As Pet Ownership Skyrockets, Leap Announces Four Legged-Focused Accelerator Class

Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

As Pet Ownership Skyrockets, Leap Announces Four Legged-Focused Accelerator Class

Leap Venture Studio, the first studio focusing entirely on upending the booming $95 billion pet industry with plant-based dog foods and smart cat litter boxes, has announced its fourth class of furry-friendly startups.

Leap is based in Los Angeles, but none of the startups are here, even though the city is home to a bevy of companies catering to furry friends.

"COVID has really opened the doors in terms of doing this virtually and we have opened the doors to more international companies this year than ever before," said Brett Yates, CEO of the animal welfare charity, Michelson Found Animals, who also oversees the studio. "In this particular cohort, we're representing six different time zones and four different countries."

The pandemic has created scores of new pet owners, increasing U.S. pet adoption by 35% in 2020, according to Rover, a pet sitter and dog walker booking site that filed to go public via a SPAC Thursday.

Rover estimates in its securities filing that the size of the U.S. pet market is $95 billion, but sees its "total scaled opportunity" growing to $113 billion by 2030. That's up from $45 billion a decade ago.

Toletta, one among Leap Venture Studios' class members, created a "smart" cat litter box.

Still COVID has had a dual effect, helping some businesses like the online retailer Chewy and others that sell pet food but hurting businesses like Rover, which are not needed when pet owners are rarely traveling.

Leap's portfolio company, L.A.-based Dogdrop, was also decimated, with pet owners not going to work and fearful of having their dogs socialize.

"People were afraid to take their dog to a place like that so they've had to rethink a lot of their business practices," Yates said.

But CEO and co-founder of Dogdrop Shaina Denny said the startup is actually doing well, disputing the characterization. "Our business has grown throughout COVID and we have only seen our proof of concept of short term stays (2-4 hours) of daycare use grow as people work from home and need to get their dogs out of the house to socialize," she said.

Still, the fastest-growing segment of the pet industry is plant-based foods, according to Yates. Just as humans have grown increasingly conscious about what they are eating, they no longer want to feed their dog Purina mystery meat.

"Meat based diets are no longer expected to be the norm for dogs or for cats," Yates said. "I think that is a really nascent part of the industry where there's a lot of conversation on both sides where people will say, 'My dog is a meat eater, period, end of story,' and then you've also got people that are typically more millennial that are saying, 'Yeah, I'm flexitarian or vegetarian or vegan, and my dog should eat that same way."'

Leap is a partnership between Mars Petcare, the animal division of the candy giant, along with Michelson Found Animals Foundation and R/GA Ventures.

Nestle's Purina also launched a startup accelerator last year.

The 12-week Leap Venture Studio culminates in an online pitch event held in May. Companies receive an investment of up to $200,000 if selected into the program.

Pet tech startups in Los Angeles County have raised more than $500 million in the last six years, according to Pitchbook data. However, most of that came from the $300 million that Softbank invested in the struggling dog walking marketplace Wag, before the Japanese bank abandoned its investment in 2019. Wag relocated what remains of its leadership and staff from West Hollywood to the Bay Area before the pandemic.

Here is the complete list of startups in the 2021 cohort:

  • Oliver Pets (Mexico City, Mexico and Buenos Aires, Argentina): Oliver Pets is the all-in-one service platform that makes pet parenting more simple and fun.
  • Pebble Naturals (Moss Beach, California): Pebble helps shelters save money on drugs by connecting them directly to manufacturers.
  • Petaluma, Inc. (Oakland, California): Petaluma is a public benefit corporation that formulates sustainable dog nutrition with environmentally friendly and animal-free ingredients.
  • petNmind Naturals (Coconut Creek, Florida): petNmind's mission is to enhance the bond between pets and their humans by focusing on quality products, insightful education, simple pet-washing services, and local product delivery, which creates peace of mind for pet parents and a healthy lifestyle for pets.
  • The Bark Shoppe (New York City): The Bark Shoppe is a pet care company specializing in pet grooming. They aim to standardize and certify pet groomers with their flagship grooming school and online training platform.
  • THE PACK (London): THE PACK are on a mission to cook-up drool-inducing plant-based meals for every dog-bowl in the world — a kind that's better for dogs, and their planet too.
  • Toletta Cats Inc. (Fujisawa, Japan): Toletta® is a "smart" cat litter box capable of detecting early symptoms of common feline diseases, without the stress of a veterinarian visit.
  • Woof Together (Athens, Greece): Woof Together is a startup setting the standards in pet-friendly hospitality by assessing, certifying and training pet-friendly hospitality businesses.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the comments of Dogdrop CEO Shaina Denny.

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Farmer Fintech ProducePay Is Getting Into the Carbon-Trading Game

David Shultz

David Shultz is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara, California. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside and Nautilus, among other publications.

A farm

Courtesy of Karsten Würth via Unsplash

It’s not exactly easy to understand what ProducePay does, so let’s get that out of the way first.

The Los Angeles-based fintech company essentially functions as a digital marketplace for produce that connects farmers to distributors and sellers.

“We go to your farm. We understand what your production capability is. If you need capital to achieve that, we help get that set up for you,” explains CEO Pablo Schwarzbeck. “Ultimately, we help you find the buyers—or for the buyers, help them find the sellers.”

Farmers (and distributors and wholesalers and shippers and retailers) only dot com!

To enable the trade of perishable goods like fruits and vegetables, ProducePay has had to become an underwriter for more than 1,500 farms across the Americas. Those farms can range in size from a few acres all the way up to multinational giants that supply hundreds or thousands of grocery stores. And the only way to figure out who to trust and how to lend money is by getting boots in the dirt. Schwarzbeck, who grew up on a fourth-generation farm in Northwest Mexico, spent nearly 100 days visiting farms during the pandemic last year.

“Do these people know what they're doing? Do they have any experience farming? Do they have the infrastructure to support it? Do they have accountants? Do they have a proper staff of people beyond farming that will ultimately be able to run this like a business? Do they have the partners to buy produce? Do we trust their partners?” asks Schwarzbeck.

ProducePay makes its money by taking a small percentage of each transaction completed on their site. It also lends capital to farmers and distributors it feels will be able to pay it back . And of course they’re also collecting and selling data on the cost and distribution of crops, among other industry insights.

“Our job really is to create transparency and trust that allows both parties to feel comfortable,” says Schwarzbeck.

The amount the company charges per transaction ranges from .5% to 10% and depends on the amount of value that ProducePay can generate for the client.

“We try to take about no more than one out of every four points that we get back,” says Schwarzbeck, meaning if ProducePay can help a farmer sell 40% more produce, it’ll take 10%. If it can only help them sell 2% more, the company takes 0.5%.

This sort of clinical approach to fintech underwriting has remained the core of ProducePay’s strategy since its inception. But this summer the company added a new pillar to their underwriting model: climate pricing.

With consumer demand for sustainably grown, low-carbon foods increasing, ProducePay is adding economic incentives to its platform to encourage farmers to lower their carbon footprint.

Through a partnership with ALLCOT, a company specializing in greenhouse gas emission offsetting, the fintech company is offering a way for farmers to access the carbon market.

Schwarzbeck says that many of the growers he works with were already practicing a variety of sustainable farming techniques. With ProducePay, they can now sell carbon credits on voluntary carbon markets, meaning they get paid to grow more sustainably. The specifics of how this plays out and which carbon markets are used can vary, but the idea is that ProducePay evaluates a farm, establishes how much carbon it’s using, and then recommends Climate-Smart Agriculture practices as outlined by the United Nations. Farmers can then practice strategies like crop rotation, minimum tillage and cover crops usage to reduce their carbon footprint. Once the carbon savings are calculated and confirmed by an external audit, they can be converted into credits and sold.

When used as a way for corporations to buy their way out of causing climate damage, carbon offsets remain dubious for a large variety of legitimate reasons. However, following sustainable farming practices can actually make a difference in the Earth’s carbon budget: Rather than buying a bandage for the damage a company is doing, selling credits incentivize farmers to do less damage to begin with. And Schwarzbeck says with consumer demand for sustainable produce constantly rising, adding the environmental pillar to their underwriting model has fundamentally changed how the company is doing business.

“Consumers are really starting to vote with their wallets,” he says. “That has been such a palpable movement in the market that has literally shifted how we underwrite the farmers right now.”

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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