Vegan Mafia? This particular ‘underworld’ is subversive, for sure, but nothing like as sinister as it sounds. In fact, it’s all good. It’s the nickname given to a group of committed (and super-rich) vegans, including the creator of Google Ventures Bill Maris, who choose to put their money where their mouth is, literally – in plant-based start-up companies. Proving that you can have strong ethical goals and still be hard-headed in business, they reckon their investments are a pretty safe bet on a greener future for food.
“There’s a whole community of us building and funding vegan companies,” says long time vegan Ryan Bethencourt.
Who is Ryan Bethencourt, you ask? He may not be a household name, even in vegan households, but he should be. 38 year old Miami-born Ryan is a highly-qualified bioscientist with degrees from Warwick, Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities. In 2014, he co-founded IndieBio, and has become a major mover and shaker in the post-animal bioeconomy, and advisor to The Good Food Institute.¹
Interestingly, each one of those companies completely independently of the others, describes itself on its website as ‘subversive’, or uses the verb ‘subvert’. Oxford English Dictionary: ‘To subvert’ meaning ‘To undermine the power and authority of an established system” What could be more perfect than undermining the atrocity that is animal agriculture in the 21st century.
Though our mafia are all vegan, what emerged in interviews with a handful of the ‘mafiosi’ conducted by CNBC, was that the start-ups they invest in don’t just target their new products at vegans – though of course we do get to reap the benefits. They love the idea that Beyond Meat for instance, has got their burgers selling from the meat counters in big grocery chains. And that eatery chain Veggie Grill primarily serves people who also eat meat – which is great, because obviously they’re not eating meat while they’re dining at Veggie Grill.
30 year old ‘Robot Guru’ aka billionaire Kyle Vogt, who in September last year hit the headlines by buying the most expensive house in San Francisco, is a VM (Vegan Mafia) newcomer. Just about the same time as he purchased the house, his wife opened Charlie’s Acres sanctuary for farm animals rescued from abuse, or destined for the slaughterhouse.
Kyle figured that if his wife was busy saving them, it didn’t make sense for him to keep on eating them. So he went vegan.
A year on, his business angle is, that though appealing to people’s hearts has its place, creating plant-based foods that taste better and are cheaper than foods derived from animals makes the best business sense.
VM investor Seth Bannon is another remarkable vegan. He was only 14 years old when he began volunteering for advocacy organisations. Fast forward a few years: frustrated by the outmoded technology he found being used in the advocacy world – a good 10 years behind the video games he was playing – he set up Amicus: its mission: “To empower people to advocate for the causes they care about through technology”. Now Amicus’s cutting edge tech powers The Human Rights Campaign, Greenpeace, Everytown for Gun Safety, The Humane League, and more.
Amicus’s success opened Seth’s eyes to the potential for positive social change through business. He co-founded and still runs Fifty Years, a venture fund supporting “entrepreneurs solving the world’s biggest problems with technology.”
But back to food. Seth may have ideals, but he has no illusions: “The case for giving up meat is clear: There’s a health case, an environmental case,” he said. (Not to mention an animal welfare/animal rights case.) “But we have largely given up on education as a tool for convincing people.”
As we all know to the animals’ cost, you can show people the horrors of animal ag, you can tell them how it’s wrecking the planet and contributing to climate change, you can say, animal products are bad for your health, but some people just do not want to know. The entrepreneurs Seth is backing, he says, look at the market through a “strict business lens.”
So the VM look to support plant-based products that will be yes, healthier and environmentally friendly and cruelty-free, but most of all cheaper to produce than the current animal products they are looking to replace.
Geltor is a good example – a less expensive as well as cruelty-free plant-based method of making a replacement for gelatin (currently produced by boiling the skin, tendons, bones from cows and pigs). Geltor’s aim is to disrupt/subvert the gelatin market with what is hoped will be a game-changing animal-free alternative. Because even if people don’t care about the animals, hard economics is an unanswerable argument.
The Future of Food: The Top 2 Trends Shaping The Food & Beverage Industry In 2018
CB Insights which sifts millions of media articles to track trends, lists the top 8 food trends for 2018. And the top 2 of the 8 are…… (drumroll here please):
Food Trend Number 1 Diet tribalization intensifying
That’s industry in-speak for rapid growth in the number of consumers adopting certain lifestyle-based diets, in particular the vegan diet (we’re a tribe!), and the paleo diet. “The paleo diet emphasizes natural, sustainable, plant-based foods, which relates to overall trends toward plant ingredients within the food space. Vegan and gluten-free foods have also moved into the mainstream since 2012.”
Revere (vegan energy drink powders), Rhythm Superfoods (vegan kale snacks) Koia (plant-based smoothies) are some of the vegan start-ups which have drawn investment this year. And tellingly, while start-ups in vegan and veggie meal kits like Sun Basket and Daily Harvest continue to attract funding, meal kit start-ups that are non-diet-specific (ie for omnivores) are struggling.
Food Trend Number 2: Alternative proteins diversify and attract meat leaders
With the runaway success of companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Food, and ever-increasing consumer demand for plant-based foods, start-ups are sprouting up all over. And some are pioneering new kinds of plant protein – not just nuts and soy. We’re seeing pea protein, algae protein and chickpea protein. Ripple is a great example. Ripple attracted funding of $43.6 million. That is a lot of funding. Its pea-based ‘milk’ is already sold widely in major grocery store chains. And no cows were hurt in the making of this milk.
The Ripple Effect
This time we’re not talking pea milk. The financial and technological stimulus the Vegan Mafia has provided to the plant-based market has created such a stir in the food industry, it’s less like a ripple, more like a tidal wave. Meat corporations cannot afford to be left behind. The US’s biggest meat producer Tyson, last year acquired a 5% stake in Beyond Meat, and followed this by setting up a $150 million venture capital fund to support the development of plant-based foods. Tyson is excited about the fund because it gives the company “exposure to a fast-growing segment of the protein market”.² General Mills, Hormel Foods, and Maple Leaf Foods are some of the other giants grabbing a piece of the plant-based action.
That proved so popular, this year the company announced plans to make it permanent. Ben and Jerry’s and Hellman’s are among others capitalising on the growing demand for vegan foods too.
Big Investors outside the food industry
Big investors outside the food industry, alarmed by the ravages animal ag inflicts on animals, the environment and the climate, are predicting and promoting a plant-based future too. In 2016 “a group of 40 investors including Aviva and Swedish state pension funds managing $1.25 trillion in assets launched a campaign to encourage 16 global food companies (including Kraft Heinz, Nestle, Unilever, Tesco and Walmart) to respond to the material risks of industrial farming and diversify into plant-based sources of protein.”
“The plant-based meat market is set to reach $5.9 billion by 2022 and could make up a third of the market by 2050 according to some estimates. Worldwide sales of non-dairy milk alternatives more than doubled between 2009 and 2015 to $21 billion over concerns regarding saturated fat levels, lactose intolerance, hormone content and antibiotic use in dairy cows, as well as questions on animal treatment.”
“Our population is set to increase to 10 billion people by 2050 and supplying protein to everyone will prove to be a challenge if we rely only on animal-based sources. This presents a compelling opportunity not only for forward looking investors but also innovative companies who want to profit from a burgeoning plant-based protein market that is set to grow by 8.4 percent annually over the next five years.”²
But would any of this have happened without the initial and ongoing $100s of millions impetus from the Vegan Mafia?
The host of pioneering plant-based companies, and the vegan investors backing them from behind the scenes, give us hope for the future. With the torrents of bad news we get daily on the sorry state of our world, it’s sometimes hard not to get down. But committed, driven, and talented vegans like Seth, Ryan, Kyle, Bill and the rest, still in the summertime of their lives, using their wealth so effectively to address the problems of the planet, set a rainbow for us in an otherwise dark and stormy sky. Long may the Vegan Mafia, and all the animals they are saving continue to flourish. And here’s hoping for a better tomorrow.
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This is very interesting – and also hopeful.: Conservation X Labs using “the tech startup model to work on challenges in the difficult and complex space of environmental protection.” Read more here