Alexandra Clark, co-founder of Sentient Ventures, says she wants to disrupt the animal-based food products market by driving the development of better vegan products
- Co-founder and principal, Sentient Ventures, June 2022 to present
- Advisor, Veg Capital, 2021-2022
- Director, Amos & Bailey, 2020-2022
- Lobbyist, Humane Society International – 2014-2019
- Head of office to the vice-president, European Parliament, 2008-2014
Alexandra Clark, co-founder and principal of Sentient Ventures, says she became vegetarian at the age of four when she made the realisation that meat was the product of dead animals and she has not looked back, giving animal-products up entirely when she became vegan in her 20s.
But it wasn’t until she took the job of head of office to one of the vice-presidents of the European Parliament, that she got the opportunity to marry her passion for veganism with her career. This came in 2009, following Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Mondays campaign encouraging the public to give-up meat for a day.
Clark says that campaign marked the first time a high-profile figure was alerting the public, not just to the ethical and health impacts of consuming meat, but also to the environmental implications. The campaign added weight to Livestock’s Long Shadow, a report Clark had read a few years earlier by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, which she says was also the first time an international organisation had acknowledged the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment.
Feeling that the time was right, she suggested to the vice-president that they organise a hearing in the European Parliament about animal agriculture and its impacts on the environment and invite McCartney as a speaker. The event was a success and led to the creation of a sustainable food systems steering group, which brought together like-minded MEPs to influence a shift away from the over-consumption of animal products.
That group has since morphed into the Advisory Group on Sustainability of Food Systems and today advises the European Commission on stakeholders’ views on food systems sustainability and the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, part of the European Green Deal, which aims to accelerate the transition to a sustainable food system.
The genesis of Sentient Ventures
Clark says she knew fellow Sentient Ventures co-founder Matthew Glover through his Veganuary campaign and was quick to accept his invitation in 2021 to join Veg Capital, a private family office vegan fund, which co-invested in several plant-based companies with MVK Group, a multi-family office led by Manish Karani.
“I was really interested by the role because whilst I was passionate about the need for a policy and regulatory environment to support a shift away from animal products, I was conscious that we also needed to invest in alternatives and better products,” she says.
With interest from investors in vegan products and services growing, Clark, Glover and Karani decided to set up a more traditional VC fund and launched Sentient Ventures.
The fund, which has raised £9m of its £30m target since its July launch, aims to invest in companies that accelerate the removal of animals from the supply chain to address the multiple crises of biodiversity loss, species extinction, water pollution and shortages, antimicrobial resistance, the spread of food borne and zoonotic diseases, and the climate emergency, of which animal agriculture is highlighted as a major driver. The management team are also driven by ending the suffering of farmed animals in the food production system.
The team has made one investment to date in London-based vegan cheese company La Fauxmagerie and are in the closing stages of due diligence on a second investment.
Their main focus is on investing in plant and fermentation-based technology and enablers, namely the B2B ingredients and technologies that improve the functionality, sensory experience, nutritional profile, and affordability of animal alternatives. This, says Clark, is where the biggest impact can be made in disrupting the animal-based products market.
“We have made a strategic decision not to focus on consumer products, and whilst we will still invest if there’s an excellent investment opportunity like La Fauxmagarie, the negativity around plant-based products and the drop-off in repeat purchasing demonstrates a need to invest in the technologies and ingredients that will make vegan products a healthier and tastier option than their animal-based equivalents.”
The negativity that Clark refers to, relates to concerns raised that many vegan products are overly processed and do not offer the same nutritional value as animal-based products. The sensory experience of plant-based proteins, both taste and texture, also remains a challenge for many people.
“We want to invest in the fermentation-based techniques and the enablers that will improve the nutritional content, taste, texture, juiciness and bite of plant-based products,” says Clark.
“We measure impact with displaced products, so based on how many people have chosen to eat vegan who would normally have consumed the animal version,” she says. “We’re not investing in nice products for vegans, we want to invest in products for meat-eaters and disrupt the £2tn global animal-based products market. There are technologies out there that can improve the sensorial experience and the processing, so you need fewer additional ingredients.”
These technologies include 3D printing and shear cell technology to create texturised cuts of plant-based meat, and precision fermentation and biomass fermentation, which use microorganisms to produce proteins that are genetically identical to animal proteins and can be used as ingredients in plant-based alternative protein products,or to produce mycelium-based (mycelium is the root-like structure of a fungus) whole cuts.
Biodiversity loss and antimicrobial resistance
Clark says the leading driver of biodiversity loss is expansion of agriculture and the destruction of natural habitats through land use change. According to recent estimates, three-quarters of global deforestation is driven by agriculture, with beef production responsible for 41% and palm oil and soybean production, mainly for animal feed, accounting for 18%.
“What many people don’t realise is that whilst you have massive deforestation to graze cattle, you also have huge amounts of deforestation to produce feed for factory farmed animals in other countries,” says Clark who also points to antimicrobial resistance as a silent but growing threat.
She says that given the inherent risk of antimicrobial resistance, investors were not giving this and other intensive-farming issues, the attention they deserve.
“We talk a lot about the overuse of antibiotics in the general human population. But what the public, and many investors, are completely unaware of is that about 65% of antibiotics globally, are being used in livestock on a prophylactic basis, often because they’re not kept in very good conditions in the first place. Their overuse raises the risk of antimicrobial resistance making antibiotics ineffective with the potential to throw our whole medical system back a hundred years,” she says. “While investors are looking more closely at various other ESG issues, the risks posed by current food systems still don’t factor as much as they should in the investment conversation, nor do the opportunities.”
But Clark says that while there is a lot of doom and gloom around climate change and biodiversity loss, the tide is turning and she is motivated by the opportunities for transitioning to plant-based diets: “I find it encouraging that by shifting our own lifestyles and our demand for certain products, we can potentially free up a phenomenal amount of land, that could be then put to the benefit of everyone.”
And with plant-based meat, for example, still accounting for less than 1% of total meat consumption, the opportunities to grow the market share of plant-based alternatives is huge.
Growing investor interest
Clark says the team has been speaking to a number of institutional investors who are interested in the philosophy of the founders and their impact methodology but for whom the fund is too small to make a meaningful investment.
“Institutional investors are slowly getting switched on to the opportunities of plant-based alternatives and being able to put a tick against a lot of their ESG goals by investing in plant-based products and tech. But for now, their cheque size would be too big for our fund. Our ambition is to build a track record with this fund and raise a larger fund in the future, when we’ll be able to invite them back.”
Looking ahead to Christmas and with avian flu wreaking havoc among turkey farmers, Impact Investor asked Clark what vegan alternatives might readers consider for their Christmas dinner this year. “Readers could try Tofurkey, the original gangsters of the vegan world or Wicked Kitchen, who offer many delicious plant-based turkey alternatives. But for me, personally, there’s nothing better than a good nut roast or a mushroom wellington to have as the centrepiece . And for your cheeseboard look no further than La Fauxmagerie’s deluxe Christmas hamper!”