Why Tyson Foods Is Investing in Alternative Proteins

Tyson Foods’ venture capital arm is on the hunt for more deals.

“It is a great way for us to look at deals we can do and companies we can get involved in,” said Tom Hayes, the new CEO of the chicken, beef and pork producer, told Fortune. “It’s not necessarily to go buy something, but to make an investment and get a foothold and learn more.”

Tyson Foods (TSN) last year announced it would launch a venture capital fund that would spend as much as $150 million to invest in food startups, with a stated goal to target startups that are developing alternative proteins or innovative food manufacturing processes. General Mills (GIS), Kellogg (K) and Campbell Soup (CPB) have all launched their own VC funds to also look to small startups for innovative ideas. Small startups are raising billions from investors, using that funding to fuel innovation and win shelf space—putting pressure on legacy brands that are owned by multi-billion dollar Big Food makers. Consumers want more options, giving startups a chance to shine.

Tyson New Ventures already made an investment in plant-based food startup Beyond Meat, which also scored funding from General Mills’ VC arm 301 Inc. “The reason Beyond Meat made sense to us is because we are focused not only on animal protein, but protein overall,” Hayes said. “We want to make sure we are driving protein growth, and it doesn’t matter to us where it comes from.”

He says that Tyson’s goal is to focus less on the startup’s cost structure and what margins will look like today—benchmarks that any investor surely must consider—and instead take in consideration the brand’s idea, the team behind it, and, perhaps most importantly, the entrepreneur. “Their vision is what we are buying into,” Hayes said.

Tyson New Ventures is focusing on three areas: alternative proteins, the elimination of food waste, and bets on innovative trends in technology. Hayes says the division is important because it can focus on examining deals and understanding if a brand should be brought into the Tyson Foods portfolio. That lets in-house employees at Tyson Foods focus on what they do best: build big brands.

Hayes is steering Tyson Foods after a difficult 2016, when revenue slumped by $4.5 billion to total $36.9 billion on weak volume and pricing for chicken, pork and beef. Results are looking a bit sturdier for the new fiscal year, as volume is improving for all categories, though pricing remains a challenge, particularly for beef. Hayes was appointed to the CEO post after his long-serving predecessor Donnie Smith announced he would step down by the end of 2016.

Tyson Foods is paying particularly keen interest to chicken, because Hayes says that’s a protein that’s gotten a lot of attention lately. “The consumer wants more chicken.” He’s also focused on getting more innovation on the shelves that meets the consumer need to have protein available on the go. One example: the Jimmy Dean Scramble Cup, a microwaveable meal that includes two eggs, meat and cheese in a to-go cup. “You get a Sunday morning experience with a Tuesday morning effort,” says Hayes.

Hayes says that among his company’s peer group, Tyson Foods is one of the few that’s reporting volume growth. That contrasts with the stalling sales that many in the industry are reporting, leading to hints that some Big Food mergers may be looming. Tyson Foods—which paid $7.7 billion for Jimmy Dean maker Hillshire Brands in 2014—is looking at merger opportunities, Hayes says. Ideally, the company is most interested in branded businesses, new international exposure, and manufacturing capabilities that Tyson doesn’t already use. “If it hits on all three of those, that’s the place we really want to be,” he said.

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