Nick Hazell is an international entrepreneur who made the leap from a corporate job to a highly impactful startup, in one of the biggest industries worldwide. Nick’s company v2food has successfully raised $100 million in funding from top-tier investors like Sequoia Capital China, China Rennaissance, Novel Investments, and Esenagro.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Launching and pricing your product
- Ignorance is your best asset as a new entrepreneur
- Nick’s top advice for aspiring startup founders
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About Nick Hazell:
Nick Hazell is an experienced food innovator, lecturer and consultant who is CEO of Australian startup v2food. v2food is developing plant-based meat, building on a close collaboration with CSIRO to create tasty, sustainable and healthy products. Its first products will be launched nationally in the second half of 2019.
Nick Hazell holds a Master of Manufacturing from Cambridge University. Nick Hazell in aerospace and chocolate manufacturing before moving into research and development in the food industry, working at global multinationals in The Netherlands and Australia. Nick Hazell was R&D Director at Masterfoods and at PepsiCo Australia and New Zealand, working on products like Grain Waves, Red Rock Deli, Sunbites and Smiths. Nick Hazell lectures in the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation at UTS and has consulted to CSIRO and the meat industry.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have a really interesting founder, a founder that has been around the block now for quite some time. He’s coming from the world of corporate and always in the innovation side of things, but now, he took a chance, and he’s making a killing. So without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today. Nick Hazell, welcome to the show.
Nick Hazell: Thank you, Alejandro. It’s nice to be on the show.
Alejandro: Originally born in England and raised there. You did boarding school and all of that good stuff, but how was life growing up there?
Nick Hazell: I’m not sure boarding school you’d ever count as good stuff, but yeah. I’m English. I’m kind of Dutch, as well, and I’m Australian now. Our parents traveled a lot. That’s probably why I ended up traveling the world. I grew up schooling in England. I went to University, studied manufacturing at Cambridge University, where I still have probably the strongest links in the UK. I started off wanting to be an aerospace engineer, which was my first career before I discovered the wonders of food.
Alejandro: It’s interesting how in the UK, the boarding school is such a big thing. I’m originally from Spain, where people stay with their parents until they’re like in their 40s [laughter], and they get married. But in the UK, and you see that in the U.S., too, where people go off to college. But in the UK, I guess that sense of independence is really formed when you are going on your own to boarding school, very early on in your life, so how was that particularly for you? How do you think that shaped your personality at being with the uncertain?
Nick Hazell: Yeah, we should maybe involve my therapist. I think boarding school teaches you about resilience. If you can survive in that environment, you can survive pretty much anywhere. The other thing I think for me is a sort of restlessness, always wants to move country, always wants to be in different places, and get new experiences. I think that’s part of boarding school and part of services upbringing.
Alejandro: In this case, for you, Lego was also quite a part of your upbringing. At what point do you start to feel the love for solving problems and putting pieces together?
Nick Hazell: Yeah. I think there are probably a lot of engineers who probably built their first engineering experience down Lego. Lego is funny because I look at Lego now, and it seems different. When I was doing Lego, all you had was bricks; you had your bricks, and you had your imagination, and you would create things from nothing. Now, you seem to have kits that end up in a Harry Potter train or something. So there’s one set of instructions, and you follow the instructions and get a result. That isn’t Lego to me. Lego is something where you had a load of bricks, and you create something from nothing. My brother was an engineer, as well. He ended up at Imperial College. For me to study engineering, clearly, I was good at technical stuff, good at math, good at school, so going to Cambridge to study engineering seemed a really good logical move for me.
Alejandro: So then, what happened after you graduated from the University of Cambridge?
Nick Hazell: I went to aerospace. They sponsored me through Cambridge, and I still loved aerospace. The technical side of aerospace, I thought, was great. I landed a really great job in aerospace. I was manufacturing for, actually, kind of a secret – I studied years on that, so I can say about it, but it was kind of a secret manufacturing division that was making countermeasures and bugs, and sometimes, you wondered where these things would end up. It seemed almost James Bond-like. I was manufacturing electronic devices for aerospace, and it was technically brilliant. There was a load of brilliant engineers and brilliant scientists who were working there. But I got the opportunity to switch companies and to move to a company I had always admired, and that was Mars, which is a big chocolate factory in Slough in the UK, where I became a shift manager. That was my first move into food, which has always been part of my life. I’ve always been into cooking and into food. I ended up as a production manager in Slough in chocolate, and that was the beginning of my 20-year career in Mars.
Alejandro: That’s an amazing switch from aerospace to chocolates. It’s remarkable, and for you as well, while you were with Mars, you really were present to how excited you were around innovation and research and development. How was that process for you?
Nick Hazell: Trying to figure out something better was always part of what I did, and sometimes in manufacturing, that’s not terribly helpful when you’re running a production line. In Mars, there were quite a few opportunities. We had to figure out different ways of running things that would either be cheaper or better quality. I can remember – again, not terribly valued when you’re changing. It’s not for a shift manager to change recipes or do experiments, but that was always very much a part of how I thought. Luckily enough, when I was in Mars, and I had actually moved from Slough to Holland to the food part of the business and was part of the team building a big food factory, there was an opportunity when the R&D director lost their product development manager who moved to China. There was a vacancy. He had a problem, but he knew me, and he knew how I thought, and he recognized that I actually shouldn’t be in manufacturing or engineering but that I should be in R&D. That was, for me, home. That was where I had permission to change things; I had permission to think things through in a different way. I’m still in touch with that particular person. He ended up as head of R&D for Mars. He’s been a mentor all through my career.
Alejandro: Let’s talk about, in this case, after you do Mars, then you go to PepsiCo. But then there’s something there that happened that really got you into this next path that would get you to where you are today as a founder, which was more consulting/continuing education. What was that path like in your career?
Nick Hazell: Yeah. After Mars, I moved to Australia with Mars to head up R&D with their food company there. I moved to PepsiCo, which was a big move and very scary after so many years at Mars. Then, after five years in PepsiCo, I was made redundant. So, R&D in Australia, a bit precarious, a small market, and there was centralization going on. So, I fell into consulting, which gave me a lot of experience in a lot of different companies. It got me working with the CSIRO, which is the big science institute in Australia, part government-funded. But also, I started to teach. There was a new degree started at UTS, University of Technology Sydney called Bachelor Creative Intelligence and Innovation. I was there at the beginning trying to figure out how to teach other disciplines how to innovate. It was a very ahead-of-its-time degree. It’s insanely popular now. It has thousands of people applying for very few places. Essentially, if you’re a lawyer, engineer, physicist, or journalist, it really doesn’t matter. I think there are 25 degrees, which you do in parallel, and it teaches you how to be innovative. It does it in a multi-disciplinary way. So a journalist is thrown in with an engineer; he’s thrown in with a lawyer, and they try and figure out what the methods are because every discipline has an innovation method. It’s just that what an engineer does isn’t recognized by what a marketeer does and isn’t recognized by what a designer does, but they’re all relevant tools. I taught that for four years. That actually opened my eyes to startups, to entrepreneurialism, and I actually taught startups even though I had never done a startup. I focused a lot on intrapreneurism – what it’s like to innovate in big companies and how insanely difficult it is, and why big companies actually resist innovation with a fierceness that is really quite insane. It’s like innovation is some sort of disease that the immune system has to try and kill. It’s a very useful analogy, actually. I was in a really interesting position when I got a call, which was probably the starting story of v2food.
Alejandro: So, let’s talk about that because you receive a really interesting call that got you into this journey.
Nick Hazell: Yeah. It was from Martin Cole, who is my chief scientist now. Martin Cole was head of Food and Agriculture for the CSIRO, and I’ve known him for many years, and I’ve done a lot of projects with CSIRO in some really interesting food technology spaces. He gave me a call, and he said, “I’ve got an opportunity for you. Do you know anything about plant-based meat? Are you interested in doing something there?” Yes, I was interested. I found out more. Basically, what had happened was that he had been in a meeting earlier with a guy called Jack Callen, who’s the founder of Hungry Jack’s, which is the biggest franchise in Australia. It’s the same as Burger King in other countries. A venture capital guy, Phil Morle from Main Sequence which is the main venture capital arm of the CSIRO. They had come to the conclusion that no one is doing plant-based meat in Australia and that CSIRO had technology that could be relevant to that space, but they needed somebody to start a company. I did a bit of due diligence and said yes. Then I found myself on a plane to San Francisco, where there was an alternative protein conference, which I wanted to attend to find out what was going on and what was happening in this space. I found myself in a horrible hotel on the 17th of January in 2019, two years ago, feeling uncomfortable and thinking about “Why do I feel so uncomfortable?” It occurred to me that one of the reasons I felt uncomfortable is there were 50 CEOs of alternative protein companies, and I reckoned I was the only non-vegan in the group. I was thinking about that and saying, “Why is this being defined as a vegan problem?” Because it isn’t a vegan problem. It’s about people. All people in the world like to eat meat, but we’re eating way too much of it for it to be sustainable. I think that has been a core framing of the problem, which has helped me to food and navigate its journey over the last couple of years. What was serendipitous is the 17th of January was also the date when the EAT-Lancet report was published. The EAT-Lancet report was the first time that environmental sustainability was combined with nutrition to answer the question: what should we be eating? The answer came back loud and clear: we should be eating less meat. And that report has been cited enormously since, but it was a real landmark report. That day, the 17th of January, also happened to be the date when the seed money for v2food came through. That will stick in my head, but that was the journey starting. Then we got to the product development after that. That was a journey in itself.
Alejandro: Let’s talk about eating Whoppers every week.
Nick Hazell: Every week – no, more than that. I must admit that before I ate a Whopper, I went around the U.S. and Europe and looked at all the competition to find out what it was, and then, also, what’s the gold standard. I wasn’t a big burger eater, I must admit, but I ate a lot of burgers, obviously, including the Whoppers, but Whoppers were the best burger I could find – just to get in my head as to what is the gold standard? What are we aiming for? Then, it was an insane journey where I was moving from one R&D facility of the CSIRO where they specialized in texture and protein manipulation, to another facility where they have the flavor chemists, and in another facility where the Whopper was being made. I did that journey once a week for about 20 weeks, iterating all the time, learning from one, moving to the next, taking learnings from another, trying to turn it into a burger. I did that insanely quickly. We felt that we didn’t have any time to waste – to the point in June when we were tasting the results of our R&D, and we’d had some pretty tough feedback up until then – really tough feedback like, “It’s nowhere good enough. This is never going to work,” with some serious question marks. We had a blind tasting with Jack, and again, Jack said, “Look. You’ve really got to do some more work. This isn’t it at all. It’s got to get better,” but he was eating his own Whopper. He made no comment about what we did before, and that was the moment we said, “Right. We’ve got you! We’re going to launch. We’ve got something now.” Then, of course, the question was: Christmas is coming. You can’t launch during Christmas. So I asked, “When’s the latest you can launch without interfering with Christmas?” It was October, which gave us, I think at the time, 2.5 months to go from prototypes to launch, but we had to do it because we weren’t going to lose five months and launch in February. That was the date set. Then we started working with the Whopper factory to try and figure out how they can actually make plant-based meat.
Alejandro: Then, at what point did you realize that you’re tasting something that makes sense and that is delicious?
Nick Hazell: When you’re in product development, there are lots of little breakthroughs, and when you’re so close to it, you don’t get a sense of “Oh, wow. This is amazing,” because it’s incremental, but there have been a number of big breakthroughs where you’re dancing and thinking, “Finally, we’ve cracked juiciness; finally, we’ve cracked chewiness.” What is really exciting is when you do give your product to a consumer, and it’s clear they’ve got no idea that it’s not meat. Then you tell them afterward, “You’ve just eaten v2. There’s no meat in that.” The surprise and the shock, and sometimes delight, that’s when you really know you’ve got it. From my perspective, we’re not there yet. This is a journey. There is no limit to how good we can make plant-based meat. We’re not limited by the genetics of a cow. We can take it anywhere. For us, it’s improving all the time. But when you get reactions from the consumer – it’s the same all through my career. It’s a real buzz when you see your product in the supermarket. What I always do is I always sort of stand back and watch and will people to buy my product. If they do, I’ll often go and ask them why did they buy that and do they like it. That thrill never goes away when you know that lots of people are buying your product and enjoying it.
Alejandro: Absolutely. In this case, how much capital have you guys raised to date, Nick?
Nick Hazell: In total, it’s more than $100 million. The first raising was a couple of million in seed. Then we did another $30 million raise at Series A. We closed Series B in November of last year, and that was $70 million Australian, about $50 million U.S. But we’ve got a lot of building to do. We’ve built a big factory in Victoria, and we’ve got an awful lot of R&D and growth ahead of us. Our growth plans are insanely ambitious. We see this as an existential problem in the world. There are 10 billion people. There’s a meat industry, which is scheduling to be doubling in the next 20 years if nothing happens, and there is physically not enough land on the earth to support that. It is a physical impossibility. So, what’s the alternative that’s going to exist within the next 20 years that’s going to be the size of the meat industry? Venture capitalists have done the math on this, as well. That’s why they’re all piling into this area. It’s a trillion-dollar industry that will be created, and we’re pretty keen to be one of the players that makes this happen. The speed at which we’re operating now is – we have in our values something called dangerously fast, which the two words are important. If it doesn’t feel scary, and it doesn’t feel a little bit dangerous, then we believe we’re not going fast enough.
Alejandro: It’s interesting, going back to the amount raised. It’s pretty impressive that you guys have been able to raise all of that and being outside of the U.S. How challenging is it to move through all these different financing cycles where perhaps capital is a bit limited when you’re outside of the U.S. where you have the big funds.
Nick Hazell: Yeah, but the world’s a small place. We have connections with the U.S. Some of our investors are Silicon Valley investors. In Series B, we deliberately looked outside of Silicon Valley and looked outside of traditional investors and wanted to bring in strategic investors who could help us, particularly with developing markets, with China. There’s no way you’re going to solve this problem globally if you’re not doing something in Asia and not doing something in China. That’s where meat consumption is increasing the most. We’ve been able to attract investors from everywhere, and actually, it’s not true. There is a lot of money out there for this. People are looking for where to put their money in sustainable ventures, and cost of capital is so low now that, basically, people looking to invest their dollar in sustainable businesses are prepared to take more risks. That’s been our experience. I don’t want to say that it was that easy. It’s a big effort when you’re raising that amount of money, but there are certainly a lot of people looking for investments of this type.
Alejandro: Absolutely. So, plant-based meat is definitely top of mind for many, many people, and now it’s something that people are talking about quite a bit. What do you think that this world that we’re living in is going to be like from an eating-meat perspective? How is that going to change, and where do you think v2food is going to be, let’s say if we were to wake up in a world in five or ten years from now?
Nick Hazell: I think the plant-based meat will become a regular item on your shopping list. People will be genuinely making a decision: shall I have beef or shall I have chicken or shall I have v2? And more and more, they’ll be choosing v2 or another plant-based meat. The key unlock for that is that it’s available in the places that you buy your meat, that it’s affordable, and that it isn’t more expensive than meat. This is something that is being key in our development. We developed a business model and a product that really isn’t more expensive than meat. We’re the first to have done that, and it’s taken a lot of thinking about what our business model is. For me, meat was always the most expensive thing in my grocery basket. I didn’t want to pay more for meat. I buy meat when it’s on special offers. So, why would consumers want to pay more for plant-based meat? I think it’s going to be a mainstream alternative. My personal view is that it’s not useful to try and destroy the meat industry. It really isn’t useful. I think that we will be eating meat into the future, but a lot less of it. I think also that the meat industry will become more sustainable. If you frame this sustainability question, you can have unsustainable plant-based meat, and you can have sustainable meat. It is possible to do that, and I think that’s what’s going to happen in the world is that we will have a smaller amount of sustainable meat. But, hopefully, in about ten years’ time, we would have crossed the boundary where people are eating more plant-based meat than they’re eating animal meat.
Alejandro: For the people that are listening to get an understanding on how big v2food is today, anything that you can share in terms of number of employees are anything else?
Nick Hazell: It changes every day because, as I say, we’re only two-years-old. We’re now getting up to about 50 employees, but we’re commissioning a factory at the moment, so that’s going to go up quite a lot. In terms of size, we’re the biggest in Australia. We’re across all the major supermarkets in Australia, and obviously, Hungry Jack’s, and we’re extending into foodservice in Australia. But what’s really exciting is that we already have quite a big footprint in Asia with Burger King franchises in many of the Asian countries now, so we’ve won those deals, and we’re closing deals with a number of partners across Asia. Already, we are spreading, and our export is a significant part of our volume. But to be honest, all of our growth is ahead of us. We’re still very much a startup. We’re growing at 10x per year, and from one period to the next. The last four periods, we’ve been growing at 50% per period. This is not business as usual. It’s all about growth.
Alejandro: Absolutely. One of the questions that I typically ask the guests that come on the show is – imagine that we have the opportunity here to put you into a time machine because even though you guys have been in business since 2019, there are obviously so many different things that have happened since then because being in a startup and building and scaling something from the ground up, there are so many fires, so many things that happen, so many lessons learned, so if you could go back in time and have a chat with your younger self, maybe that younger Nick that was thinking about going at it with v2food, what would be that one piece of business advice that you would give to your younger self before launching a business and why knowing what you know now?
Nick Hazell: That’s such a difficult question. You know the first thing I would say is absolutely nothing because if I’d known what was going to hit us through these last two years in terms of COVID and pivoting and the problems, I probably wouldn’t have done it. So, actually, ignorance is your biggest weapon when you’re doing a startup. Now, I’ve read Steve Jobs and everything, and he talks about staying foolish. That’s what he’s talking about. Actually, being naïve is the biggest good thing. It really is an asset for a startup founder because if you know too much, then you wouldn’t even try. It would just be too hard. On the positive thing, what would I have done differently? It’s very difficult because I think that we’ve done an insanely good job in a very, very short space of time, so it’s difficult to imagine how we could have done better. I think, for me, certainly, last year – and I’ve said this to myself – I need a holiday. I didn’t take a holiday for a long time, and given that my biggest role is to lead and to provide the vision and also the technical expertise and creativity come up with solutions to difficult problems, if you don’t take time out to rest and to nurture yourself a little bit, you are not going to be as creative. I would have said: be a bit kinder to yourself, particularly last year, which was an insanely difficult year and take some time out.
Alejandro: Good advice there. Very wise words. Nick, for the folks that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Nick Hazell: We’re on all the socials, so if you just type in v2foods, you’ll come up with us. I’m on LinkedIn. And we’re not in the states at the moment, but, of course, we’re looking at that, and we’re looking at partners there, so probably normal things – take a look at us on our website and on socials, and you can follow our journey. We’re pretty much out there in the media. We quite like sharing our story because we’re not doing this alone. We’re part of a big ecosystem, a big moment, and I think we all move forward together, so we’re very happy to share our journey and share what we’re doing, and hopefully, we can make something really big happen in the world. I know that we need it, so let’s get out there and make something happen.
Alejandro: I love it. Nick, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
Nick Hazell: It was great for you to have me. Thanks, Alejandro.
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