Chasing Unicorns

    Photo: pimmimemom

    In their quest for cutting-edge innovations, tobacco companies have set up venture capital subsidiaries.

    By Stefanie Rossel

    Incessant innovation is at the heart of tobacco companies’ transformation process. Eager to move their businesses away from combustible cigarettes toward less hazardous alternatives and opportunities beyond nicotine, cigarette manufacturers have invested billions of dollars into innovation and scientific research. They have substantially expanded their research and development teams, recruiting talent from sectors such as consumer electronics while acquiring companies in adjacent business areas, including pharmaceutics.

    To avoid missing out on innovative trends and new technologies, however, tobacco companies in their transformation process need to think out of the box, or rather outside the organization, and keep an eye on the startup scene. For this purpose, the leading players have established platforms to serve windows on future technologies. In addition to using corporate venture capital (CVC), they are  working with incubators, accelerators and universities.

    Japan Tobacco International has chosen the latter approach. In March 2019, it teamed up with Silicon Valley-based Plug and Play Tech Center, a technology incubator, to run Vapetech, a program aimed at bringing together innovators and data experts to develop technology that improves the user experience and health benefits of vaping. Each year, Plug and Play selects about 20 startups that will develop ideas and solutions for a more enhanced vaping experience, JTI said in a statement. Startups with new devices or technology applicable to the Internet of Things (IoT), biometrics, data and lifestyle will enter a three-month program to develop their products and services and have access to investment and corporate partnerships.

    “We need new innovative products coming on in future years, so the Vapetech process will be really instrumental,” explains Suzanne Wise, senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications at JTI. “We surround startups with the right ecosystem and provide them with all they need. It’s a process where you get people completely from outside the industry, with different mindsets, who are looking at what we are facing as challenges, and they just come up with stuff that we say, gee, why not us?”

    Wanted: Extraordinary Solutions

    With PM Equity Partner (PMEP), Philip Morris International was the first tobacco company to set up a CVC division in 2016. CVC is a variant of venture capital where the required capital comes from a corporation outside of the financial sector. In contrast to risk financing, which primarily aims to generate a return for the venture capitalist, CVC also pursues strategic goals.

    Established companies use their CVC arms to develop new technologies or new business models, to explore other markets or for diversification. Staying ahead of competitors in a specific market is another motivation for CVC. In turn, startups benefit not only from the funding but also from getting access to technological know-how, distribution channels and cooperation partners.

    PMEP invests in early stage and growth-stage companies with technology-based business models and proven commercial traction, such as existing revenue or contracts, that fit into the focus it shares with its parent company: the ambition to replace cigarettes with smoke-free alternatives and explore new markets beyond nicotine.

    Candidate companies should be able to make a positive, significant and sustainable contribution to PMI’s core business and science-centric, technology-driven smoke-free vision, and they should operate in one of the four investment corridors defined by PMEP: life sciences, industrial technologies, consumer engagement and product technologies. Aspirants could, for example, offer innovations in inhaled therapeutics and computational research methodologies, industrial robotics and automation, or technology-based process optimization. Or they could bring in their solutions for bioauthentication, user identification or innovative customer care.

    “The startup should have developed an innovation in one of these areas that substantially differs from other technologies currently used in its respective market segment,” explains Alexander Stoeckel, head of PMEP. “Furthermore, it should have left the startup phase behind and ideally have customer relations or a testable prototype because usually we test the startup’s innovation together with PMI’s respective departments and decide on an investment after we have understood which contribution this technology could contribute to our success as PMI.”

    Strong Funding Basis

    Being the CVC arm of a well-known company such as PMI helps generate business, according to Stoeckel. The fact that PMEP’s parent company is a tobacco corporation hasn’t been any hindrance yet, he says. “Founders are regularly surprised to find out how professional and broadly positioned PMI is.”

    The CVC team is in constant communication with PMI’s division heads to identify their challenges, suggestions, problems and innovation requirements in order to find startups that develop or already market matching solutions. In return, the investee companies will be able to make use of PMI’s extensive R&D capabilities, operational and marketing excellence, and deep involvement in supply chain. PMPE says it provides its entrepreneurs with long-term support not only in financing but also for mutual benefits at strategic and commercial levels. More precisely, it helps entrepreneurs strategize, steer partnerships, help with negotiations and raise and utilize capital.

    In October 2021, PMI allocated a further $200 million to the CVC’s initial $150 million investment. According to the company, ideal investments are between $2 million and $10 million in Series A stage companies, with flexibility to also consider investments in seed or late-growth companies. (Series A funding is the first round after the seed stage; companies need to have a strong plan for developing a business model that will generate long-term profit.)

    To date, PMEP has invested in 13 companies, according to Pitchbook.com. Among the companies still in PMEP’s portfolio is BOW Group, a startup specializing in wearables, connected vehicles and smart home products. The company is supporting PMI to deliver on its commitment of a consumer-centric ecosystem. Another investee company, Biognysis, enables PMI with its disruptive technology to identify biomarkers and understand the biological impact of switching to PMI’s IQOS heated-tobacco product.

    Driving the Change

    BAT created BTomorrow Ventures (BTV) in 2019 and established a £150 million ($176.33 million) fund to help accelerate BAT’s transformation. As BTV’s managing director, Lisa Smith, pointed out during the recent GTNF in Washington, D.C., “Transformation requires innovation, and BTV has set up a number of innovation ecosystems. It’s a highly competitive market, and finding the best innovators out there is difficult. Our role is to be the outward-looking ‘handshake’ to the outside world to show that we are the preferred partner of choice.” BTV’s job, she said, was to channel these innovators to the right part of its business. “There are many tasks in transformation, such as to quickly move the environmental, social and governance (ESG) agenda and to build the science and credibility to be able to operate in the beyond-nicotine world.”

    The CVC therefore invests in specialist categories, including consumer brands, digital transformation, new technologies, future sciences and sustainability. BTV has also established an accelerator and growth platform called BTV Labs and divided them it three categories: Consumer Delight Lab (focusing on consumer brands), Futures Lab (focusing on science, technology and digital) and an ESG Lab. In its portfolio are businesses from the functional food and beverage, electronic equipment and instruments, and cannabinoid sectors. To date, BTV has invested in 22 companies. Unicorn-nest.com estimates that the average round size was $3 million. With building a community a core part of BTV’s value proposition, the corporate venture unit stages “Binspired” events, a collaborative forum for CEOs or founders, investment partners and senior executives. In addition, it runs the “Battle of Minds” in partnership with BAT, which is a “business pitch” competition for students, graduates and early stage startups from around the globe.

    Lexy Prosszer, BTV’s investment principal who previously worked in BAT’s merger and acquisitions department, says that BTV was established to accommodate a different type of deal. “M&A was not set up to deliver on that in terms of speed, scale and credibility to get these entrepreneurs at the table to want a conversation with us and believe that BAT has got the right intentions to change and transform. With BTV, we’re meeting a real need that the corporate [sphere] has.”

    According to Prosszer, collaborating and engaging with startups has contributed to shift in mindset among BAT employees, encouraging them to do things faster. “They’re excited, engaged and love working with the entrepreneurs. Much has been achieved. It’s been a cultural shift to being open to how an entrepreneur might do things and how that can be leveraged to us to get our result faster.”

    Through BTV, observes BAT Finance and Transformation Director Tadeu Marroco, the company suddenly has access to understanding better products that otherwise would take ages to develop internally. “We can be closer to them and see how they perform in the markets. For entrepreneurs, it means that they can leverage on the massive strengths that BAT has as a multinational company with massive distribution capabilities.”