A Facebook investor's new target: the $11 billion mayo market

February 19, 2014: 12:08 PM ET

Ali Partovi is one of Silicon Valley's most successful angel investors. In an exclusive interview, he explains why he's betting on vegan-friendly food company Hampton Creek.

By Beth Kowitt, writer

Hampton Creek's Just Mayo mayonnaise uses protein from yellow peas in place of egg yolk.

Hampton Creek's Just Mayo mayonnaise uses protein from yellow peas in place of egg yolk.

FORTUNE -- As an investor, Ali Partovi straddles two worlds. On one side is the passion for technology that led to him to be an early backer of companies such as Dropbox and Facebook (FB). And on the other is an intense interest in food and agriculture which aligns him with the Michael Pollan crowd.

Now in Hampton Creek Foods, a startup that makes plant-based egg alternatives, Partovi has found a company that, like him, inhabits both spaces. Partovi and his twin brother, Hadi, together invested $1 million in Hampton Creek's Series B financing that was announced this week.

The round closed at $23 million and was led by Hong Kong-based venture capital firm Horizons Ventures, which is run by Li Ka-shing, reportedly Asia's wealthiest person. Other investors in the round included Yahoo (YHOO) co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang and Jessica Powell of Google (GOOG). The Series B financing brings Hampton Creek's total funding to $30 million.

Hampton Creek takes a different approach to animal protein alternatives than other companies in the space, some of which are working on growing meat in a lab from animal cells (a.k.a. "petri meat," "cultured meat," "in vitro meat"). Rather than trying to duplicate something that comes from an animal, Hampton Creek is focused primarily on creating substitutes for the chemical uses of eggs.

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"The transparency of it is what I think makes it much less viscerally difficult for consumers to embrace," Partovi says. "It's not like there's some kind of artificial animal being created. It's just changing the recipe around in a way that makes it environmentally and economically better."

More than one trillion eggs are laid every year, and in the U.S. a third of them end up in things like cookies, muffins, and mayonnaise, says Hampton Creek founder and CEO Josh Tetrick. Tetrick decided to make the $11.3 billion global mayo market his primary target. The company's first product, Just Mayo, uses the protein of one of the thousands of varieties of yellow peas as an emulsifier rather than egg yolk.

"We take a systems approach to food more akin to biotech or a software startup," Tetrick told Fortune last year. "At our heart we're a technology company pioneering in food."

Tetrick is a vegan who was inspired to start Hampton Creek because he was disgusted by intensive animal agriculture -- its treatment of animals, its resulting food safety issues, and the general inefficiencies of the system. However, he wants his product to have widespread appeal, not only to the environmentally conscious. He downplays his own beliefs around food politics and instead focuses on making his product mainstream -- he has a distribution deal with Whole Foods (WFM) -- and more affordable than the alternatives.

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Partovi, who Tetrick met at a dinner party in October, first got interested in the social causes around food after reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which made him feel like the food in his diet had been deceptively marketed to him. He is an adviser to Farmland LP, a real estate fund that buys conventional farmland and converts the crops to organic.

"I started looking for opportunities where a better way of doing things would also be a more profitable way of doing things," he says, "situations where one thing is healthier for the consumer and healthier for the planet and would also be cheaper, more affordable, and more profitable."

He said that formula rarely exists, but when it does -- as was the case with Hampton Creek -- it's a great investment opportunity.

He also found that Just Mayo didn't evoke the negative reaction that can come with biotech foods, in part because consumers feel like they're being deceived. With Hampton Creek, "instead of eggs, there's pea protein," he says. "It's as simple and innocent as that."

Partovi acknowledges that the organic and sustainable agriculture community has a historical distrust of biotech, but Hampton Creek may be able to bridge the divide. "Hampton Creek is bringing those two worlds together," Patrovi says, "and an important part of my role with the company will be to help those two worlds embrace each other a little bit."

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