True Ventures’ Natasha Sharma: Founders Rethinking Product Categories, Unlocking New Value for Customers
Some of today’s most interesting companies are emerging from founders and companies innovating at the intersection of industries. From plant-powered drug discovery to sustainable food systems, teams are exploring solutions that are not only novel, but creating meaningful impact along the way. Natasha Sharma, principal at True Ventures, explores some of the most exciting opportunities her team has encountered.
KEY POINTS FROM NATASHA SHARMA'S POV
Why are you particularly interested in companies innovating at the intersection of multiple industries?
Environmental impact is increasingly top of mind for consumers and businesses alike. For venture capitalists, there’s a huge opportunity to influence change. "The way we currently produce meat, eggs, and dairy is incredibly resource-intensive, providing only one-third of humanity’s global protein supply, yet accounting for 77% of agricultural land use and nearly 14.5% of global GHG emissions, causing more deforestation and use of antibiotics than any other industry," says Sharma. There’s an opportunity for venture capital to change these numbers as consumers invest time and energy into learning more about what goes on behind the scenes with the foods they eat.
Companies creating new product categories at industry intersections are poised to meet changing customer demand. “An example is Prime Roots, a True company that uses koji to make an animal-free deli meat with a texture and mouthfeel like the real thing,” says Sharma. She noted that Prime Root's Koji Meats are offered in premier delis and markets like Bi-Rite in San Francisco, among others in Northern California and Southern California. “This merging of consumer demand for more sustainable food options and innovative food science is an exciting amalgamation of what happens when founders create across markets. There’s a sure appetite for these companies to exist,” says Sharma.
“Another example of where we’ve seen a lot of innovation is between consumer and biology. Neoplants, another True investment, has bioengineered a houseplant for better air purification to help fight air pollution. The team has created an entirely new product category,” says Sharma.
What are the business models, use cases, or applications that might be attached to this category?
Bioengineered products that are more efficient and environmentally friendly than their predecessors are competing with broadly distributed and established ‘everyday’ items from legacy brands. “In the case of a stealth company we've invested in that's making cheese from plants instead of animals, we talk a lot about climate impact. Less cows means less greenhouse gas emissions,”says Sharma.
Nature’s secrets are still being discovered and informing a new generation of industry. “We work with a number of life sciences companies that are looking to nature’s most hidden secrets to see what they can teach us about leading healthier, more sustainable lives on Earth. Basecamp Research is a biotech platform that catalogs novel proteins found in nature so we can use those discoveries to inform more sustainable food supplies, better manufacturing, new medicines, you name it."
Customers are seeking food and grocery offerings made of higher integrity ingredients, meaningful origin stories, and transparent processes. “True-backed founder Jon Gray’s latest product, Sovereign Syrup, which pairs with the brand’s Wavy Waffle Mix, is made from three simple ingredients. Those ingredients include sorghum grain, which is originally from Africa and has long been used as a source of protein. Increasingly, consumers are ‘flipping to the back of the box’ of what they're eating and they want to see ingredients with integrity. Jon’s company, Ghetto Gastro, is an amazing example of community-led commerce and how to grow a passionate community around a brand with a rich origin and story to it."
What are some of the potential roadblocks?
There’s a risk that some products won’t capture consumer interest or meet expectations. “For companies creating new types of food products from plants, for example, there’s often a lot of scientific risk at our stage. Aside from that, you need the food itself to taste delicious, have the right texture, and ultimately have a great story. We’ve been lucky to work with founders in this space who get that and who have deep care for the customer experience," says Sharma.
VISUAL: INNOVATIVE PRODUCT CATEGORIES
IN THE INVESTOR’S OWN WORDS
At True, we get really excited about companies that lie at the intersection of multiple categories and founders focused on unleashing fundamental value in their often entirely new markets.
An example of where we’ve seen a lot of innovation is between consumer and biology. Some of the founders building at this intersection are highly technical yet uniquely customer-focused. This is a combination of skills that we get really excited about.
To that end, we’ve invested in a lot of founders exploring the power of plants and what secrets they have to teach us about making products and therapeutics that are more effective and better for people and the environment than their predecessors.
One of my colleagues often says ‘the weirder the better.’ We love the stuff that's far out there (space, alternative meat, robotics). The common thread between it all is the founder having a strong ‘why?’ for starting their company. What about their background or life experiences led them here?
Most importantly, there has to be alignment with the founder. Since entrepreneurship is a long journey, especially from the early stages we focus on, the investor-founder relationship must be aligned: aligned in terms of goals as a company scales and aligned in terms of values.
Q: What can you say about timing?
A: When we make an investment at this early stage, we’re looking at 7-10 year time horizons and sometimes even longer. The way we think about it is not in terms of quick hits but rather adding long-term value to markets and building durable business models.
Q: How else do you think about where and when to invest?
A: The way we think about investing is less sector-specific and more about the founder and their company’s driving characteristics. We look for founders keenly focused on their customers and companies with products with high gross margins and repeatable revenue streams. We want to help enable founders to create better products that help people live better lives, in whichever direction that takes them.
WHAT ELSE TO WATCH FOR
AI-enabled platforms and applications have the potential to unlock exponential value at market intersections. “Enveda Biosciences, also a True-backed company, is exploring Earth’s biodiversity with the help of machine learning and metabolomics to discover new drug therapies. It’s been inspiring for our team to work with all of these founders embracing and combining the intelligence present all around us to make life better,” says Sharma.
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