What about the water? Seeking solutions under the sea
The mid 20th century witnessed a phenomenal breakthrough in agricultural technologies that saved 1 billion people from starvation. The mid 21st century may be characterized by a similar breakthrough: not on land, but in sea – through advances in aquaculture technologies that will feed our growing population.
The ocean covers more than 70% of the planet, generates at least half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and stores about 40% of percent of CO2 we emit. It is also the world’s largest source of protein – providing a primary source of animal protein to 3 out of every 7 people. In the past 50 + years, demand for fish has boomed with consumption per capita increasing nearly 2x.
But oceans can’t handle increasing global demands for food without significant change. 65% of fisheries are badly managed, destroying our oceans through excessive use of chemicals and giving rise to disease, ecosystem pollution and the worst kind of human slavery.
Enter AquaSpark – an innovative VC founded in 2013 that invests in sustainable aquaculture (I.e. methods for farming fish, crustaceans, and seaweeds that don’t rely on or negatively impact existing ocean resources). Aquaculture is projected to triple by 2050 and key inputs like fish feed will need to increase by 8x given this shift from fish caught in the wild to fish farmed and fed.
Aquaculture has potential to be one of the most resource efficient means to meet the world’s protein needs, and with 2/3rds of the industry about to develop, AquaSpark is positioned to reimagine how the industry could take shape – in a healthier, more ethical way to address many of the ills that have plagued past practices.
Amy Novogratz, co-founder and managing partner, has a somewhat atypical background for an investor. But then again, AquaSpark is no ordinary VC.
Amy was neither a marine expert nor a venture capitalist prior to starting the company, yet her expertise was perhaps much more useful for AquaSpark’s unique context and ambitions: fostering collaboration and building partnerships among a diverse set of actors. She initially was on the founding team of SPAN (Social Policy Action Network), an organization that connects policymakers to academics to beneficiaries to social policies. After, she was an early director at TED and later TED Prize where she worked with a few people you might have heard of: Bono (One.org), Jamie Oliver (Food Revolution) and Bill Clinton.
In 2009, Sylvia Earle (“Her Deepness” as she is referred to by the New York Times), a legendary deep sea ocean explorer and oceanographer won the $100,000 prize. “Nobody was talking about the ocean then,” Amy recalls “and when she gave her speech everyone was blown away… how had we missed the ocean?” People were so moved by Sylvia’s call to action that someone even wrote a $1 million check on right there on the spot.
Sylvia’s TED “wish” became Mission Blue, an organization dedicated to protecting oceans and raising awareness about the state of the oceans. In April 2010, a group of 100 marine enthusiasts and leaders (scientists, philanthropists, business people) set out in the Galapagos on Mission Blue Voyage, (“TED at sea”) to further foster collaboration through a series of TED talks and workshops. It was on this boat that Amy (who was organizing the event) also met her partner, Mike Velings, a Dutch entrepreneur and fellow ocean enthusiast. “He was one person I didn’t recognize on the guest list,” Amy admitted. There the two discovered their shared passion for ocean conservation and began to explore ideas. It was a huge and rapidly growing space, so they became curious and began to learn more and more.
While the two initially launched AquaSpark in a “less ambitious way”, the more they explored and the more connections they made, the more excited they became about the incredible opportunity to build something big: “It felt different, necessary and ambitious.”
Aquaculture as a sector simply didn’t have an investment track record when AquaSpark launched.
The space was “opaque as can be,” explained Amy. Given that 90% of aquaculture is smallholder farms, it was such a “fragmented, scattered sector” that it was nearly impossible to get meaningful financial or other farm-related data. Financing of aquaculture ventures had traditionally been either nonexistent or somewhat predatory (for small farmers, fish feed constitutes up to 80% of operating costs, and oftentimes feed producers will give bad credits lines to farmers).
It soon became very apparent to Amy and Mike that there was little coordination and connection between the sector’s stakeholders. So, they began to build bridges among NGOs, academics, investors and businesses. Because nobody had paid attention previously to aquaculture, “everyone was really open and generous and gave us everything knew about the sector.. We ended up launching with a massive network and a ton of information.”
A New Model
“We’re talking about shaping an industry,” Amy explained. “We needed a model that would allow us to connect the different pieces. We couldn’t just do one-off investments.”
So, Amy and Mike set up an investment fund, which allows the AquaSpark team to maximize synergies among their portfolio companies. Unlike traditional VCs, AquaSpark can stay invested in companies “for the long haul” – i.e. they don’t adhere to any timelines when raising additional capital nor do they have a fixed timelines for exiting their investments… they can dynamically raise, hold their stake in companies, and follow on in additional rounds.
Farms are the bulk of AquaSpark’s investments, but you can’t have sustainable farms without, say sustainable fish feed or ways to gather data about fish farming practices. So AquaSpark invests all along the value chain and adopts a hands on approach connecting portfolio companies to each other and their network of experts.
Both Mike and Amy come from entrepreneurship backgrounds, so the whole model is set up to favor and support the entrepreneur. AquaSpark always takes a minority stake (up to 49%). They’ve now raised several rounds of between $10-25 million from investors (all of whom then earn dividends as part of their model).
“People ask how as a minority investor do you have any control? It’s because we are building this with them. It’s all about building relationships and trust,” explained Amy.
As part of this partnership approach, AquaSpark and the investee sign a “Shared Values Manifesto”, which lays out AquaSpark’s vision for a sustainable, healthy aquaculture industry as well as social values.
Sparking a Sea Change
Currently in aquaculture fish feed and farm technology are “really heating up”, but new applications for marine life are emerging virtually daily according to Amy. And increasingly other investors are taking note – in part thanks to AquaSpark’s growing track record and efforts to promote the space.
At this point, Amy says AquaSpark receives a few inquiries a week from investment groups looking to enter aquaculture and people have even come to study the company’s model. But others are slow to get their feet wet given that the space is still so new. In some ways, the role AquaSpark plays is that of an explorer, laying the groundwork and de-risking the investments for others.
“If you look at how solvable these challenges are… and if we get it right at a global scale… it’s kind of crazy that not everyone is jumping into aquaculture with us,” explained Amy. “The revolution is starting. It just needs scale.”