Heura tucks into $20M funding chunk for its plant-based proteins ahead of beefier B round next year

What’s going on with demand for plant-based meat? If you take a look at Barcelona-based Heura the picture seems rosy — with the alt-protein startup claiming “non-stop” momentum and a near doubling of revenue from sales of its faux chicken, beef and pork products in the first half of 2022.

Mid-year, the 2017-founded startup reports that it had reached €14.7 million in turnover, up from €7.6 million during the same period last year, after clocking up its most successful first half of the year in its five-year history and bagging a number of major retailers to stock its plant-based foodstuffs (including Ocado in the U.K., Migros in Switzerland, Carrefour in Italy, E.Leclerc, Intermarché and Super U in France). More new partnerships with “major” European retailers are slated as incoming this year, and it’s touting “triple digit growth” of more than 100% YoY.

It’s also had some visible success in its home market by persuading restauranteurs to add its products (and brand name) to their menus — as plant-based ingredients, enabling them to offer vegan alternatives to meat dishes, from tacos and bocadillos to curries, poke bowls and more. And Heura is taking credit for 80% of local plant-based category growth (although it should be noted that Spain remains one of Europe’s biggest consumers of animal-based meat so growth of alt-proteins is starting from a low base). It adds that it expects to end the year with 30% local market share as it fires up its efforts to expand in Europe.

It’s also teasing a Series B round coming next year — which it anticipates being one of 2023’s largest B rounds in Europe in the alternative proteins industry (for some context, another European startup, Planted, raised a $72 million Series B round earlier this fall). And today it’s announcing a new €20M bridging funding round, ahead of the expected (beefier) B. It notes that this (pre-) Series B funding includes the issuance of convertible notes which will lead to equity next year in the full Series B round so a bunch of investors are clearly bought into its sales growth pitch.

Heura says the bridging round includes contributions from NBA star Ricky Rubio, football players Sergi Busquets and Sergi Roberto, comedian David Broncano, as well as Unovis Capital. A chunk of the funding was raised earlier this year when it nabbed more than €4M in 12 hours through its crowdfunding Equity for Good Rebels campaign — pulling in support from more than 5,000 individual backers.

The round will help it as it continues to scale in the region — with its eye on deepening its presence in key markets like France, Italy and the U.K., and adding new European regions, including Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and more, over the coming years. “With new funding in hand, a primary focus for Heura will be positioning itself as the European plant-based leader by 2027,” it notes in a press release.

Squarely on its 2023 menu: New products in “new segments”, following the filing of its first patents in November 2022 — though what exactly it’s cooking up isn’t clear. Its PR says its focus will be on delivering new foods next year that are “nature-positive, nutrient-dense and achieve culinary excellence”.

Asked about what’s incoming, Heuro CEO and co-founder Marc Coloma told TechCrunch: “We’re not just looking to create foods that mimic animal meats. Rather, we are working to create animal ‘meat successors’, foods that go beyond animal meat as a benchmark, and prioritize delicious foods that are superior from a nutritional value and sustainability standpoint. We are focused on developing a new technological platform that exploits intrinsic plant properties to unlock healthier food options using simple, low-energy processes. And, we are filing our first patents next month.”

“We just launched Good Rebel Tech this year, which is focused on a new approach to food technology that will produce macro- and micro-nutrient dense foods in a nutrient-dense, net positive manner that goes beyond what’s been technologically possible to-date,” he added. 

So far so tasty-sounding, if we can put it that way. But the plant-based meat category has been deflating somewhat of late after earlier heavy hype.

Which may explain why Heura is banging the pan about this bridging round and teasing bigger bucks to come next year. Continued momentum isn’t necessarily a given.

To wit: US giant Beyond Meat disclosed it was slashing its workforce by almost a fifth earlier this month, citing declining sales.

While Bloomberg reported on cooling demand hitting the plant-based category last month, citing a Deloitte report which postulated that “stagnating” demand could be down to factors such as the addressable market being more limited than originally thought (including as a result of “cultural resistance”, perhaps attached to rising political polarization across many societies); to inflation (and high food price inflation specifically) eating into consumers’ appetite to pay a price premium to eat plant-based meat alternatives (which still typically cost more than non-premium meat options); and to changes to consumers’ perceptions of how healthy plant-based proteins are.

Some of these suggestions may indicate the meat lobby has had success with negative publicity campaigns targeting plant-based alternatives in a bid to block the kind of wholesale transformation of the food system that’s sorely needed if humanity is to reduce carbon emissions in line with climate goals.

The meat industry has, for example, been splashing money on ad campaigns which seek to paint plant-based products as ‘frankenfoods’ — while framing animal-based meat as a simple, honest and (comparatively) healthy option. Such as this U.S. attack ad campaign (reported by ZME Science last year) — which attacks plant-based proteins by implying the products are far more heavily processed and full of scary-sounding chemicals than the equivalent meat products (with absolutely no mention of health issues attached to consumption of meat products like bacon, such as the risk of a number of cancers the WHO has linked to consumption of red meats and processed meats for years); while running all these self-interested claims under an astroturf-y banner of “cleanfoodfacts.com”, i.e. rather than plainly disclosing their clear, vested commercial interest.

Plant-based startups will likely need to up their comms and product dev game (and ideally lift the lid on production methods, as some already are) to counter these kind of cynical attack tactics.

Plant-based startups are at least positioned to draw on support from (broader) environmental campaign groups and movements to amplify their own pro-climate messaging.

“Clear communications of the benefits of the protein transition coupled with bringing more people together to vote with their fork will help lead the way in [our] growth across the continent,” is how Heura’s PR frames its growth prospects at this point in the PBP (plant-based protein) hype cycle.

There’s certainly a very clear and loud story PBP brands can tell to sell climate-concerned consumers on their meat alternatives.

Heura alone, for instance, can point to savings of around 55.9 million liters of water used and 3.6 million kg of CO2 — as well as the sparing of 509,000 chickens, pigs and cows lives — just in the first half of this year. So expect noisier counter-messaging from more alternative protein brands in response to meat lobby ‘tobacco’ style attack marketing tactics.

“Our competitive advantage is that we function in a unique intersection of being nutrient-dense and net positive, while also working hard to raise consciousness and create an amazing culinary experience,” says Coloma. “We are also fortunate to have been able to create an engaged community of Good Rebels on and offline that really believe in our mission.

“We focus on transparent communications about the benefits of a plant-based diet, and people have responded overwhelmingly to that. Likewise, we also prioritize making foods that enable people to renew their favorite culinary traditions. For example, we just launched a new Breaded Chicken Fillet. We know from research that this category in retail has 20% market share. So by launching a food that we know people love in a way that’s better for the people, planet and animals, we have the opportunity to continue to grow our audience.” 

Deloitte’s report, meanwhile, advises plant-based/alt-meat producers to “explore ways to expand the addressable market, bring down relative costs, and create formulations that provide health benefits while maintaining taste” to stoke growth — while noting what it says has been rapid growth in VC investments and major consumer brands into the category over the past year (and suggesting that resulting innovations may pave a smoother growth path for the market).

On the cost side, while plant-based proteins do still typically suffer from a premium price problem vs meat (not least given the level of subsidies propping up traditional food production methods) — which is absolutely an issue given rising food inflation (and the cost of living crisis) — the scales may be tipping. Especially in Europe, as the region remains heavily exposed to high energy costs triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine and the country’s response to Western sanctions as the bloc seeks to reduce its dependency on Russia gas imports.

Bottom line: High energy costs tend to hit the price of meat more than plant-based food production since the former is a far less efficient way of producing protein for human consumption vs raising animals for slaughter — flesh and blood creatures that ofc need to be fed proteins themselves. Which means that if you feed plant proteins direct to humans and you’re cutting out one very costly step.

This dynamic suggests the difference in price between animal-based meat and (at least some) plant-based proteins should keep shrinking — including as startups like Heura keep proliferating and growing, enabling them to unlock greater economies of scale in their production facilities.

So how much PBP industry ‘stagnation’ is down to cynical meat industry attacks and self-hype over harder climate (and cost of living) realities remains to be seen.

Commenting on Heura’s own growth prospects in a statement, Coloma was upbeat, writing: “Having mission-driven investors on board who dare to take bold action to accelerate the plant-based protein transition gives us the resources to continue driving category growth across Europe. We have a clear vision, and this new funding will help us transition from a successful Spanish plant-based company, to a net positive food-tech startup that’s leading the protein transition across Europe. This growth path is designed to bring us into 2023 in position to close the largest Series B rounds in the industry, and usher in a future that’s better for the people, planet and animals.”

However he does caution that the price premium issue is likely to stick around — at least until lawmakers take a more supportive approach to the sector.

“One of our main areas of focus is to achieve price parity with animal meats. Unfortunately, many political reforms are still lacking to help entrepreneurs opt for a fully sustainable system, and many times it is these reforms that help ensure that sustainability and affordability are not ‘at odds’,” he says. “From how subsidies are allocated to what kind of messages are transmitted in the media, governments play a fundamental role in betting on greener companies. In Heura, we are aiming to deliver net-positive products that are as affordable as its meat analogs. We still have a long way to go.”

Per Coloma, the main channel driving sales of Heura’s products currently is the retail sector, with supermarkets the “key driver”, followed by hypermarkets. “We are also seeing a steady increase in the food service sector, as plant-based options continue to be ever present in the dining scene,” he adds. 

Heura’s most popular products remain its chicken pieces, followed by its burger and mince meat, with Coloma adding that its customers are still “majorly flexitarian” — and “place sustainability and health at the core of their consumption habits”.

“Consumers are now more than ever looking to adopt brands that embrace eco-friendly practices throughout their whole value chain,” he further suggests, pointing to a 2021 survey by Forrester Analytics which he says showed “environmental impact is top of the consumer’s mind”, and adding: “[Just] in the UK, 49% of adults are even more likely to prefer buying environmentally sustainable products that care for materials and origins.”

While Heura is already selling product in more than 20 regions around the world (including in parts of Asia and South and North America), Coloma says expansion in Europe remains its focus — for now. “We are currently focused on expanding the plant-based category throughout Europe. We just recently launched in Germany, Austria and The Netherlands, and have been making great traction over the last year in the U.K., Italy and France. That said, as we continue to grow in coming years, we will continue to keep a global mindset.” 

This reported was updated with Heura’s responses to our questions