By Beth Kowitt, writer
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.
"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.
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."
Bringing Farmed and Dangerous to a TV network would be a major win for a show produced in part to advance a corporate interest.
FORTUNE -- Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) has held talks with several TV networks to continue Farmed and Dangerous, the four-part comic miniseries satirizing the industrial food system, which began running on Hulu this week.
Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing & development officer of the eco-conscious, fast-casual restaurant chain, declined MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Feb 19, 2014 9:23 AM ET
The satire Farmed and Dangerous, produced by the burrito chain, hits its mark most of the time.
FORTUNE -- There is nothing subtle about the comedic assault on industrial agriculture mounted by the TV comedy Farmed and Dangerous. The show depicts the attempt by a company called Animoil to introduce a product called PetroPellet. Cows eat the oil-based pellets and begin blowing up. That does not stop Animoil from pushing PetroPellet onto MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Feb 13, 2014 10:36 AM ET
There are problems with GMOs, just as there are problems with high fructose corn syrup. But critics divert attention from them to make spurious health claims.
FORTUNE -- We can make fun of General Mills (GIS) for bragging that it will soon offer "GMO-free" Cheerios. It's an essentially meaningless marketing stunt. But we should also know that it is in part the actions of many critics of genetically modified crops that MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Jan 10, 2014 1:32 PM ET
The U.S. imports far more tobacco than it exports and leads the world in the manufacture and distribution of cigarettes. Where does the leaf go?
By Nicolas Rapp and Ryan Bradley
FORTUNE -- Each year about 2 million people collect, dry, and package tobacco -- some 8 million tons, grown on 16,275 square miles of land -- to make 5 trillion cigarettes. Tobacco is no longer the largest cash crop MORENov 21, 2013 7:28 AM ET
FORTUNE -- Scientists worried about the stress put on farmland by a booming population see new promise in growing greenhouse vegetables hydroponically -- the centuries-old practice of cultivating plants in nutrient-rich water instead of soil. Maine's Backyard Farms, the largest producer in New England, delivers tomatoes to stores just hours after they are picked -- even during the snows of February. The company, whose farm spans 42 acres, says it MOREFeb 27, 2012 5:00 AM ET
FORTUNE -- It's county fair time again. Agricultural groups and local businesses are setting up at America's midways and fairgrounds. Their goal: to celebrate (and profit from) the pastoral pleasures of agro-America -- from livestock shows to good old-fashioned carnival games to, of course, food! The San Diego County Fair, pictured here, draws record crowds and brings a real economic boost to the area. --Tara Moore
By the numbers:
$170 million: The MOREJul 21, 2011 5:00 AM ET
|Ousted Yahoo exec gets $58 million golden parachute|
|Canadians arrest a Heartbleed hacker|
|Google stock sinks after missing Street|
|5 people you might not tip (but should)|
|Golden parachute for fired Yahoo executive may be record breaker|