You may have seen The Production Board crop up on a few agrifood tech investments recently — including today’s Tillable Series A — but there’s little publicly-available information about the investment holding company founded by David Friedberg. Until now.
In case you don’t know, Friedberg was the founder and CEO of The Climate Corporation, the digital platform acquired by Monsanto in 2013 for $1 billion. This transaction put agtech on the map and Friedberg is arguably paved the road for the boom in agtech entrepreneurship and investment that followed.
I had an exclusive conversation with the founder of agtech’s first digital unicorn for our soon-to-be-released podcast Future Food where he revealed details about the portfolio he’s been building for the last four years.
Here’s their portfolio including some excerpts from our hour-long conversation that will be released in full next week:
NorQuin: The first investment The Production Board made was into a Canadian quinoa farming business called the Northern Quinoa Production Corporation, now NorQuin. This business also has a breeding program for quinoa, and a production facility in Canada, and has launched a consumer product arm Tiny Hero Foods to sell various quinoa products.
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You can hear much more about the reasoning behind this deal on the podcast but, in short, Friedberg “wants to try and make quinoa as ubiquitous as rice and as affordable as rice.”
“If you look at the energy efficiency in terms of water and hydrogens and bio-available protein out of various crops, quinoa rises to the top of the list as a protein source; it’s more energy efficient than corn and rice; it’s a complete protein; it has lupine, it’s very bio-available as a protein source. So, I was generally enamored with quinoa as a crop and we only grow 300,000 acres of it globally out of two billion-plus farmed acres.”
Clara Foods. The Production Board was the lead investor in the alternative protein startup Clara Food’s $1.7 million seed stage round in 2015 and its only Series A investor in an undisclosed round in 2017. Clara started off using genetically modified yeast to create egg white liquid for cooking but has increased its product portfolio to nutritional supplements, food and beverage ingredients, with a focus on making animal proteins from microorganisms.
For Friedberg, it’s about increasing the efficiency of producing animal proteins at a low cost.
“With chickens, there’s a lot of energy used in making feathers, walking around, creating heat, and clucking and so on, so the energy efficiency of a chicken on an absolute basis isn’t that great.”
“We’re very excited by the mission of trying to make complete nutrition as affordable as possible. Rob Reinhardt the founder there has always spoken about how complete nutrition should be as ubiquitous as water, not to replace food, but those moments where there’s an absence of good, healthy food, at least you have access to nutrition.”
Eatsa. The long-term strategy for The Production Board is to create and incubate companies from the ground-up, not make passive investments; Eatsa was the first in this regard. It is a restaurant technology company using robotics and automation to build unmanned restaurants. The Production Board first created the company to try and get consumers to love eating quinoa with a quinoa bowl restaurant, according to Friedberg.
“Looking into the things that people care about when they go to a restaurant and what’s going to make them happy, it turns out taste, price, and speed in that order are what matters. So we tried to use hardware and software to redesign how a restaurant operates to try and make it much faster and much more affordable by reducing a lot of the labor cost.”
Frontier Farmland. The Production Board has also invested in a new farmland acquisition and management company founded by former Climate Corp colleague Michael Sesko and Pepo Peschiera. Frontier Farmland will invest in farmland and use the latest in agtech innovation to improve yields on those farms. It will partner with early-stage agtech startups to help them adapt their technologies and get adopted fast.
Tillable. As announced today, The Production Board led the Series A round of Tillable, an online marketplace for farmland leases. Tillable was founded by another ex-colleague of Friedberg, Corbett Kull, who sold his former startup business 640 Labs to Climate Corporation in 2014. There are some clear potential synergies between Tillable and Frontier Farmland.
The Production Board is developing four more projects and going forward will focus on incubating businesses in biotech and life sciences, according to Friedberg.
Why did Friedberg structure The Production Board as a holding company and not a fund?
“I invested some of my own money with like-minded individuals and the idea was that this isn’t meant to be kind of an asset management business where we’re raising capital and earning fees on managing capital and then returning it once we’ve made our investments and sold them. This is more about there being a persistent meaning for the rest of our lives, and an opportunity to realize new technologies that can affect positive outcomes in food and agriculture with such a broad set of opportunities. It’s such a long-range set of opportunities; there’s so much opportunity and there will be for generations to come that there’s no reason to put a timer on it and say, hey, let’s just do this for five to seven years and then we’re done. So we made it a permanent vehicle where the capital goes in and it just stays there and we’ll make investments, we’ll start companies, if they go public or if they get sold or they generate profits and do dividends, you know, we can take that money and reinvest it and do new stuff because there’s always going to be more opportunity to create new technology to further improve our ability to convert molecules for human consumption.”
Find out more about the thesis behind The Production Board and Friedberg’s vision for the Future of Food on the podcast, coming out soon!