Rob Leclerc has the kind of pedigree that investors tend to like. He holds a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Calgary and a doctorate in computational biology from Yale. In fact, ten years ago, what he really wanted to do with his degrees was find and fund agriculture-related projects that tackle climate change.
But ten years ago, “agtech” was not yet a category, and this posed a problem when it came to pitching to investors the concept of an investment fund that Leclerc would lead with his partner Michael Dean, with whom Leclerc had previously operated an agribusiness in West Africa for several years.
At the time, “there were a handful of companies” related to agtech that investors were aware of, Leclerc says. Think Climate Corp and Impossible Foods and smart machine company Blue River. But Climate Corp had not yet sold to Monsanto for $1 billion. Impossible Foods was not valued in the billions of dollars, as is the case today. And Blue River was still years away from its $305 million sale to John Deere. “The overarching problem was narrative,” says Leclerc. “People didn’t care.”
He and Dean might have just given up; instead, they launched a San Francisco-based content company called AgFunder News. “We thought if we could get people interested in food and [agriculture]we might be able to [raise a fund later]“explains Leclerc. It was a smart bet. Fast forward and after posting more than 4,000 articles on the site and amassing 90,000 subscribers to the site’s weekly newsletter, Leclerc says AgFunderThe investment team – which now has four partners – has just closed capital commitments of $60 million for a new fund which it says will grow to $100 million over the next two months if things go well. go as planned.
It’s a huge step up from previous funds that Leclerc and his company started raising several years ago – starting with the readers of their newsletter. “We first raised a fund of $2.5 million for friends and family,” he says, “but five months later we needed more money, so we raised $2 million. and then six months later we raised $5 million.” etc It wasn’t the most conventional way to raise money, but AgFunder had this “massive subscriber base” that it could talk directly to about its fundraising efforts, Leclerc says, “and the belief that we know what we do and can spot companies have started many conversations that we otherwise wouldn’t have had.It’s become a structural advantage.
The strategy is not without precedent. Leclerc says he was partly inspired by Michael Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch, who built a brand around entrepreneurship and then used the strength of that brand to launch a career as an investor. Meanwhile, Arrington was preceded on his path by investor Jason Calacanis, who previously founded a media company, and more recent examples are beginning to emerge regularly. Among them: Londoner Harry Stebbings used his ‘Twenty Minute VC’ podcast as a springboard into the world of venture capital last year, and Nik Milanović, the author of a two-year newsletter called ‘This Week in Fintech launched an investment syndicate called Fintech Fund in January.
Yet newsletter subscribers — no matter how deep their pockets — don’t invest tens of millions of dollars in a team without first seeing results. And AgFunder (which has since expanded its LP base) already has something to brag about. Among the 60 companies that have so far received a check from AgFunder were self-driving tractor startup Bear Flag Robotics, which was sold to John Deere last year for $250 million; Root AI, a startup that was developing a harvesting robot for indoor farms and was acquired by AppHarvest to $60 million Last year; and Greenlight Biosciences, an RNA research-focused biotechnology company that made public last month by merger with an ad hoc acquisition company.
If you’re curious about how much the company held in each of these companies, keep guessing. AgFunder — which tends to write checks for $500,000 as a starting point, but also just wrote a check for $3 million — doesn’t think about ownership goals or look to own a specific percentage in a company, insists Leclerc. While his team has used special purpose vehicles to maintain their pro rata at several businesses, including a still-private molecular coffee company called Cafe Atomo, he says he “is not attached to property. For me, the question is: “Does this investment return the fund or a multiple of the fund?” If you cling to ownership, you can miss out on opportunities.
When it comes to criteria, AgFunder broadly looks at the entire food and agriculture value chain, says Leclerc. It also invests widely geographically, with bets in India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia, among others.
Because that’s a lot of ground to cover, the outfit relies heavily on its head of engineering and the internal system he designed that crawls sites and databases for certain signals and distills its findings down to “50 to 100 companies every week” that might be of interest. (An apparent gem he discovered was Pakistan’s Retailo, a B2B marketplace that connects bodegas with the goods and services they might need and which recently closed the $36 million in Series A funding. AgFunder has now backed it for two rounds.)
Yet it also has other sources of business flow, and one of them is, yes, newsletter readership. Indeed, when asked how he found out that coffee company Atomo – which says its product produces 93% less carbon emissions than conventional cold brew coffee – Leclerc says it comes from one of his limited partners, who signed on as an investor after becoming a regular reader.
Leclerc says, “A long-following LP on AgFunder News wrote to us, ‘You probably see a lot; this company, you should check out.’ So we did.