Last year, less than three percent of all venture capital was invested in women founders — and less than a single percentage of all venture capital went toward women founders of color. In spite of these record lows, however, the data shows that women founders often outperform their male counterparts. Recent data shows that investments in women-led founding teams performed 63 percent better than investments in all-male founding teams.
At the same time as this record low for investment into women founders, the future of food, specifically alternative protein, has smashed records with more than $3.1 billion of investment into space in 2020, compared to $1 billion in investment from the prior year. The majority of the funding in the alternative protein industry, an industry focused on animal alternatives using plant-based, cell-based or fermentation technology, largely went to male founders from industry leaders.
Yet, as press attention and capital continue to be paid to this group of heavyweights, a new crop of founders in the future of food is emerging around the world: women.
Seizing on the monumental rising tide of alternative protein, these women founders are looking beyond niche burgers and oat milk, and scaling companies faster, effectively and strategically. A once-in-a-century opportunity, the open market space of the alternative protein industry represents a unique opportunity for women founders, particularly women founders of color, to become industry leaders. And it’s happening all over the world.
In Singapore, Dr. Sandhya Sriram, CEO of Shiok Meats, is readying her team for the public debut of commercialized cell-based shrimp by early 2023 (registration required), making her one of the first movers in this space to take cell-based protein to market, behind Eat Just’s cell-based chicken debut in late 2020. As issues of global overfishing come to the forefront, Shiok Meats, a company founded only three years ago, aims to tackle the most consumed seafood in the world: the nearly $20 billion shrimp market.
Similarly, Carrie Chan, CEO of Hong Kong-based Avant, recently debuted cell-based fish fillets, while plant-based seafood counterparts led by women founders continue to make strides, such as the recent nationwide U.S. debut of tuna from Kuleana and shrimp from New Wave Foods. And, there’s even progress being made on fermentation-based calamari.
Often overlooked in conversations around the future of food, the race to feed our growing population is shaping up to take a more direct approach under the leadership of women founders: infant nutrition. Covered in my last article, the $70 billion global infant formula category is an unsurprising area of focus for women founders. With a mission of empowering mothers, founders all over the world are tackling the underserved infant nutrition category with both plant-based and cell-based innovation.
On the plant-based side, CEO Hamutal Yitzhak of Israeli-based Else Nutrition, dubbed “Oatly for Babies,” recently took her company public and debuted the world’s first plant-based, soy-free infant formula. Meanwhile, in the cell-based space, the race to develop a human milk alternative to infant formula is heating up, with Michelle Egger, CEO of U.S.-based BIOMILQ, recently debuting the world’s first breastmilk grown in a lab. Fengru Lin, CEO of Singapore-based Turtletree Labs, announced plans to commercialize their human milk product.
As we are now seeing in femtech and other industries addressing the needs of women, and despite exponential growth in demand, the infant nutrition category has taken much longer to draw the attention of investors than its other counterparts in the food system. I believe this is a likely result of years of gender bias in investing from the male-dominated venture capital space.
Looking to the broader food categories, in a surprise twist, plant-based meats and non-dairy milks are no longer industry leaders for growth and are now being outpaced by cheese and eggs alternatives.
The cheese alternatives category is seeing growth, led by renowned CEO Miyoko Schinner of U.S.-based Miyoko’s, whose company has grown at 100 percent year over year for over six years, as well as recently funded upstarts like U.S.-based Grounded Foods led by CEO Veronica Fil.
Meanwhile, the plant-based eggs category, long dominated by Eat Just, is facing a flurry of women-led competition from the U.S. expansion of Israeli-based Zero Egg, the fast-growing U.K.-based Oggs, and a record-breaking seed round raise from India-based Evo Foods. This comes as no surprise, since cheese is the most widely consumed dairy product in the world, while egg consumption has risen dramatically in recent years.
While the future of food may have launched with a select few leaders in Silicon Valley, the industry opportunities are vast and women founders are paying attention. In a survey of 160 women founders conducted by my organization last year, 63 percent of founders in the plant and cell-based food space shared that they were actively seeking investment within the next year with more than 59 percent seeking to raise at least $1 million. Despite this bright outlook, nearly half of all founders shared that they have experienced bias from investors with three out of four citing gender bias specifically.
As we endeavor into this brave new future and race against the climate crisis, women around the world are standing up to save the planet. Despite this, the billion-dollar question remains the same: Will we fund them?