Ali Partovi, a top tech angel investor, has joined food-tech startup Hampton Creek to pioneer the company’s growth, becoming the latest in a wave of Silicon Valley leaders to latch onto a movement that aims to use technology to feed people more efficiently.
Partovi has been a Silicon Valley investor for 15 years, and was one of the first investors in both Facebook and Dropbox. While not a household name like Square co-founder Jack Dorsey or Google co-founder Larry Page, Partovi, along with his twin brother, Hadi, have been quietly propping up tech startups and guiding aspiring entrepreneurs for more than a decade.
Now, Ali Partovi, who hasn’t had a full-time job since 2010, one year after MySpace acquired his startup, iLike, is returning to the startup trenches. While he surely didn’t need to go back to work for the money — and likely hasn’t needed to since 1998, when he sold his company LinkExchange to Microsoft for $265 million — he said he has become interested in solving the problem of feeding an exploding world population using more sustainable methods. Technology, he said, offers solutions to challenges around land and water use and raising livestock.
“As human populations grow, feeding tens of millions of people is going to be one of the greatest challenges in the next decades,” Partovi said in an interview with the Mercury News. “The single greatest area of inefficiency is in the area of animal agriculture.”
Hampton Creek, then, seemed a natural fit for Partovi (he is also an investor in the startup). The San Francisco-based company, founded in 2011 and backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and venture capital firm Khosla Ventures, is finding plant replacements for eggs. By discovering various plant properties that can replace eggs in baked goods and omelets, Hampton Creek is seeking to disrupt a global egg industry that the company believes wastes energy, pollutes the environment, harms chickens and can cause the spread of disease.
So far, it’s had at least a couple markers of success. For instance, Hampton Creek sells “Just Mayo,” a product that looks and tastes like mayonnaise, the company says, but doesn’t use any eggs.
But Partovi said mayo — an $11 billion industry — is just the beginning.
“One side of the solution is showing peopole that they can have equally delicious and virtually indistinguishable food that is cheaper,” he said. “When you eat mayonnaise or a chocolate chip cookie you’re not even thinking about eating an animal product.”
Hampton Creek is building what may be the world’s largest database of plant properties — screening hundreds of thousands of plants in search of properties that could be used in food instead of animal products or crops that are inefficient uses of land and energy, Partovi said.
“There is such an enormous world of opportunity,” he said.
Partovi is also an investor San Francisco-based Farmland LP, a company that acquires conventional farm land, and BrightFarms, a New York company that builds greenhouse farms next to supermarkets to reduce transportation in the food supply chain. He serves on the board of FoodCorps, a non-profit that sends volunteers to improve food access and food education in schools.
At Hampton Creek, Partovi will be chief strategy officer, which he interpreted as leading marketing and growth strategy as “the company is entering a hypergrowth stage. So I might be called on to do a lot of different things.” Dan Zigmond, former head of Google Maps, joined the company in July as vice president of data.
When asked about the hardest transition from a self-employed investor to working for Hampton Creek, and letting CEO Josh Tetrick call the shots, Partovi said: “Angel investing is a little bit like being a grandparent, where you have a lot of grandchildren, but you aren’t really in charge, whereas being full-time at a company is more like being a parent and being in the line of fire.”
Photo Hampton Creek