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Meet the 'vegan mafia,' a secret group of investors betting on the future of food

CNBC logo CNBC 3 days ago Christina Farr
<span style="color:#424858;font-family:'Gotham Narrow SSm 4r', Arial;font-size:12px;">Bio-tech entrepreneur Ryan Bethencourt is a member of the "vegan mafia"</span>© Provided by CNBCBio-tech entrepreneur Ryan Bethencourt is a member of the "vegan mafia"

Whenever Ryan Bethencourt meets a promising start-up making an alternative to animal products, he knows who to call.

The "vegan mafia" is a group of powerful vegans across the country who fund start-ups, and try to wean people from their dependence on animal products.

"There's a whole community of us that are building and funding vegan companies," said Bethencourt, himself a longtime vegan, who runs a bio-tech accelerator called IndieBio.

The "vegan mafia" nickname is an informal nod to the so-called "PayPal mafia" — a group of powerful Silicon Valley investors and founders such as Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Reid Hoffman, who worked at the payments start-up in the 1990s.

The best-known start-ups in the space include Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which make plant-based meat-like and cheese-like products; and Pembient, which bioengineers wildlife products in a lab, like rhino horn and elephant ivory.

Some members of the vegan mafia are technology-focused venture capitalists such as Bill Maris, whom Bethencourt met at a vegan dinner, while others are former financiers or entrepreneurs who made their money elsewhere. (Maris confirmed that he's vegan, but declined to discuss his investments through a spokesperson.)

The network also includes:

  • Kyle Vogt, CEO of Cruise, a self-driving car technology acquired by General Motors (GM) for more than $1 billion;
  • Kevin Boylan, a former Wall Street trader who runs a fund for plant-centric companies called PowerPlant Ventures;
  • His business partner Mark Rampolla, founder of ZICO Coconut Water;
  • Jody Rasch, a former Moody's senior vice president managing a fund called VegInvest;
  • Seth Bannon, a social entrepreneur and founding partner at a seed fund called Fifty Years; and
  • Lisa Feria, CEO of Stray Dog Capital, a fund that also invests in early-stage companies.

CNBC interviewed half-a-dozen members of this mafia, who all stressed that they aren't solely investing in products intended for other vegans.

Instead, they are investing in products that appeal to the masses because they are healthier and cheaper.

One example of that is Geltor, which is designed to be less expensive than gelatin — which that involves boiling the skin, tendons, bones from cows and pigs in a vat — as well as cruelty-free.

Or Boylan's portfolio company, an eatery chain called Veggie Grill, which primarily serves people who also eat meat.

Many of these investors said they were particularly impressed by the team behind Beyond Meat, which convinced major grocery chains like Whole Foods and Safeway to sell its lab-grown burgers in the meat section. Beyond Meat also got an investment from meat processing giant Tyson Foods. 

Not just for vegans

The vegan mafia is not restricting itself to entrepreneurs who don't eat meat. Many of the founders of their portfolio companies are more concerned with the environmental or societal impacts of meat, for instance, or are looking for new ways to feed a growing global population.

"A lot of people who are involved in our space are not vegan, but they view the current system as unsustainable," explained Rasch of VegInvest.

Some of the investors, like Vogt, have day jobs but invest in the space on the side. Vogt made the decision to go vegan about a year ago, after his wife opened a farm animal rescue. If she was spending her time saving animals, he figured that he shouldn't be eating them.

"As an engineer, I feel compelled to do what I can to have the best possible impact on society," he said. In Vogt's view, one approach is to appeal to people's hearts. Another, which he also finds compelling, is to convince people in a more pragmatic way. It's possible, he believes, to make alternatives to existing food sources that are both "better tasting and cheaper."

"These are fundamentally great businesses," he said. "And if they succeed, they will have an advantage over food that was raised in the traditional way."

That view is also shared by Bannon, who invests in early-stage companies that are mission-driven but also make money. Bannon and his co-founder Ela Madej are both vegans, but stress that they're not in it purely for philanthropic reasons.

"The case for giving up meat is clear: There's a health case, an environmental case," he said. "But we have largely given up on education as a tool for convincing people."

Bannon says the entrepreneurs in his network are instead approaching the market with a "strict business lens."

As a result, the space is attracting investors who aren't vegan or vegetarian but see a way to make a solid return. Silicon Valley venture funds like Obvious Ventures are investing both in companies that are making it easy for people to access fresh, local food, including meat and fish, as well as plant-based alternatives.

"This isn't about kale and tofu," explained Rasch, who went vegan more than a decade ago. "Well, some of it is, but it's also about bringing new biotech to food, drugs and materials."

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