Think at London Business School
Why a Sloan alumnus with expertise in scaling up companies joined a non-profit that tackles the loneliness epidemic in young adults
By Alison Benson
Tucked away in the city of Palmerston North, on New Zealand’s North Island, is an old dairy-processing facility on Dairy Farm Road. Here, a dedicated “herd” of international investors and mentors are cultivating the best agtech and foodtech initiatives New Zealand has to offer. Welcome to Sprout.
Launched in 2015, Sprout started out as an agtech accelerator. Over the past year it changed its business model and has matured into an independent investment company. It now has up to NZ$40 million (about £20.3 million) available for seed-stage capital. So far, it has launched 47 companies that are leaving its footprints (in Maori, ‘tapuwae’) on the future health of the planet.
CEO Gil Meron (Meirovich) elaborates: “Sprout was one of New Zealand’s first accelerator companies. Last year it formed a consortium that won a tender to be a New Zealand government (Callaghan Innovation)-backed tech incubator. That means the government helps with operating expenses and underwrites part of the risk, which in turn enables us to be ecosystem builders. For every dollar we put in, the government gives us $3. That’s huge. It allows us to write NZ$1m cheques to promising startups. This is a win-win-win, for the founders, for us and for the government, who invests a lot of money into agricultural research and we help them commercialise it.”
Gil credits his time at London Business School for recognising the opportunity Sprout offered – and the fact that sustainability and business can co-exist. “At LBS, I found out that corporate social responsibility exists. Some corporates are forced to do it, others choose to do it. LBS helped me understand that I could choose to do it – and play in a place like this.”
Gil, an Israeli, uprooted himself and his family from Israel to join Sprout last year. At the time he was working for Finistere Ventures, one of the first professional institutional investors to back agricultural and food technology startups. His boss told him about an opportunity to build an investment vehicle in New Zealand. “He said we had an opportunity to build something bigger, to leverage on previous successes and track records, and with great international partners. One of our other partners was the Israeli investment platform OurCrowd. So it was this group of Americans, Israelis and corporates buying into the idea of building something big.
“Sprout was a very convenient founder because I joined a business that already existed. It had a budget, so it wasn’t a founder that scrapes. I’ve done that, and it’s not for the faint-hearted, especially if you’re moving with your family to the other side of the world. Plus, I had the comfort of knowing that the forward-looking Kiwis at Sprout believed in this project long-term.”
Everything Sprout does is geared towards the long term. Its approach is anchored by a culture of “going to the trenches” with early-stage companies, which means navigating their journey to make sure their product gets noticed by a global network of investors and partners. “We don’t invest in technology,” says Gil. “Technology is important because it’s the moat around the castle, but we invest in people. We want to invest in entrepreneurs. And we always stay true to our slogan: break new ground.”
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“We don’t invest in technology. Technology is important because it’s the moat around the castle, but we invest in people”
Gil’s early career was in technology – by default. He started out as a computer engineer as a graduate of an elite programme of the Israeli intelligence service. “Back in the ’90s,” he recalls, “it was practically impossible not to go into the hi-tech industry, especially coming out of this programme.”
He joined IBM, first as a student, then full time on “the most exciting project a computer engineer could ask for”: working on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming console. “It was every engineer’s dream. IBM was developing the CPU for PlayStation 3, the CPU for the Wii and the CPU for Xbox 360, behind Chinese walls. It was incredible, but it also helped me realise that tech development wasn’t for me. I wasn’t passionate enough about it.”
So, eight years later, he enrolled at London Business School. “LBS seemed like a great opportunity to restart,” he smiles, “to learn about things that are happening in the outside world. It was a good time to do an MBA in a place that was world-class and in a big city.
“I wasn’t a very humble guy, but I remember the showcase at the intro to the entrepreneurship course, where every group showed their project. My jaw just dropped. I thought, ‘Wow, these are amazing people. Creative ideas, the thought behind the research, the quality of the execution – mind-blowing.”
He graduated from LBS with distinction. He remembers, “I got all the interviews I wanted. LBS taught me how to hustle. I had to get out there and compete. I had to sell.”
He found a job in London with the Boston Consulting Group – an “incredible” period, but at the time the financial market collapsed. “It was a bloodbath,” he recalls. “But I also learnt so much about myself and my capabilities.”
At BCG Gil was assigned to carry out an analysis project in the water sector. “Israel is a very dry place,” he says. “Less renewable water per capita than Syria or Libya, but it’s still able to sustain a modern economy. We looked 30 years into the future with these guys to see what it would be like. My client said, ‘Wow, trying to supply water that creates the food and the energy of this planet, that’s the thing. That’s where we want to be.’ I moved to Israel, my client left his job and we started exploring this space with money from UK-based investors. This led to the career I like and am passionate about.”
Gil began working with the World Bank on the International Finance Corporation’s agritech strategy. Building its investment pipeline gave him a free ticket to speak to any professional investor in the global agrifoodtech investment community. One he spoke to was Arama Kukutai, co-founder of Finistere Ventures, who persuaded him to jump ship and build Finistere’s activities in Israel. Becoming CEO of Sprout was a natural progression.
There is no shortage of applicants pitching for a place in Sprout’s stable. Last year the company decided to take two cohorts from more than 100 applicants through its accelerator arm. “We take the best cutting-edge companies we think will be coachable and that we’ll enjoy working with,” says Gil. “It also allows us to experiment. That’s an important part of our strategy – to be experimental.”
Sprout’s mentors drive the chosen startups into pivoting and delivering, possibly changing the taste of their product or their focus or market. “We see them perform, we see them improve,” Gil explains. “We see if they’re coachable and can convert opportunities into deals. That’s the best due diligence one can have on the team.”
Sprout also helps the startups overcome one of the biggest challenges: raising follow-on capital. “If you went through the accelerator you are more likely to raise money, either from Sprout or from investors you are exposed to through the programme. Raising money from Sprout has an extra benefit as our investors are follow-on investors – their business is investing in these later rounds.”
Sprout also has a partnership arm, which enables corporates to engage with startups. “Corporates and startups are like fire and water,” says Gil. “But they need each other. The startups need clients or suppliers and the corporates need to know what new technology is out there. Corporates are slow, startups are immature, so they need to engage. We facilitate that.”
Learning and nurturing go hand-in-hand at Sprout. “We’re working on forming a partnership with New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people,” says Gil. “They care greatly about the land. They have a different view – a much longer time horizon – and, as a result, a more sustainable view of life and farming, called ‘kaitiakitanga’.” (A ‘kaitiaki’ is a guardian; the concept denotes guardianship of the sky, the sea and the land.)
“It’s a great opportunity for us to learn from them,” he continues. “We’re also trying to start an internship programme for young Maori professionals. We really want to integrate them into who Sprout is.”
As for his own integration into the company, Gil concludes: “They took someone from abroad with very little network in New Zealand and not a lot of understanding of what was going on there, though I spent the year of lockdown listening to every possible podcast I could about life and entrepreneurship there. I wanted to work in an industry where I’d feel good about what I do. I just believed in the dream. It seemed right.”