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05 November 2018

Heather Mills on investing early in the veganism boom

The founder of VBites has started a venture fund to invest in early stage vegan food start ups at a key point in the industry’s growth

Heather Mills

It’s nearly impossible not to be inspired by Heather Mills. Born 12 January 1868 in the UK, she began as an entrepreneur at the age of 15, working heavily in refugee work. When she lost her leg in a road traffic accident, she became vegan as a health necessity during recovery, something that she has expanded into her own business, VBites.

While her four gold medals in downhill racing and her title as the fastest disabled woman on the planet with her world record of 166.84 kph in speed skiing are astounding achievements that have raised her profile worldwide, it is perhaps her work in the field of veganism that will have the most profound affect on the world.

Her vegan ethical food company VBites only exports to over 24 countries worldwide, but it generates global online sales and has over 104 meat-free, fish-free and dairy-free products in its range.

As veganism has steadily made its way into the mainstream, the veganism food industry is taking off with no end in sight to its growth—something that Heather Mills is very conscious of.

“It’s dangerous now, because you’re seeing so much big money coming in. These big figures are being thrown around, and investors are interested, so you’re seeing a lot more variety coming out. The bad thing is, they haven’t done the research and development necessary to make great products. When people try something and it’s a bad product, they’re not going to go back again. What I’d like to do is try to get the good products out there as there are another good ones out there that do make good ones,” says Mills.

A year and a half ago, Mills began a venture fund to invest in companies that were headed on the same path as VBites, so that she could properly incubate and scale them while keeping them true to that vision.

“I have a VBites venture fund because I have so many young, excitable millenials and their kids who come to me and say that they want to change the world. They don’t come up with any product we haven’t already done,” Mills says.

While he is still in search of innovation, she feels that the venture fund is necessary.

“We still have yet to find something that isn’t something we have already done, I hope that one’s coming around the corner. But they believe in what they do, and I don’t want them to be swallowed up by hedge funds and private equity firms,” Mills continues.

“I’ll fund them, take 25 or 30 per cent of the company, make sure they keep the company, and slide them into our distribution channel, and add it to the lines of things I’m presenting to supermarkets. We’ve created a plant-based valley in Newcastle where we’re doing incubation sectors,” says Mills.

“When someone’s got a start up product, they make it in the kitchen, then in the garage, and then a small factory that they can’t scale up without accreditations, which are expensive. We’ve invested so they can have office space and manufacturing. We’ll be the plant-based Silicon Valley.”

The first companies are finally ready for market.

“We’ve got a protein powder launch, with another three being announced soon,” Mills says.

It is not enough for just the market to decide—forward-thinking governments need to encourage the growth of an industry that is a net positive for the environment and public health.

“The companies that are trying to do good need to be helped and awareness needs to be put there. Sweden is a perfect example—we went into Sweden and Scandinavia is miles ahead of all of us. They have a vegan option in every school, tax credits for environmental companies. There’s motivation to create better business,” Mills says.

“We don’t have that in the UK—we’re an ethical, environmental company. We win the awards every year. We don’t put out toxins, we don’t get any reduction in our business rates. There’s no incentive to companies to maximise going down that route. It does cost more money to be ethical, to be a plant-based only facility.”

Mills understands that companies and investors need to chase profit and returns—she just wants them to understand that there is plenty of that in this industry.

“We need more companies to see that it is big business. If they’re only thinking with their wallet, then whatever it takes to get them to switch over and to help start ups,” she says.

On a consumer level, VBites strategy is to create products that can replace the foods that non-vegans eat on a daily basis.

“What I like to do is replicate like for like. Kids want to feel that they can go to a McDonalds. We’re not going to make them become broccoli soup eaters overnight. We need to make fast food vegan places. I converted a fish food restaurant on the beach to a fast food VBites in 2009, and it was there for about four years and then we moved into the center, and then we had complaints that it wasn’t there any more. We ended up having to do delivery to the new owners of the location because the demand was still there,” Mills says.

In terms of innovation, Mills believes that their fish was their biggest breakthrough, and that investors need to look more into algal oils as the future of the industry, as that is where she believes that there is still innovation yet to come.

“McDonalds had a fish fillet. We developed an algal oil out of a seaweed, so you had the taste of sea in it. There was a lot of work on the texture. We put it all over the UK and it sold out straight away—everyone wanted vegan fish, chips, and mushy peas,” says mills.

From a nutrition standpoint, this is something that she had to learn the hard way.

“The reason that I went into these 15 years ago is that I would get someone to be vegan, and then some of them would get really depressed. I thought, wow, I need to look into this more. I found that not everyone can convert from a short-chain fatty acid to a long-chain fatty acid on a plant-based diet. I felt really responsible. I can tell them to give up meat and dairy, but I can’t tell them to give up fish until we come up with an alternative that has EPA and DHA nutrients. I scored the world, and then found the DSM Martek and another in Canada. Then we got ours through once the patent went off Martek, and I started to put that in the products, and it made a big difference. Omega 3 is vital,” Mills says.

“The algae that we grow is where the innovation will come from. There are only three algaes in the world that can do what we need them to do, however, and it’s such big business that the sharks are coming in, getting the algae, and fatten the cows with it. They’re so stupid with greed that instead of minimizing the need for cows, they’re looking at ways to fatten the cows and animals and get them to grow quickly. Instead they could feed people with the algal oil, but instead they go to the second or third source of those nutrients. I get offered a lot of money for our algal oil all the time, but if they are going to feed animals with it, I say no.”

Mills, as an investor and an entrepreneur, is steadfast that this is no fad. VBites is set to launch across the UAE by the beginning of 2019.

“This is not a trend. Once this arrives, that’s it.”






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