• Hampton Creek said to be looking to raise about $200 million
  • Company wants to sell plant-based oysters, chicken tenders

Hampton Creek Inc., best known for making an eggless version of mayonnaise, is looking to raise fresh capital to fuel its expansion into a vegan conglomerate selling everything from plant-based “oysters” and “blue cheese” to children’s snacks shaped like Batman and Darth Vader.

In recent weeks, Hampton Creek has been trying to raise about $200 million at a $1.1 billion valuation, said people familiar with the matter. The talks are ongoing, and the terms could change, the people said. If successful, Hampton Creek would become the latest startup to attain unicorn status.

Backed by at least a dozen billionaires, including Bill Gates and Hong Kong’s Li Ka-Shing, the company bills itself as an avatar of healthy, sustainable food and sells a range of products at Target, Walmart, Whole Foods and other big chains. Hampton Creek wants to increase the number of products it sells from 64 today to more than 600, ranging from soups and pantry staples to desserts and pasta, according to a fundraising presentation obtained by Bloomberg.

At a time when investors have begun to shy away from food tech startups, the San Francisco company has been trying to tap new sources of capital, including private-equity shops and even the investment arms of such big-food stalwarts as General Mills Inc., according to one of the people. Hampton Creek is also in talks with Khosla Ventures, according to two people, who requested anonymity to discuss a private matter. Hampton Creek declined to comment.

Since the company was founded in 2011, VC firms have poured billions of dollars into food-technology startups, including Impossible Foods Inc., which makes meat and cheese replacements, and Juicero, which makes a cold-pressed juicing machine. Last year, such ventures raised a record $5.7 billion, according to research firm CB Insights.

But the sector hasn’t escaped a broader funding crunch that has left private companies across many industries hungry for cash. In the first quarter of this year, the food-tech category attracted just $684 million, the lowest quarterly funding total since 2014.

Hampton Creek has endured its own travails. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told the company its Just Mayo products weren’t mayonnaise because they lacked eggs and featured a misleading label. Ultimately, Hampton Creek was allowed to keep the Just Mayo name but was forced to reduce the size of its logo, which features an egg, and increase the prominence of the label’s "egg-free" disclaimer.

Ever since the company was founded by first-time entrepreneur Josh Tetrick, 36, investors and analysts have questioned Hampton Creek’s tech bona fides, arguing that the company isn’t truly an innovator but a deft marketer. In a fundraising presentation sent to investors in recent weeks, the company said it was light years ahead of “the others” with a “proprietary functional toolkit that enables novel functionalities in food.”

The fundraising documents also describe big expansion plans. Hampton Creek wants to build a 95,000-square-foot research-and-development facility where the company plans to use artificial intelligence and robotics to uncover new plant-based protein products. Dubbed “Blackbird,” the facility would include a plant-processing lab and “discovery systems technology” that Hampton Creek says will allow its scientists to analyze over 960 plant samples a week. Hampton Creek plans to spend $8.8 million on research and development in 2016, which is almost twice the amount spent in 2015, according to the documents.

Future plant-based offerings could include Just Chicken Tenders, Just Oysters and Just Blue Cheese, the documents say. A line of snacks aimed at kids would feature an egg substitute in a microwavable pod that cooks into the shape of a superhero, a set of Legos, or even a toy car. “Upon microwaving,” the presentation says, “it surprises the kid by forming a new shape each time: Batman, Darth Vader or a different character.” The Batman- and Darth Vader-shaped snacks would have a “light and airy” texture and come in “nacho” or “grilled cheese sandwich” flavors.

Source: Hampton Creek investor presentation

Expansion doesn’t come cheap. The presentation reveals that Hampton Creek plans to spend over $20 million on promotions this year. Manufacturing costs are expected to triple in 2016, while operating expenses will almost double. So although sales are projected to quadruple to more than $100 million this year, Hampton Creek says it will lose $63 million.

Barb Renner, who leads the U.S. consumer products team for consulting firm Deloitte, says healthy, sustainably produced food has a strong future given robust demand from consumers determined to eat better. But she says Hampton Creek and other food-tech startups ultimately will be judged on the same criterion as their deep-pocked industrial rivals: flavor.

--With Lizette Chapman

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