Packaged food giant General Mills Inc. said Thursday it will begin making venture capital investments in fledgling food companies.
The Golden Valley company will make venture investments through its 301 Inc. arm, which it created in 2012 to develop new products outside the traditional innovation teams in its own food units. Essentially, 301’s focus will now be on independent food companies.
The strategy is to create partnerships where young companies can access capital and tap General Mills’ knowledge. Mills could help with many issues, including production, supply chain, ingredient sourcing and marketing, said John Haugen, vice president and general manager of 301.
However, he added, “we don’t want to be a big company that comes in and tells them how to run their business.”
If a venture target succeeds, “it can provide a direct path to acquisitions,” Haugen said. “It’s something we will consider in many of these cases.”
Haugen declined to say how much money General Mills is investing in its venture capital foray, but multiple companies could receive investments at the same time. “We are looking at several investments right now,” he said, declining to disclose details.
The company has already tested the venture concept. Through 301, General Mills invested two years ago in a Southern California start-up called Beyond Meat, which makes burgers from pea protein and strips — think chicken — from soy and pea protein. Beyond Meat counts Bill Gates as an investor, as well as prominent Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers.
Venture capital efforts are common by big tech companies, but they’ve also sprung up at Coca-Cola Co. and global food and nutrition giant Nestlé. The changing landscape in the food industry bolsters the case for venture efforts.
As some consumers have moved away from more processed foods — the packaged food industry’s mainstay — small companies with new ideas have increasingly found success.
Chobani is a classic example. The upstart essentially created a mass market in the U.S. for Greek-style yogurt, taking business away from General Mills and other established yogurt makers.
The barriers to entry in the food business are smaller, particularly as the Internet has allowed companies to have direct access to consumers, Haugen said. “Social media has really leveled the playing field.”
Haugen said General Mills’ venture investments will target foods that fit shifting consumer tastes.
“As we look to this fairly dramatic cultural shift to wellness,” he said, “we are looking toward foods that are more closer to their natural state and minimally processed.”