Today Crisp, the Dutch online-only supermarket that prioritises ultra fresh and transparently sourced products, announced that it has raised €30 million in Series B financing. The round was led by leading European investor, Target Global, joined by Keen Venture Partners and some of Europe’s top entrepreneurs, including founders of Adyen and Just Eat Takeaway.com, as…
Online shopping for everything from groceries and prepared meals to pet supplies and home goods has soared during the pandemic, speeding faster growth of subscription services that already had been on the rise before the COVID-19 outbreak hit.
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A little less than three years ago at the Computer Science Museum in Mountain View, California, the founders of a young company hailing from Cambridge, England addressed a crowd of celebrities, investors and entrepreneurs at Y Combinator’s August Demo Day promising a revolution in food science.
Over the years, the event has become a relatively low-tech, low-budget showcase for a group of tech investors and billionaire industry insiders to take a look at early-stage businesses that could be their next billion-dollar opportunity.
Sharing the stage with other innovation-minded budding entrepreneurs, the Cambridge scientists boasted of a technology that could produce a sweetener that would mimic not just the taste of sugar, but the caramelization and stickiness that makes sugar the go-to additive for the bulk of roughly 74% of packaged foods that are made with some form of sweetener. Their company, Cambridge Glycoscience could claim a huge slice of a market worth at least a $ 100 billion market, they said.
Now, the company has a new name, Supplant, and $ 24 million in venture capital financing to start commercializing its low-cost sugar substitute made from the waste materials of other plants.
The bitter history of the sweetest ingredient
Sugar came into the human diet roughly 10,000 years ago as sugarcane, which is native to New Guinea and parts of Taiwan and China. Over the next 2,000 years the crop spread from those regions to Madagascar, and eventually took root in India, where it was first refined in about 500 BC.
From there, the sweetener spread across the known world. By the first century AD Greek and Roman scholars were referencing its medicinal properties and, after the Crusades, sugar consumption traveled across Europe through the Middle Ages.
It was a welcome replacement from Europe’s mainstay, honey, and the early artificial sweeteners used by the Romans, which contained near-lethal doses of lead.
The cold climates of Northern Europe proved mostly inhospitable to sugarcane cultivation, so the plant took root in the more temperate South and the islands off Europe’s southern coast.
Those regions also became home to the first European experiments with agricultural slavery — a byproduct of the sugar trade, and one that would plant the seeds for the international exploitation of indigenous American and African labor for centuries as the industrial growth of sugar production spread to the New World.
First, European indentured servants and enslaved indigenous people’s powered the production of sugar in the Americas. But as native populations died off due to the introduction of European diseases, genocidal attacks and back-breaking labor, African slaves were brought to the new colonies to work the fields and mills to make refined sugar.
The horrors of slavery may be the most damning legacy of industrial sugar, but it’s far from the only problem caused by the human craving for sweeteners.
As climate change becomes more of a threat, fears of increasing deforestation to meet the world’s demand — or to provide cover for other industrialization of virgin forests — have arisen thanks to new policies in Brazil.
“Conventional cane sugar is heavily water intensive,” said Supplant co-founder Tom Simmons in an interview. That’s another problem for the environment as water becomes the next resource to be stressed by the currents of climate change. And species’ extinction presents another huge problem too.
“The WWF number one source for biodiversity lost globally is cane sugar plantations,” Simmons said. “Sugar is a massive consumer of water and in contrast, there’s big sustainability pitch for what we do… the raw materials are products of the current agricultural industry.”
And the quest for sugar substitutes in the U.S. has come with related health costs as high-fructose corn syrup has made its way into tons of American products. Invented in 1957, corn syrup is one of the most common sweeteners used to replace sugar — and one that’s thought to have incredibly disastrous effects on the health of consumers worldwide.
The use of corn syrup has been linked to an increasing prevalence of diabetes, obesity and fatty liver disease in the world’s population.
Looking for a healthier substitute
As Supplant and its investors look to take the crown as the reigning replacement for sugar, they join a long line of would-be occupants to sugar’s throne.
The first viable, non-toxic chemically derived sugar substitute was discovered in the late 18th century by a German chemist. Called saccharine, it was popularized initially during sugar shortages caused by the first World War and gained traction during the health crazes of the sixties and seventies.
Saccharin, still available in pink Sweet’N Low packets and a host of products, was succeeded by aspartame (known commercially as Equal and present as the sugar substitute in beverages like Diet Coke), which was supplanted by sucralose (known as Splenda).
These chemically derived sweeteners have been the standard on the market for decades now, but with a growing push for natural — rather than chemical — substitutes for sugar and their failures to act as a replacement for all of the things that sugar can do as a food ingredient, the demand for a better sugar has never been higher.
Supplanting the competition
“Not everything that we back is going to change the world. This, at scale, does that,” said Aydin Senkut, the founder and managing partner of Felicis Ventures, the venture firm that’s one of Supplant’s biggest backers.
Part of what convinced Senkut is the fact that Supplant’s sweetener has already received preliminary approvals in the European Union by the region’s regulatory equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration. That approval not only covers the sale of Supplant’s product as a sweetener, but also as a probiotic with tangible health benefits he said.
So not only is the Supplant product arguably a better and more direct sugar replacement, as the founders claim, it also has health benefits through providing increased fiber in consumers who use it regularly, Senkut said.
“The European FDA is even stricter than the U.S. FDA,” Senkut said. “[And] they got pre-approval for this.”
Senkut and Felicis invested in Cambridge Glycosciences almost immediately after seeing the company’s presentation at Y Combinator.
“We became the largest investors at seed,” Senkut said.
Its selling points were the product’s extremely low glycemic index and its ability to be manufactured from waste plant fibers, which means that it ultimately can be produced at a lower cost, according to Senkut.
What’s the difference?
Supplant differs from its competition in a number of other key ways, according to company co-founder Tom Simmons.
While companies like the Israeli startup DouxMatok or Colorado’s MycoTechnology and Wisconsin’s Sensient work on developing additives from fungus or tree roots or bark that can enhance the sweetness of sugars, Supplant uses alternative sugars to create its sweetener, Simmons said.
“The core difference is they’re working with cane sugar,” according to Simmons. “Our pitch is we make sugars from fiber so you don’t need to use cane sugar.”
Simmons said that these other startups have been approaching the problem from the wrong direction. “The problem that their technology addresses isn’t the problem the industry has,” Simmons said. “It’s about texture, bulking, caramelization and crystallization… We have a technology that’s going to give you the same sweetness gram for gram.”
There are six different types of calorific sugar, Simmons explained. There’s lactose, which is the sugar in milk; sucrose, which comes from sugarcane and sugar beets; maltose, found in grains like wheat and barley; fructose, the sugar in fruits and honey; glucose, which is in nearly everything, but especially carbohydrate-laden vegetables, fruits and grains; and galactose, a simple sugar that derives from the breakdown of lactose.
Simmons said that his company’s sugar substitute isn’t based on one compound, but is derived from a range of things that come from fiber. The use of fibers means that the body recognizes the compounds as fibrous and treats them the same way in the digestive tract, but the products taste and act like sugar in food, he said. “Fiber-derived sugars are in the category of sugars, but are not the calorific sugars,” said Simmons.
Trust the process?
Supplant’s technology uses enzymes to break down and fragment various fibers. “As you start breaking it down, it starts looking molecularly like sucrose — like cane sugar — so it starts behaving in a similar way,” said Simmons.
This is all the result of years of research that Simmons began at Cambridge University, he said. “I arrived at Cambridge intending to be a professor. I did not arrive in Cambridge intending to start a business. I was interested in doing science, making inventions and stuff that would reach the wider world. I always imagined the right way for me to do that was to be a professor.”
In time, after receiving his doctorate and beginning his post-doctoral work into the research that would eventually turn into Supplant, Simmons realized that he had to start a company. “To try and do something impactful I was going to have leave the university,” he said.
In some ways, Supplant operates at the intersection of all of Simmons’ interests in health, nutrition and sustainability. And he said the company has plans to apply the processing technology across a range of consumer products, eventually, but for now the company remains focused on the $ 100 billion sugar substitute market.
“There’s a handful of different core underlying scientific approaches in different spaces,” he said. The sort of things that go into personal care and homecare. Those chemicals. A big drive in the industry is for both less harsh and harsh chemicals in shampoos but also to do so in a way that’s sustainable. That’s made from a sustainable source but also biodegradable.”
With the money that the company has now raised from investors including Manta Ray, Khosla Ventures, Felicis, Soma Capital and Y Combinator, Supplant is now going to prove its products in a few very targeted test runs.* The first is a big launch with a celebrity chef, which Simmons teased, but did not elaborate on.
Senkut said that the company’s rollout would be similar to the ways in which Impossible Foods went to market, beginning with a few trial runs in higher-end restaurants and foodstuffs before trying to make a run at a mass consumer market.
The feedstocks for Supplant’s sugar substitute come from sugarcane bagasse and wheat, and the processing equipment comes from the brewing industry. That’s going to be a benefit as the company looks to build out an office in the U.S. as it establishes a foothold for a larger manufacturing presence down the line.
“We’re taking known science and applying it in the food industry where we know that it has value,” Simmons said. “We’re not inventing any brand new enzymes and each part of the process — none of it on their own are new. The discovery that these sugars work well and can replace cane sugar. That’s something that no one has done before. Most sugars don’t behave like cane sugar in food. They’re too dry, they’re too wet, they’re too hard, they’re too soft.”
Ultimately the consumer product’s mission resonates highly for Simmons and his 20-person team. “We’re going to use these hugely abundant renewable resources produced all around the world,” he said.
*This story was updated to include Manta Ray and Khosla Ventures as investors in Supplant.
NEW YORK — Raw pet food manufacturer Darwin’s Natural Pet Products announced Feb. 17 it will use Ordergroove’s subscription ordering platform to enhance its direct-to-consumer services.
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Singapore is quickly turning into a hub for food-tech startups, partly because of government initiatives supporting the development of meat alternatives. One of the newest entrants is Next Gen, which will launch its plant-based “chicken” brand, called TiNDLE, in Singaporean restaurants next month. The company announced today that it has raised $ 10 million in seed funding from investors including Temasek, K3 Ventures, EDB New Ventures (an investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board), NX-Food, FEBE Ventures and Blue Horizon.
Next Gen claims this is the largest seed round ever raised by a plant-based food tech company, based on data from PitchBook. This is the first time the startup has taken external investment, and the funding exceeded its original target of $ 7 million. Next Gen was launched last October by Timo Recker and Andre Menezes, with $ 2.2 million of founder capital.
Next Gen’s first product is called TiNDLE Thy, an alternative to chicken thighs. Its ingredients include water, soy, wheat, oat fiber, coconut oil and methylcellulose, a culinary binder, but the key to its chicken-like flavor is a proprietary blend of plant-based fats, like sunflower oil, and natural flavors that allows it to cook like chicken meat.
Menezes, Next Gen’s chief operating officer, told TechCrunch that the company’s goal is to be the global leader in plant-based chicken, the way Impossible and Beyond are known for their burgers.
“Consumers and chefs want texture in chicken, the taste and aroma, and that is largely related to chicken fat, which is why we started with thighs instead of breasts,” said Menezes. “We created a chicken fat made from a blend, called Lipi, to emulate the smell, aroma and browning when you cook.”
Both Recker and Menezes have years of experience in the food industry. Recker founded German-based LikeMeat, a plant-based meat producer acquired by the LIVEKINDLY Collective last year. Menezes’ food career started in Brazil at one of the world’s largest poultry exporters. He began working with plant-based meat after serving as general manager of Country Foods, a Singaporean importer and distributor that focuses on innovative, sustainable products.
“It was clear to me after I was inside the meat industry for so long that it was not going to be a sustainable business in the long run,” Menezes said.
Over the past few years, more consumers have started to feel the same way, and began looking for alternatives to animal products. UBS expects the global plant-based protein market to increase at a compounded annual growth rate of more than 30%, reaching about $ 50 billion by 2025, as more people, even those who aren’t vegans or vegetarians, seek healthier, humane sources of protein.
Millennial and Gen Z consumers, in particular, are willing to reduce their consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products as they become more aware of the environmental impact of industrial livestock production, said Menezes. “They understand the sustainability angle of it, and the health aspect, like the cholesterol or nutritional values, depending on what product you are talking about.”
Low in sodium and saturated fat, TiNDLE Thy has received the Healthier Choice Symbol, which is administered by Singapore’s Health Promotion Board. Next Gen’s new funding will be used to launch TiNDLE Thy, starting in popular Singaporean restaurants like Three Buns Quayside, the Prive Group, 28 HongKong Street, Bayswater Kitchen and The Goodburger.
Over the next year or two, Next Gen plans to raise its Series A round, launch more brands and products, and expand in its target markets: the United States (where it is currently recruiting a growth director to build a distribution network), China, Brazil and Europe. After working with restaurant partners, Next Gen also plans to make its products available to home cooks.
“The reason we started with chefs is because they are very hard to crack, and if chefs are happy with the product, then we’re very sure customers will be, too,” said Menezes.
TechCrunch first became familiar with MealMe when it presented as part of the Techstars Atlanta demo day last October, mentioning it in a roundup of favorite startups from a group of the accelerator’s startup cohorts.
The company’s product allows users to search for food, or a restaurant. It then displays price points from various food-delivery apps for what the user wants to eat and have delivered. And, notably, MealMe allows for in-app checkout, regardless of the selected provider.
The service could boost pricing and delivery-speed transparency amongst the different apps that help folks eat, like DoorDash and Uber Eats. But Mealme didn’t start out looking to build a search engine. Instead it took a few changes in direction to get there.
From social network to search engine
MealMe is an example of a startup whose first idea proved only directionally correct. The company began life as a food-focused social network, co-founder Matthew Bouchner told TechCrunch. That iteration of the service allowed users to view posted food pictures, and then find ordering options for what they saw.
While still operating as a social network, MealMe applied to both Y Combinator and Techstars, but wasn’t accepted at either.
The startup discovered that some of its users were posting food pics simply to get the service to tell them which delivery services would be able to bring them what they wanted. From that learning the company focused on building a food search engine, allowing users to search for restaurants, and then vet various delivery options and prices. That iteration of the product got the company into Techstars Atlanta, eventually leading to the demo day that TechCrunch reviewed.
During its time in Techstars, the company adjusted its model to not merely link to DoorDash and others, but to handle checkout inside of its own application. This captures more gross merchandize value (GMV) inside of MealMe, Bouchner explained in an interview. The capability was rolled out in September of 2020.
Since then the company has seen rapid growth, which it measures at around 20% week-on-week. During TechCrunch’s interview with MealMe, the company said that it had reached a GMV run rate of more than $ 500,000, and was scaling toward the $ 1 million mark. In the intervening weeks the company passed the $ 1 million GMV run-rate threshold.
MealMe was slightly coy on its business model, but it appears to make margin between what it charges users for orders and the total revenue it passes along to food delivery apps.
TechCrunch was curious about platform risk at MealMe; could the company get away with offering price comparison and ordering across multiple third-party delivery services without raising the ire of the companies behind those apps? At the time of our interview, Bouchner said that his company had not seen pushback from the services it sends users to. His company’s goal is to grow quickly, become a useful revenue source for the DoorDashes of the world, and then reach out for some of formal agreement, he explained.
“We continue to be a powerful revenue generator and drive thousands of orders to food delivery services per week,” the co-founder said in a written statement. Certainly MealMe found investors more excited by its growth than concerned about Uber Eats or other apps cutting the startup off from their service.
What first caught my eye about MealMe was the realization of how much I would have used it in my early 20s. Perhaps the company can find enough users like my younger self to help it scale to sufficient size that it can go to the major food ordering companies and demand a cut, not merely avoid being cut off.
Real estate tech startup Sunroom Rentals, which leases units on behalf of property managers and apartment owners, has raised $ 11 million in a Series A round of funding led by Gigafund.
Ben Doherty and Zachary Maurais, former founders of the delivery app Favor, launched Sunroom in May 2018 with the mission of “boosting the profitability” of mid-size property managers and apartment owners by giving them a way to outsource their leasing operations.
The pair sold Favor to Texas grocer H-E-B in 2018 and soon after shifted their focus on building out Sunroom. The Austin-based company has developed an app that it says gives renters a way to tour, apply for and lease a unit “entirely online.” COVID-19 has led to more renters wanting virtual ways to explore and secure rental units. Mobile-first, Maurais noted, is particularly appealing to millennials and Gen Zers.
“Personally, we love to create products that fulfill consumer’s most basic needs,” said Maurais, the company’s president. “With food under our belt, we decided to focus on housing.”
While one might wonder what the parallels between food delivery and housing might be beyond fulfilling consumers’ needs, CEO Doherty said the rental market in 2021 looks a lot like the food delivery market in 2013.
“In 2013, Grubhub had successfully put many restaurant menus online, but most of the transactions and delivery process was still offline,” he told TechCrunch. “We’re in a similar position with the rental market, as the majority of rental listings are online, but touring, applying or leasing units is still done offline.”
Since its launch, Sunroom Rentals has signed more than 2,000 leases and had over 100,000 renters sign up for its services in fast-growing Austin, where it focused its initial efforts.
“According to the U.S. Census, that represents roughly 10% of renters in the greater Austin metro,” Maurais said. “Instead of going shallow and wide nationally, we decided to go deep in markets, in an effort to gain network effects, which was a strategy that worked well for us at Favor.”
Sunroom Rentals claims that it’s leasing units five days faster than the market average. This benefits property managers, Doherty said, because they can grow quicker “while improving leasing performance.”
Looking ahead, the company will use the funding to expand across Texas, including in Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. It will also invest in its partner portal, which aims to give owners and property managers a way to view real-time data on leasing performance.
Sunroom Rentals currently has 18 employees with the goal of more than doubling its headcount this year. It’s in particular looking to hire across its engineering, product and sales departments.
As mentioned above, Gigafund led the Series A financing, which included participation from NextGen Venture Partners, Calpoly Ventures and a slew of angel investors, including Gokul Rajaram (Google & Square) and Homeward’s Tim Heyl, among others. Existing backers include Founders Fund Seed, Draper Associates, Boost VC and Capital Factory (among many others). The round marked Sunroom’s first “priced” round, meaning the first time it’s given up stock.
Jonathan Basset, managing partner at NextGen Venture Partners, believes Sunroom was essentially in the right place at the right time and “on trend with touchless leasing even before COVID hit.”
“I watched them build a profitable consumer marketplace in a competitive market with Favor and was impressed with them as operators,” he said. “These businesses have a surprising amount of similarities and I’m confident they can rise to the challenge.
Last week, TechCrunch reported on the raise of another startup operating in this increasingly crowded space. Seattle-based Knock — a company that has developed tools to give property management companies a competitive edge — raised $ 20 million in a growth funding round led by Fifth Wall Ventures.
Knock’s goal is to provide CRM tools to modernize front office operations for these companies so they can do things like offer virtual tours and communicate with renters via text, email or social media from “a single conversation screen.” For renters, it offers an easier way to communicate and engage with landlords.
Maurais said the two differ in that Knock is a CRM built for leasing agents with a SAAS model where as Sunroom is a marketplace, where renters match, tour and apply with partnered properties.
“Sunroom also provides a suite of leasing & analytics software to its partners and generates both transactional and subscription revenues,” he added.
Israeli tech company Consumer Physics has a handy bit of kit that scans and analyses harvested crops in real-time to provide quality reports on the spot. Their patented SCiO Cup uses miniaturized Near Infrared Spectrometer technology to scan its contents before sending lab quality results through the cloud to a mobile phone in seconds.
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