The company has been tight-lipped on what might come next, largely refraining from speaking to the press outside of prepared statements, but at the Future Food Tech Conference in San Francisco March 23, managing director Reese Schroeder offered some insight into Tyson Ventures’ strategy and what might be ahead for the protein giant.
Schroeder himself came to Tyson Ventures in June from Motorola Solutions Venture Capital (the venture arm of the Motorola mobile technology company) and is a clear believer in the value of corporate venture capital for both startup and corporate gain. “A good corporate strategic investor has a real advantage when it comes to the financial side since it can be the strategic collaboration that ultimately drives the value that leads to that financial return,” he said.
Tyson Ventures’s first investment was in plant-based burger company Beyond Meat in 2016. In fact, the investment formally went through before Tyson Ventures was up and running, but was transferred to the venture fund soon after.
After Beyond Meat came cultured meat startup Memphis Meats‘ $17 million Series A round, which the VC joined publicly five months after the round was first announced in August 2017 (the public funding total was not revised when Tyson joined the round.)
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“We’re excited about this opportunity to broaden our exposure to innovative, new ways of producing meat, especially since global protein demand has been increasing at a steady rate,” said Justin Whitmore, executive vice president of corporate strategy and chief sustainability officer of Tyson Foods in a January statement.
After these first two perhaps unexpected, but relevant investments, the third announcement involving Tyson Foods came from farther afield when the VC joined Tovala‘s $9.2 million Series A round in February. Tovala is a maker of a steam oven built to cook Tovala’s delivered meals taking instruction via mobile app. Smart home and cooking appliances have been a slow-to-start category within agrifood tech investment and Tyson Ventures was the only food-focused investor in the round.
The corporate VC has a sprawling remit from its evident area of focus so far, alternative proteins, to the bottom of the supply chain in precision agriculture. Schroeder explained that investments are organized into two categories: sustainability and the internet of food.
The sustainability category includes alternative proteins, food waste mitigation technologies, food safety and supply chain technologies, and food security-focused startups.
The internet of food category includes more traditional agtech concepts such as big data plays, sensors applied to various aspects of the supply chain, precision agriculture, traceability technologies, and workflow automation within the food system. Also in this category are smart kitchen devices like Tovala.
On top of having a wide range in terms of investment categories, Tyson Ventures also is fairly agnostic when it comes to the stage at which they want to invest.
“We say that our sweet spot is Series A through Series C but rules are meant to be broken,” said Schroeder. In fact, Tyson Ventures’ first investment in Beyond Meat was at Series F stage, but since then, both investments in Memphis Meats and Tovala have been at the Series A stage.
Taking a step closer to even earlier stage startups, Tyson announced last month that the company is partnering with two incubators: Plug and Play, based in Silicon Valley, and Chicago’s 1871 – both of which do not have a specific focus on food. This move, plus the wide variety of investment categories Tyson Ventures has publicized suggests that these early investments from the organization are not necessarily suggestive of investments to come.
Though they were initially skeptical, animal welfare groups have lately cheered Tyson Ventures for its initial investments, which certainly demonstrate an understanding of the environmental and market forces ushering in alternatives to animal products.
“No company in the world is better positioned to take clean meat global than Tyson. We are impressed but not at all surprised that the company sees Memphis Meats as a great partner for the Tyson brand,” said Good Food Institute Director of Corporate Engagement Alison Rabschnuk in a January statement regarding the Memphis Meats investment.
But, based on what Schroeder shared at the Future Food Tech Conference, it seems likely that Tyson Foods future investments will be all over the supply chain including on livestock farming operations in the future.
“It’s about farm to home,” said Schroeder.