Meet HumanCo, the Berkshire Hathaway for health and wellness brands

Jason H. Karp tells us why he founded HumanCo, the launch of a new brand (Snow Days), his thoughts on synthetic meats and opportunities in the cannabis space.


March 4, 2021

It’s a story that is told too many times: someone sacrificing their health for professional ambitions. 

Jason H. Karp was one of these people.

In his early 20s — soon after graduating from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and joining the hedge fund industry — he got very sick and received 2 life-changing health diagnoses.

Karp discovered he had an autoimmune disease and, separately, was told that he had an incurable, degenerative eye condition that would lead to blindness. 

It was unclear what the root cause of these health issues was, so Karp did a lot of his own research and took charge of his own health. Despite what doctors said was impossible, he reversed his disease over the course of a year by drastically overhauling his diet and lifestyle.

In 2012, Karp launched:

  • Tourbillon Capital: His own hedge fund, which peaked at $4.5B in assets under management.
  • Hu Kitchen: A health and wellness company co-founded with his wife and brother-in-law. Hu — as in “human” — began as a paleo-inspired restaurant and today is a cult-favorite healthy snack brand (known for their organic chocolate and grain-free crackers) that was recently acquired by Mondelez — the public snacking giant that owns Cadbury, Oreos, and Toblerone. 

In early 2019, Karp officially retired from the hedge fund industry at age 42 and — as a 2nd act after Hu — he created HumanCo, a holding company that is the culmination of his life’s work from investing to entrepreneurship to a fervent focus on healthier living and sustainability. 

Structured like a hybrid of Berkshire Hathaway and SoftBank, HumanCo invests (and incubates) health and wellness brands across a broad set of categories. 

In the last year, HumanCo has acquired 2 companies (Monty’s and Coconut Bliss). In early March, it launched its first incubated brand called Snow Days.The Hustle spoke to Karp to find out more about HumanCo’s process, his thoughts on synthetic meats, opportunities in the cannabis space, and more:

***

Jason, to get started, can you tell our readers exactly what HumanCo does? 

You can think of HumanCo as a mission-driven health and wellness conglomerate, or holding company. Some well-known public holding companies (with many independent brands under one parent) are Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and PepsiCo.

Because of my finance background and my studies around different business models, HumanCo is not a fund and more similar to Berkshire Hathaway or a SoftBank in that it has permanent capital and a shared-resource platform. 

A company acquired by (or incubated within) HumanCo remains mostly independent and stands on its own 2 feet as a brand. As the individual companies within HumanCo continue to grow, our goal is to encourage independence but provide expertise in areas that founders typically don’t want to focus on or could benefit from sharing such as accounting, capital raising, admin, and shared logistics. 

This allows the founder and management teams to focus on innovation, remaining agile, and making epic sh*t.

Coconut Bliss (L), Monty’s (R)

What type of customers is HumanCo targeting?

As far as the types of consumers we are targeting, HumanCo uses a psychographic lens (e.g., values, goals) rather than a demographic lens (e.g., age, gender).

We are focusing on what we call the “conscious consumer,” who deeply cares about living a healthier and more purpose-driven life. If a consumer cares about the quality of the ingredients and the transparency in how it is made, or has complete trust in the overall product, HumanCo has the brands for them.

Does HumanCo focus on a singular area of health and wellness? 

We focus on:

  • Products that go in your body like food, beverage, supplements 
  • Products that go on your body like personal care, beauty products, and household products 

Human performance technology that empowers living a healthier life (e.g., Oura Ring, where I was an early investor)

To date, HumanCo has acquired 2 companies?

Yes, one is a plant-based butter and cream cheese company called Monty’s, and the other is one of the largest plant-based ice cream companies out there, Coconut Bliss.

Our first HumanCo-incubated brand just hit the market, Snow Days.

Could you tell us more about Snow Days? 

I grew up in New England, and when there was a “snow day” morning when school was cancelled, it felt like heaven. There was this feeling of complete freedom and joy when you suddenly realized there was no school.

By contrast, as more and more consumers become educated about what’s in today’s food, there is a justified growing feeling of paranoia, skepticism, and vigilance. The more you know as a conscious consumer, the less freedom and more self-doubt you have about what’s available to eat.

I felt the need to bring back that feeling of freedom and joy in what you can eat without the doubt and regret.

Snow Days

I grew up in Canada and lived in both Montreal and Boston, so I can definitely relate to “snow days”.

Snow Days want to capture that euphoric feeling of a surprise “snow day” by freeing the conscious consumer of their reluctance and subsequent regret.

Before I was sick and before I knew better as a kid in the 1980s, I lived on, and loved, junky comfort food. I now have 2 kids of my own, and my wife and I regularly crave the foods we used to love but no longer can or feel good about eating.

Well, Snow Days’ motto is “comfort food made clean,” and we are making the best nostalgic foods, but with organic, wholesome ingredients. 

Snow Days’ first product is an organic, grain-free pizza bite. Unlike the options out there today or when we were growing up, though, Snow Days is made with:

  • a cassava base (grain-free and gluten-free)
  • organic grass-fed mozzarella cheese
  • infused with 7 veggies
  • only uses olive oil instead of highly processed oils like canola

It has a simple ingredient label and is actually healthy for you and your family. 

Compare this with the #1 selling pizza roll in the US, Totino’s: it has over 60 ingredients and the cheese isn’t even real (it’s imitation cheese).

What criteria do you look for when screening for potential acquisitions?

Outside of the ingredients and health aspects of a company, we look at both qualitative and quantitative factors. 

On the qualitative side, we consider a company’s leadership, its values, and whether it has a real commitment to human health and sustainability. 

On the quantitative side, we’ll look at many business metrics and also key performance indicators, including: 

  • Customer engagement: How is the brand performing in search, social, and reviews?
  • Consumption patterns: How many products are sold each week by channel? What is the nature of the repeat sales and loyalty? Are the repeat sales slowing or accelerating after the first few purchases? 

With Hu Chocolate, for example, we saw an exponential effect with our products after early trials. When a customer bought one item, they would come back to try 2 or 3 different items. We look for this type of exponential growth and interest in other companies.

There’s been a big movement in the food space for meat replacements. How do you feel about brands like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat? 

Right now, there is a strong push for sustainability, which is one of HumanCo’s core pillars.

Synthetic and plant-based meat substitutes look to address the unsustainable industrial cattle industry. However, I think many consumers are conflating what’s good for the earth with what’s good for human health. Just because it is better for cattle and greenhouse emissions does not mean it is healthy from a nutritional perspective. 

Many of these meat alternatives are highly processed and involve modern biochemistry with a short history on how it ultimately affects the human body. We don’t actually know what a decade of eating this type of synthetic meat will do to humans.

How do you address the question of how synthetic meat is meant to feed a growing world population in a sustainable manner? 

If you’re telling me that someone is at risk of starvation, then of course we should offer any type of calories available. In some countries, starvation is a devastating problem that needs a specific set of solutions to allow for human survival.

Modern industrial farming was a post-WWII creation to address food insecurity and vitamin deficiencies, and that was a noble goal at the time.

However, many of these government supported policies and subsidies have led to industries of hyper-processed, nutritionally deficient foods with extreme negative consequences on human populations.

Right, that is a great point.

Unfortunately, problems in the US and most other developed countries are no longer vitamin deficiencies and starvation. It’s the opposite: an explosion of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases that are self-inflicted and lifestyle-related.

Despite all the advances in science and modern medicine, this is the first generation in recorded human history that is predicted to live a shorter life span than the previous generation.

I think hyper-processed plant-based foods and substitute meats can potentially head down the same route. We just don’t know the long-term implications of eating this type of food.

As I said earlier, we do not support industrial farming of animals for a variety of reasons. We believe there are better options. If we have to make protein at scale, however, there are less-processed plant-based options that use less water and create less of a carbon footprint than some of the recent innovations in processed substitute meats.

These options may not be the most healthy for humans, but it’s probably safer than some of these meats that are created with synthetic biology.

You’re taking a cautious stance. 

My position is the same one that the European Union (EU) takes regarding issues of human health. Europe has banned 100s of ingredients from the continent that are still allowed here in the US.

Why do they have a different standard? It’s called the precautionary principle, which considers the long-term effects of introducing new chemistry into the environment or food chain. To protect human health, new products are guilty until proven innocent with extensive, long-term research and data. 

There is a history of scientific hubris where scientists introduce new chemicals and molecules to market, which have since proved disastrous with the benefit of hindsight: 

  • Asbestos was once considered a revolution, but 20 years later people realized it was highly carcinogenic. 
  • Monsanto’s glyphosate was considered a safe herbicide that increased crop yields before people realized it was also carcinogenic and disrupts the microbiome.
  • Olestra was supposed to be the clever fat substitute that has since been banned in Canada and European countries.

In America, there are fewer guardrails in place for food science innovation. This can lead to faster breakthroughs but — as shown in many examples — can have some very negative outcomes if we do not have enough long-term data.

Are you looking at any industries outside of health and wellness? 

Cannabis is an area which historically has not been thought of as “health and wellness,” but we believe time will change that view. You also now see a clear path toward federal legalization with the election of President Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress. 

We are at a major inflection point now as the majority of this country’s population is in favor of legalization of cannabis, which not only has a number of health benefits, but also is much safer than alcohol (which is definitionally a toxin). 

Over the next 10 years, I believe you will see the growth and adoption of cannabis similar to what you’re now seeing with bitcoin/cryptocurrency and electric vehicles. 

My favorite company, and one my larger investments in the space, is Airgraft, which is a clean, medical-grade vaporizer for cannabis. To get delivery of the CBD or THC [the key cannabinoids or chemical components of cannabis], many users either smoke it, eat it, or use unsafe vaporizing devices.

AirGraft is an ultra-clean vaporizer, which makes it easy to take medical doses of cannabis without any safety concerns. If Apple were to enter the cannabis space, this is the product it would make, and it was the reason I led the Series A 2 years ago and remain on the board of the company.

Airgraft

Your bio says you’ve been to 30 countries. Are there any favorite places food wise? 

I love countries that take pride in the quality of their food, their farming, and their ingredients. The top 3 for me are Italy, France, and Japan. 

If you look back 20-30 years ago, these countries didn’t have a word for “organic” because everything was organic. 

These countries have a disdain for cheap processed foods because they know it’s garbage. I am all for finding more affordable options as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of health.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

It’s from my father. 

He used to tell me to not burn any bridges. Be thoughtful about your reputation and your relationships. You never know when something will come back around.

I believe in karma and like to pay it forward, with no agenda or expectation of getting something in return. 

I’ve had lucky things happen in my life because I helped someone 20 years prior without realizing how it might affect me in the future. 

Do you have a request for a startup? 

There’s been a massive push to get kids into STEM (sciences, technology, engineering, math) in recent years. While children are certainly learning STEM, I find that many younger people are not learning how to be good people or develop true life skills like integrity, grit, and resilience.

Previous generations learned these values and a sense of duty from serving in the military. If someone is building tech or a company that helps build integrity or helps people make better decisions, I’d love to talk.

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