the former COO of McDonald’s. And San Francisco egg substitute maker Hampton Creek Foods boasts an investor roster that includes a Valley who’s who of Vinod Khosla’s Khosla Ventures, Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.

The tech model of shepherding young businesses in their early stages is also becoming prominent in the food industry. New York based AccelFoods has honed in on the explosion of small food businesses and is helping to kickstart them via an accelerator program. According to TechCrunch, the company has been committing up to $400K to each business in each of its programs. Not to be outdone when it comes to furthering food businesses, large food companies are also making investments in smaller up-and-comers. Greek yogurt maker Chobani has started its own incubator, as has Coca-Cola, and even Marriott. Even Betty Crocker is getting out of the home kitchen—parent company General Mills has its own venture fund.

Of course crowdfunding has also become a popular way for individuals to support small food businesses in their communities. Many a restaurant and small food artisan have gotten a push via Kickstarter and Kiva Zip loans. Now Crowdfooding is getting into the investor-food start-up matchmaking game, as well, with a database tool that pairs businesses with potential investors. AngelList also boasts a database of more than 3000 investors for food products.

Perhaps this new wave of investments is just an example of Silicon Valley getting back to its roots, so to speak. After all, more than fifty years ago, much of the San Francisco Peninsula was covered in fruit orchards. So maybe investing in something, beyond a steady diet of silica chips and motherboards, that can really nourish people is a step in the right direction.

For more on the food tech investment landscape, check out the following:

http://www.foodtechconnect.com/2014/01/02/food-ag-investment-sources-explode-2013/

http://www.slideshare.net/BritaRosenheim/food-tech-media-industry-rosenheim-advisors-and-leon-mayer

If you’re investing in food startups, we’d love to hear from you. Bon Appétech Conference will be a great way to connect with industry stakeholders, large brands and influential decision makers. More information available at www.bonappetech.com.

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