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Social Impact Investors: How Brian Frank of FTW Ventures Is Helping To Make Our Food System More Resilient, Sustainable and Healthy

Vote with your dollars. Words and not nearly as impactful as actions. And for every 100 people that say we should do good, there’s 1 person that’s actually picking the products and services that will actually make a big difference. If the ‘bad actors’ see their consumers leaving, and the ‘good actors’ start to grow, more people will go to the good side.

As a part of our series about “Social Impact Investors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Frank, General Partner, FTW Ventures. He is experienced in both Technology & Food, and understands the complexity of running startups at the intersection of these two, challenging spaces.

Prior to founding FTW, Brian led 3 venture-backed businesses to successful exits and directed innovative products in communication, mobile, social & AI/ML for both startups & Fortune 500 Companies over his 20+ year career.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Prior to investing in Food Tech, I spent the last 20+ years building innovative tech products — mobile devices, consumer applications, SaaS platforms, AI / ML tech. And food was a passion of mine. I even spent 3 years in the food & beverage industry while on hiatus from the tech world.

It was only after my last startup was sold to Google that I got the chance to explore what was going on at the forefront of the Food System, and how advanced technology had yet to really become pervasive in this most essential set of industries.

It really all started in 2015, several prominent Silicon Valley VC firms, who knew of my love for food, started asking me for advice on startups in the emerging intersection of Food + Tech. The investors saw the potential for the technology to revolutionize the industry, but they were put-off by operations in the messy, ‘analog’ food world.

In parallel, I started mentoring startups through a number of well-known accelerators in biotech, hardware & software that were also very interested in the future of food.

During this time, I spent time with leading food manufacturers to understand their needs, and uncovered they had the inverse challenge to tech investors — they understood food, but didn’t really appreciate how technology was going to transform their industry.

It was only after doing a deep dive into food & ag, I came to the conclusion these industries were massive and were about to go through enormous change. I understood the challenges the startups were having raising capital, telling their story and going to market across these two challenging spaces and I recognized I had a lot to offer to the founders in this community.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

Early on, I had been introduced to Juicero through one of their investors. They were raising the final tranche of capital on a very large round of funding, and the investor thought I could help bring in some last-minute investors.

I visited the Juicero offices and was in a ‘tour group’ with other investors and brokers looking to get money into the company. It was a surreal tour, as Doug, the CEO, explained how they were transforming the billion-dollar industry of juice.

I remember sitting down with another investor there for the meeting and having him tell me “it’s either a billion-dollar business or it’s worth zero”. And I told him “I’m not a fan of ‘coin flips’ like that and couldn’t see how this could ever yield what investors were expecting based on the early indicators.”

After the encounter, I sat down in the office of this VERY prominent VC in the Valley and proceeded to tell him how ‘this is going to go ‘south’ fast, and it may be the last check he ever writes in the Valley’.

While I came to be proven right on both accounts, it did show me how ‘tactful’ you have to be in both the startup and investor community, without sugar coating it when you see something amiss. I may have been a little brazen in my first year or so, but I hope that the founders & investors appreciate the candor.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Being an investor is a lot of ‘hurry up & wait’ — you make an investment, and it’s likely you don’t see success from that investment for quite some time.

For me, it’s been about seeing the companies we back make major accomplishments or cross monumental milestones, whether it be in product, sales or additive financing.

Geltor was my first, BIG investment, and originally done with my own money prior to the fund. Alex Lorestani (CEO) and his team were just about to show the ‘fruits’ of their work, making gummy bears from extinct, mammoth DNA. I recognized that we had been thinking of food ingredients all wrong — synthetic biology had made such great strides in the last 20 years, and traditional agriculture was not moving as fast to create ‘better’ products. So, it was about recognizing the signs that things were about to change before other people noticed.

The second big tipping point was investing in Plantible, and really getting to know the team of Tony & Maurits. They were two Dutch immigrants who moved to San Diego to chase their dream of producing the most sustainable protein on the planet. Their passion for the space was infectious, and they showed me what two people with a dream and some ingenuity could do. The learning there was that we’re backing people with big dreams, and to see how we can get involved as investors to help them make that dream a reality.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person or mentor to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely, we stand on the shoulders of giants in whatever we do.

For me, it’s been the investors that have come before me that have imparted wisdom on me and given me ‘my shot’, including Jeff Clavier (Uncork Capital), Satya Patel (former manager & former VP of Product at Twitter, Homebrew) and Eric Klein (former manager at Palm Computing, Lemnos Labs). All impacted me in different ways, from how to think like an investor to how to build a unique value proposition for you and your firm that brought the best founders to your door.

Separately, it’s been inspiring people in food that have also motivated me to do what I’m doing — and people like Rob Wilder, founder of ThinkFood Group with humanitarian & chef, Jose Andres, who’s now also the Chairman of The World Central Kitchen. Rob has shown me what it takes to nourish people and give them purpose through food.

Rob and I have not only spent countless hours together trying to get at the heart of what people want and need when it comes to food, but we’ve also hosted a wine tasting at my home when he was working on a new venture and wanted to meet investors in the food tech world. It was a wonderful occasion where the two worlds collided in amazing ways.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but are afraid of the prospect of failure?

Two thoughts here — Failure is a) a ‘state of mind’ & b) a badge of honor for those of us that have gone through it and come out better on the other side.

As a ‘state-of-mind’, the thought of failure can be crippling. But when you step back, you recognize that only YOU care about failure. Those around you, the ones you respect and consider your peers, WANT you to succeed. But we all know that failure is inevitable if you are doing something hard and hit insurmountable roadblocks. We just have to move on, and recognize the pain and fear are fleeting and there’s a better opportunity ahead, with people that will be supportive no matter what.

That brings me to the second point — it’s a badge of honor, because everyone has failed at something in their life. And we wouldn’t know the ‘highs’ if we didn’t have the ‘lows’. In Silicon Valley, it seems to be revered and expected you’ll have failures along the way that will help you learn and grow.

So, we can’t succumb to the fear in our mind, and we have to accept failure as part of the journey to success, and in some cases embrace failure to reach our full potential.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share a few things that need to be done on a broader societal level to expand VC opportunities for women, minorities, and people of color?

We are definitely at a major turning point in the history of the US — we must protect and uplift all of those that are feeling oppressed and are not given the opportunities to live a healthy, nutritious, happy life.

In my humble opinion, it takes a number of changes to the way we treat our fellow humans and give them a bigger voice in the Food & Ag worlds — 1) democratize access to capital and mentorship, 2) create added opportunities for those that want to make change to become part of the community and 3) lift up diverse voices in our decision making processes.

Democratizing access to capital and mentorship means being there for our brothers and sisters, when they need the money and time to help chase their dreams. It means opening our aperture up more broadly to let these opportunities find us as investors and engage with them deeply.

And we must create added opportunities for people wanting to make change by having events, panels and other activities that put more diverse founders and stories at the forefront of our dialogs. For example, we at FTW Ventures strive to have panels and events that have as close to equal representation from male & female founders.

Finally, we must include and lift up the diverse voices in our decision making process, because that is the only way we can help cut through the mono-culture we’ve created. It means putting more women, minorities and people of color on Boards, getting them elected into government and making sure we all listen to their important advice as investors and founders wanting to change the world

You are a VC who is focused on investments that are making a positive social impact. Can you share with us a bit about the projects and companies you have focused on, and look to focus on in the future?

We look for companies that will radically transform our Food System, making it more resilient, sustainable and healthy.

One of our thesis is ‘make more with less’ — and two companies fit into that impact category for us: Geltor & Plantible.

Geltor creates designer proteins, namely collagen today, for the cosmetic and food industries. It does so by using less inputs into their synthetic biology approach, such as water and nutrients, than our traditional animal agriculture supply chain for collagen.

Plantible does the very same thing to make the most sustainable plant-based protein on the planet, using advanced aquaculture to grow their plants in ponds using very little water and even fish waste to make a high-value ingredient for a multitude of products; from alternative meats and plant-based dairy to beverages and baked goods.

Another of our thesis is ‘waste less, make more’ — and we have two companies that fit that idea: Galley Solutions & Spoiler Alert.

Galley Solutions helps Food Service groups better manage their kitchen operations, helping them waste less food and make higher profits on the food they sell.

Spoiler Alert captures the surplus inventory at the distribution or manufacturer level, and makes sure all food finds its ‘home’ in discounted retail. Their goal is to end food waste in the supply chain.

In the future, we expect to do more investments that have a positive social impact in categories like Personalized Nutrition (feeding people exactly the nutritional elements they need to live a healthy life), Advanced Materials & Packaging (reducing the amount of plastic waste in the world and keeping our products fresher, longer) & more investments in the Biosciences for plant and human health.

What you are doing is not very common. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were going to focus on social impact investing? Can you share the story with us?

I was actually sitting in a room with other investors in the food tech world and I realized ‘it’s only a handful of us doing this critical work, and everyone is friends!’ I had known some of them for years, and we all had started turning our attention to the space in 2015 as breakthroughs were occuring in science & tech, and the consumer demands around food were changing.

Once I shared this revelation with other investors, it became clear there was going to be a big shift in Food & Ag. I knew pioneering this space, myself and the other investors were going to have to lead.

Can you share a story with us about your most successful Angel or VC investment? Or an investment that you are most proud of? What was its lesson?

To date, my most successful investment was, and continues to be, Geltor. I met co-founders Alex & Nick through the accelerator, where I was part-timing as a mentor to Food & Ag Tech companies.

Alex & Nick were brilliant scientists from Princeton who had figured out how to influence yeast or bacteria to create more protein than anyone had ever before. And they were looking to use this breakthrough to make better food products.

What struck me was these were scientists who had never built a startup, but risking it all on something they had unique knowledge and experience in a space they would hope to break into. And when I started working with them, their story kept getting better and better, and the partners/customers we introduced them to were in awe of their work.

In short, we backed a great team with the passion and knowledge to do something hard, and they continue to exceed our expectations.

They recently raised a $91M Series B, and continue to grow as well as develop as a team.

Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding failure of yours? What was its lesson?

I’ve made a couple angel bets in Consumer Hardware for Food, and they did not turn out as I had hoped. Consumer Hardware, in general, is very hard as it’s costly, hard to build a brand and even harder to satisfy very fickle consumers.

What I learned is being a founder is hard, and you have to surround yourself with people that will both tell you the good and the bad news of how you’re progressing. And you can’t always focus on the good.

It’s difficult, but you have to change tact both as a founder and investor when things aren’t working out as you hoped.

Is there a company that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that story?

I turned down investing in Memphis Meats in the early days, and still remain friends with the founder Uma. They’ve gone on to raise $100’s of millions of dollars, and garner a lot of attention.

What they’re doing is incredibly hard, and there’s very little ‘prior art’ to show how they can do it at scale. But if they do it, the world will be a better place. And I’m rooting for them to achieve their goals.

Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things I need to see before making a VC investment” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Great Question.

I look for a consistent set of things in all our investments …

  1. Stellar Team

We look for Founders that live, eat and breathe their mission and area of technology or science. They’re generally the experts in the area they’re working in, or they are fast learners and builders towards a big opportunity.

Story: When I met Alex Lorestani of Geltor, he was clearly a leading scientist in recombinant protein production, and had a way to explain it to the lay-person that would give you the confidence he knew what he was doing.

2. Big Market

The team needs to be focused on a market that is large enough for both returns and impact. There’s plenty of great businesses that aren’t venture-scale, but we look at ones that have huge potential to touch both a lot of people and drive significant amounts of revenue.

Story: I took the Plantible Foods team around to various food manufacturers and ingredient producers, and the experts agreed the protein Plantible was producing was the ‘holy grail’ of the food world and could have a massive impact on the food world.

3. A Real Problem

The Founders need to have identified a real problem, and not one that’s either fabricated or inconsequential. This means they need to have either been involved in the space prior, or have gained some unique understanding that has eluded other investors, founders and corporations.

Story: The Galley Solutions team highlighted how food service operators were inefficiently managing their inventory and lots of problems, from low margins to food loss were the outcome of this mismanagement. When I spoke to a food retailer, that is a personal investment of mine, they confirmed they were using pen-and-paper and excel to manage their most precious resource and doing it poorly.

4. Unique Advantages (verging on ‘unfair’)

The Founders and their extended team should possess some unique advantage, such as knowledge or a network, that lets them execute at a higher-level than anyone else coming to the sector. Part of that could be their identification of the problem and their approach to solving it, but it should also include some unique expertise, channel connections or ‘prior art’ that makes them the undisputed leaders in an emerging space or that can reinvent a stagnant space.

Story: Again, going back to Geltor — Alex (CEO) and the team had created a way for cells to redirect their energy from cell division to protein production, and this made a more efficient way to create their unique products. It verged on ‘unfair’ that no one else had access to these capabilities.

5. (Unique to us) Ability to be accelerated by our support & network

We want to be a meaningful part of any startup’s cap table. So, if we can accelerate any aspect of the startups business, or just be a trusted advisor for the inevitable late-night phone call or to help think through tough decisions, it’s worth us getting involved and we expect to have better rates of return on our investments.

Story: Debut Biotech, our latest investment, leveraged us to get access to a wide range of potential customers to validate their product strategy and direction. Its a joy to work in conjunction with your teams to bring them value and help them get farther, faster.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d really like to bridge the divide that exists between traditional and modern agriculture — too often we are dogmatic about the process to make our food, and we focus too little on agreeing on the outcomes regardless of the process.

For example, I had an unfortunate incident at a very prestigious Food & Ag conference. I was attending a panel on how the food industry can improve to feed more people and we were all going around introducing ourselves.

When my turn came to introduce myself, I said, ‘Hi. I’m Brian Frank. And I invest in innovative Food Tech’.

And someone from a very well known food company chimed in with ‘Oh, so you make frankenfoods?’

I had to stop myself from being defensive, and compose myself. I retorted ‘no, that’s not what we work on. May I ask you something? Do you use a computer in your business? Do you carry a smartphone? Do your facilities use automation to make your products? That’s what we do. We help you make your products, amongst a bunch of other things.’

It showed me there was a real divide, and a lack of understanding on both the food and the tech side, that sometimes demonizes each other. It’s also true of the tech world, where they think that the traditional food industry lacks innovation or creativity.

The reality is we can do more working together than fighting each other for the Future of Food. I want to see biosciences, GMO, Genetic Engineering given their opportunity, just like I want Organic and Regenerative Ag to make progress as well. I don’t think they can make as much impact separately as they could together.

I’d use my influence to unify these groups, so we can have a bigger impact on the world together.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Vote with your dollars. Words and not nearly as impactful as actions. And for every 100 people that say we should do good, there’s 1 person that’s actually picking the products and services that will actually make a big difference. If the ‘bad actors’ see their consumers leaving, and the ‘good actors’ start to grow, more people will go to the good side.

We are very blessed that a lot of amazing founders and social impact organizations read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂

I’ve been lucky enough to share a meal with some of my idols in the Food & Tech world, such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Chef Jose Andres, Massimo Bottura and various Top Chefs (literally and figuratively).

I guess my ideal breakfast or lunch would be with Michelle Obama, as she’s done so much from her former platform as First Lady and just as much as a private citizen that makes every Americans’ life better — and especially for her thoughts and policy on getting good food to everyone who needs it.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn and the journey of FTW Ventures on Twitter and our Blog.

About the Interviewer: Jilea Hemmings is a staunch believer in the power of entrepreneurship. A successful career revamping Fortune 500 companies was not enough for her entrepreneurial spirit, so Jilea began focusing her passion in startups. She has successfully built 6 startups to date. Her passion for entrepreneurship continues to flourish with the development of Stretchy Hair Care, focusing on relieving the pain associated with detangling and styling natural black hair. For far too long, people with tender heads have suffered in pain. Until now.