Investing

Icon: A Monster $550M Round Feeding The Plant-Based Revolution

Two years ago, I made the leap to plant-based eating and never looked back (here’s why I jumped). Vegans in the 20th century had it hard. Today, we have sizzling burgers, creamy milk, cheesy pizzas – basically if you crave it, plants can make it. I’m always on the look out for disruptive moves in the industry. So I was surprised when I saw a group LIVEKINDLY had quietly raised a monstrous $550M in less than a year to scale plant-based foods globally. I wanted to know who was behind it, where they’re headed, and whether in fact I’d ever eat cultured (aka “lab grown”) meat. Still not sure on the latter but Roger Lienhard is on a global mission to make plant-based eating cool and global.

Brendan Doherty:  Welcome to Icons of Impact, we’re thrilled to have you. Where did your investor journey start?

Roger Lienhard: My whole life, I was what you would call a “serial entrepreneur” in Germany and Switzerland until I hit a point at around 45 years old. I felt like I had enough money and, frankly, I was tired of working seven days a week. So I sold my last investments to take a sabbatical in Los Angeles.

Doherty: Nice spot for a sabbatical, why there?

Lienhard: I was drawn to it because it was warm all year and I spoke English. My friends thought I’d last three months, but I enjoyed California and the lifestyle there with all the green juices and different culture around food. My girlfriend at the time encouraged me to go vegan, and my daughter reminded me of the reasons why I had previously been a vegan. We also watched a Gary Yourofsky documentary about it.

Doherty: So you made the leap (again)?

Lienhard: I did! Since then, I’ve been totally plant-based. It’s easy to be vegan in California. As I began to really evolve in my personal life, I also began to travel to different startups like Impossible Foods. I was blown away by the technology and the marketing and, having worked in IT and advertising myself, it just seemed like such a game changer to have products that a meat lover could love too. 

I took my fascination and turned it into seed investments so that I could interact with the founders of companies where I really aligned with the mission. I began to invest so much that I reached out to a friend in Madrid and said, “We should all turn vegan and you need to help me with follow-on funding.” He declined my declaration to be vegan but he agreed to invest with me. We went on to raise a $222 million fund that closed last December. And we just closed another $335 million, which puts us now over $550 million raised in one year.

Doherty: That’s a monster raise. What’s your unifying investment thesis?

Lienhard: I want to build a United Food Company portfolio worldwide who work together to create alternatives to animal products that are attractive to animal product consumers. So now, two and a half years later, we are 500 employees across five companies, like Fry Family Food out of South Africa. We bought all the entrepreneurs out 100% — partly in cash and partly in shares, as some of them felt they were just getting started and didn’t want to sell out. 

We’re still a private company and there’s not a day that passes where people don’t ask me, “Hey Roger, how can I invest in your vision for the future?” We have since put together a seed portfolio, and we have the consolidation strategy in place. The next step will be to publicly list LIVEKINDLY and possibly Blue Horizon  

Doherty: What are the top three things you focus on when looking for a company to acquire or invest in?

Lienhard: Easy – first thing is that you have to trust and like the people you’re working with and see their capabilities clearly.  Second, at least in my niche industry, I taste the product. I review the sensory experience; this helps me to get an idea of whether or not a product will fly off the shelves. Finally, I look at the technology at the core of each product — can it be scaled in a way that the price point would come under the animal version?

Doherty: Agree, you don’t want to invest in products that only 10% of the population can afford unless you’re strictly going for luxury or high-end. Plant-based products are already niche, so why make them more unattainable. 

Lienhard: A key part of my dream has always been parity in cost. 

Doherty: On the topic of plant-based meat versus lab-grown meat, where do you stand?

Lienhard: I have a very clear opinion, and that is that the two options should and will coexist. In the next 5-10 years, I believe that plant-based alternatives will dominate, because that’s the technology that has already begun to scale accordingly. As far as “lab grown”, I prefer to call it “cultured meat” because it’s more comparable to the fermentation process involved with brewing beer. 

Doherty: That leads us right into marketing and messaging. One thing that intrigued me was you purchased a media company as part of the holding company. So, how are you setting narrative and scaling the messaging around the products you stand so firmly behind on a personal level?  

Lienhard: My background was in advertising for 20 years, spanning ads online and offline. When I joined this movement, I could see it was very niche, and there’s a lot of misleading or simply incorrect information, which means you need to educate people first and foremost. I think we’ve focused a lot of our efforts on raising awareness to even just get consumers to try a product. Then I met Jodi Monelle in Vancouver and her vegan media company was growing much faster than the rest. I invested because I felt her platform would be strategic in the future. 

Doherty: I believe much of the “impact” space can feel too earnest, or righteous, or alarmist. I think that’s one thing you’ve done differently in the vegan space.  The LIVEKINDLY brand feels more cool or edgy. That’s a very different message than a hard-hitting documentary that leaves someone shellshocked

Lienhard: I think all the documentaries are important. I support most of them with my foundation, but you want to have something on a daily basis, that supports the lifestyle in a cool way, when that gives you information, recipes, and introduces the products. That’s what Jody’s doing — she has 25 million unique users a month. 

Doherty: Very cool. Your focus is heavily on food right now — do you see adjacent spaces where LIVEKINDLY moves in the future?

Lienhard: The ultimate goal of our startups is to meet the taste and texture needs of our customers — to have something for the meat lover. The second step now is to make the products even better and bring the price point down. 

When you look at our chicken products they have four to seven ingredients, they’re already pretty “clean.” Then you look at the burger products and there’s much more stuff in them because it’s more difficult to replicate a burger. So the next step will be to make them healthier. A few years ago, Nestle wrote that the end goal is to make food the medicine. So that is the true end goal – to make food that is really helpful for people, and maybe even can be personalized so that eventually we can reach a  point where you will have a burger that is grown for the specific person’s health needs.

Doherty:  Some inaccurately think vegan food is naturally healthy. There’s plenty of unhealthy ways to be a vegan, just as there are for a carnivore. But let’s touch base quickly on your other company, Blue Horizons. Where do you see that in 5 to 10 years? 

Lienhard: Blue Horizon is the investment company where we organize capital to evolve the vegan industry. We want to have investors that are happy and can invest along the whole value chain from seed to venture to growth and consolidation globally. My goal is always to build trust among our partners. Hopefully Blue Horizon becomes the Berkshire Hathaway
BRK.B
of food, but with laser sharp focus so people can say, “I bought their stock, and I’m invested in the plant-based alternative protein sector; I have a team of professionals that take care of my money.” We need a company that organizes capital for all these alternative protein companies because the sector as a whole needs billions. Not only for innovation but also for infrastructure. We need thousands of factories to really make an impact, otherwise it’s just a nice niche. 

Doherty: I couldn’t agree more. Let’s wrap up with a speed round: The first thing you do every morning? 

Lienhard: I go for a run and drink my green juice.

Doherty: What would people say they most admire in you?

Lienhard: I’m totally invested emotionally into this niche. I do this with my heart, I’m ready to die for it. I wake up between 4:00am and 5:00am everyday and it’s the first thought that comes to my mind. 

Doherty: The opposite, what would people say is one of your most challenging traits? 

Lienhard:  I’m totally impatient, I can be a real asshole because everything is too slow. I feel like a rocket train and everybody around me is on a bicycle. 

Doherty: I believe that timing, luck, synchronicity — all of it can define key moments in our lives. Do you have one moment where luck played a defining role?

Lienhard: I do yoga on a daily basis and I went to Vipassana retreat in Italy. I could feel a sense that everything is connected. It made me so happy that I was already vegan, that I didn’t kill animals anymore, and that I hoped I would make this world a better place. 

Doherty: I’ve wanted to do a Vipassana retreat myself! Thanks again for joining Icons of Impact — appreciate you.

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