At first glance, Apeel doesn’t seem like a startup that would covet celebrity attention.
A developer of plant-based coatings that extend the shelf life of produce, the 9-year-old company has backing from a long list of prominent VCs. Its target market—growers of avocados, limes, mangoes and assorted fresh fruit—isn’t exactly the Hollywood crowd.
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Yet when the Goleta, California-based company announced a $250 million Series E round last week, it was a star-studded affair. Included among the return backers were Oprah Winfrey and Katy Perry. While neither celebrity is a voracious startup investor, the sustainability-focused healthy food pitch apparently held strong appeal.
Apeel isn’t the only company in the food space to raise from famous women. An analysis of Crunchbase data unearthed at least nine that have taken this funding route in the past couple of years. At least five celebrities on the list, meanwhile, have two or more investments in the sector.
We look at the companies and their famous backers below:
The reason I decided to do this analysis in the first place was because I was curious if there is a network of female celebrities active in venture investment.
That said, Crunchbase data shows there are a number of female celebrities with a handful of venture investments, most commonly in consumer-facing startups. We honed in on food as it stood out as a particularly popular sector.
Here are a few takeaways from the list:
Some of those deals have already done quite well
Oatly, the popular and profitable oat milk maker that counts Winfrey and actress Natalie Portman among its backers, went public in May and was recently valued around $10 billion. The two invested about a year before the IPO, at a reported valuation of around $2 billion.
Impossible Foods, the high-profile maker of meatless burgers and other veggie proteins has also done well since it raised celebrity-backed rounds in 2019 and 2020 that included Serena Williams, Katy Perry and Mindy Kaling. Earlier this year, it was reported that the company was considering going public at a valuation around $10 billion, well above the $4 billion value for its 2020 financing.
California and New York outperform
Investors tend to favor companies close to where they live, and this seems to work out for companies in locales like California and New York City that are popular with celebrities. A majority of the food funding deals on our list were from one of the two states, with Southern California in particular doing well. In the case of Apeel, based in the Santa Barbara area, it likely helps that Winfrey lives in the area too.
Socially conscious founders favored
Celebrities have their own public images to consider, so it’s helpful to associate with startups pitching socially conscious business models. Most companies on the list have some healthy eating, drinking or sustainability focus. This includes Shef, which recently began offering Afghan refugees free use of its platform, as well as Apeel, which pitches its coatings as a way to reduce food waste.
It’s not just female celebrities
We don’t see celebrities leading large, later-stage rounds. Commonly, when they do invest, it’s part of a large syndicate.
It should be noted that many food-related rounds featured above also had male celebrity investors. This includes Oalty (backed by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation), Outstanding Foods (backed by Snoop Dogg), Daily Harvest (backed by Bobby Flay and Shaun White), and Impossible Foods (backed by Jay-Z and Trevor Noah).
Sure, tell us what to eat
One gets the sense from celebrity-backed food investments that this is a group that weighs caloric consumption carefully. Rich foods that pad the waistline aren’t getting much love.
Rather, it’s things like Daily Harvest, which has been relentlessly following me with ads ever since I clicked on its website. It features a decadent-looking chocolate shake that is—surprise!—actually comprised largely of spinach, blueberries and bananas.
The drink at least looks pretty good. But it also heightens the sense of cultural divide between celebrities and the drive-thru shake-drinking masses. Perhaps with enough venture capital and scalable healthy business models this could shrink a bit, along with our collective waistlines.
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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