The alternative protein sector has seen a lot of movement in the past week, including U.S. regulators approving both Upside Foods and Good Meat to sell their cultivated chicken products for the first time in the country.
Poised to help thriving startups in this sector is a new venture capital fund called Joyful Ventures, which just closed $23 million of its $25 million fund. Advisors and investors include Björn Öste, co-founder of Oatly; Dr. Sandhya Sriram, CEO of Shiok Meats; Ryan Bethencourt, co-founder of Indie Bio and CEO of Wild Earth; and Arturo Elizondo, CEO of EVERY.
The woman and LGBTQIA+-led fund is co-founded by Jennifer Stojkovic, founder of the Vegan Women Summit; Milo Runkle, co-founder of The Good Food Institute; and Blaine Vess, co-founder of edtech startup Student Brands. All are general partners of Los Angeles–based Joyful Ventures.
To learn more about the fund and how the trio plan to drive climate solutions, we spoke with Stojkovic, who told TechCrunch that the fund will invest at the pre-seed and seed stages into startups that have strong B2B opportunities and are innovating technologies, including plant-based, precision fermentation, mycoproteins, molecular agriculture and cultivated technologies.
The company has already made two investments from the fund, including New School Foods, which raised $12 million earlier this year to make plant-based salmon, and Orbillion Bio, a company making cultivated Wagyu beef and other products.
The following conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.
TC: What inspired the three of you to start Joyful Ventures?
JS: There is still a lack of awareness when it comes to the impact of food. We’re going to build the next big era of great startups, in my opinion, by unlocking the investment potential. There’s billions and billions of dollars of VC dry powder out there. I read about 50% is earmarked for climate, and some VCs are very interested in climate, but most of the ones I speak to don’t know the connection.
Why focus specifically on sustainable proteins?
When we say sustainable protein, we’re really talking about the broader food ecosystem and how it relates to it. We’re looking at everything from how to reduce the water footprint or improve the texturing of the plant protein crop, all the way to the end product on the grocery shelf. The protein aspects are where the driver of emissions is, but the type of widespread change that’s going to need to happen in the system to support transitioning toward, it’s myriad.
We need to be thinking holistically: What are the different mechanisms and levers that need to be pulled to actually transform the system? It’s not as simple as making a product and they’ll show up. How do we get the cost down? That’s going to be investing in the larger agriculture system.
What was the fundraising environment like? How long did it take you to raise the fund?
Terrible! It is June and we started our close in November. That gives you an idea of how long it took to get the first bit of investments in. It’s been tough. We are feeling incredibly elated to be able to even have a double-digit fund like this. That is such a rarity these days. And then of course, there has been back-and-forth about the future of the (alternative protein) space.
The Cargills of the world and the bigger entities, the ones with hundreds of years of scale on how we produce food on the planet, are coming to the table now and saying, “No, this wasn’t just a blip during the pandemic.” Those are the types of folks that we’re talking to, and that is the type of viewpoint that we have. This is a long game. If you’re looking to make a quick buck, food is not it, but if you are looking to make enduring sustainable change that could quite literally save the planet, we’re your team.
What were some of the concerns your LPs had?
Inflation has been a big part of it. There’s very real challenges at the grocery store. There’s going to be an unfortunate reality where brands are not going to be able to sell at the price point that consumers are able to pay right now. If you’re a widespread protein manufacturer, you have a massive portfolio and can play with the numbers. But if you’re a newer startup, you don’t have that kind of ability to change your exposure.
With Upside Foods and Good Meat moving kind of to the next stage, do you feel like this is continuing to move in the right direction?
Absolutely. This is huge. We’ve got the products being sold in Singapore for the last two years. Now we’ve got the United States, which is arguably the biggest, depending on which metric to use, meat market in the world, ready to serve to consumers potentially by the end of 2023. You need a market like America to shake things up. You’re going to see a lot more countries coming as soon as America does that. Things could start snowballing pretty quickly.
What are you looking for in an investment?
We’re investing in founders that are in it for the long haul. We’re not investing in founders that just heard that the alternative protein was a hot space to be in. We look for people that understand what it takes to disrupt a 100-year-old system, and for companies that are not only making food ingredients that can eliminate animals, but, for example, also can serve high-end cosmetic companies. I believe that for this industry, one of the most important things that we do is build companies that have multiple revenue streams. The margins you can make on a high-end cosmetic could be 90%, which allows for you to build in the pricing for the food commodity that you also need to serve.
Why should founders pick you as their investment partner?
We are geographically agnostic and looking at companies all over the world. We are also very conscious to avoid the hype. We have looked at hundreds of deals since we closed the round, and we are extremely thorough with our process and what types of opportunities we’re looking at.
In addition, Blaine is a two-time exited founder who built his own company from the ground up as CEO, so we have the chops to really understand who are the founders that take it to the finish line.
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