F-U-N-D-E-D: How Silicon Valley's cash is making grocery stores and cookbooks obsolete

Record-level investments are flowing into food delivery startups.

Max Taves Staff Reporter
Max writes about venture capitalism and startups while seeking out the new new thing to come out of Silicon Valley. He joined CNET News from The Wall Street Journal, where he contributed stories on commercial real estate, architecture, big data and more. He's also written for LA Weekly, Slate and American Lawyer Media's The Recorder, where he covered legal battles in Silicon Valley. Max holds degrees from Georgetown University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
Max Taves
4 min read

Food delivery startups are cooking up record-level investments. CNET

Remember home-ec class? Now there's an app to help pass it.

It's called Deliveroo, and since the startup launched in London two years ago, it's become a dominant player in England and Ireland, where its network of drivers and bicyclists transport ready-made meals from a list of "curated" restaurants to customers' homes in 32 min, on average.

Now it's got even bigger ambitions, after investors gave Deliveroo $70 million this week. Its sights are set on all of Europe's food delivery market, effectively giving kids an excuse to fail home-ec class.

"We're going to try to be No. 1 in every European market within a few months," said Fred Destin, an investor at Accel Partners, an early backer of the company.

Destin said Deliveroo will begin expanding rapidly across "a number of European cities," but he's tight-lipped about exactly which ones. Still, the London-based venture capitalist is more candid about why his firm backed a food delivery startup in the first place, even when other much larger European food delivery startups like Just Eat and Delivery Hero had already been operating.

"Competition might be an issue, but market size isn't," he said. "This is a huge market... Within a few years, food -- I think without a doubt -- will be the largest category within e-commerce."

These days, he might as well be preaching to the venture capitalist choir.

Food has emerged as one of the hottest sectors in latest wave of instant gratification startups. Look beyond GrubHub -- the 11-year-old online food and delivery site that went public last year -- where dozens of startups are launching that want to effectively turn you into an eating, drinking and, even in some cases, pot-smoking couch potato. In the past year and a half, a record-level of cash has flowed into food delivery startups, virtually ensuring that people will never have to lift a ladle ever again -- or at least that "The Joy of Cooking" won't be getting re-printed for future generations.

Blue Apron will deliver you raw ingredients for a decent meal and let you have the satisfaction of feeling like you served it up on your own. Postmates will deliver you Chipotle or even Starbucks. Instacart will send you groceries that you picked out on its app. GrubHub and Yelp's Eat 24 let you order food from thousands of restaurants on their sites.

Do you live in Chicago and want a "chef-inspired meal" delivered within 15 minutes? Sprig said it can do it. And need your medicine, the marijuana variety? Sidecar will deliver before the pain gets too serious.

Last year, venture capitalists invested $505 million in US-based food delivery startups such as Instacart and Blue Apron. That was more than six times the amount they invested in 2013, according to venture capital research firm PitchBook.

And with $516 million already invested so far this year, food delivery startups have already broken their record haul in 2014.

"This is one of the hottest areas in the on-demand sector," said Garret Black, a senior financial writer at PitchBook.

It's not just typical Silicon Valley money flowing into these service either. The venture capital arm of investment firm Tiger Global Management has backed on-demand delivery startup Postmates and financial services corporation Fidelity Management has invested in Blue Apron, according to Black -- a fact he said underscores widespread interest in the market for food on demand.

"Even non-traditional investors are jumping in and throwing in money," Black said.

Perhaps no investment underscores lenders' enthusiasm in the online food biz better than Delivery Hero. The Berlin-based online food ordering and delivery site has raised more $600 million this year alone.

And outside the US and Europe, the food delivery business is also surging.

According to startup research firm Tracxn, $2.6 billion has been invested in the overall food tech space worldwide. Tracxn's own research has documented an explosion of interest in the space in China and South Asia. Among the Chinese companies receiving funding this year is Ele.me, which raised an eye-opening $350 million. And several Indian startups have raised multimillion-dollar investments this year, too, including from Tracxn.

Sagar Parida of Tracxn, which has invested in three food tech startups in India, said fewer people are cooking meals, especially in India and Asia. That's creating opportunities for startups to help people do what they no longer want to do for themselves.

"Currently, demand is being catered by restaurants, which doesn't completely solve daily meal needs," said Parida, who expects the trend to inspire even more food-focused startups.

So far this year, Blue Apron has raised more than any other American-based food delivery startup when it received $135 million in June.

And just one month before, investors put $85 million into Munchery, a San Francisco-based company with a very different model.

While Blue Apron sends customers ingredients to cook on their own as well as step-by-step instructions, Munchery runs its own kitchens and sends customers ready-to-eat meals from a fixed, rotating menu. GrubHub and Eat 24, meanwhile, act more as a middle-man, helping hungry customers order online instead of calling up on the phone.

Thomas Gieselmann, co-founder and general partner of E.Ventures, an early investor in Munchery, said the appeal of food delivery wasn't just about the size of the potential market -- which he admits is huge -- but also that such a small portion of it has shifted online.

Still, Gieselmann's firm hasn't invested in any other food-focused startups since Munchery.

But would it today? Maybe.

For his part, Deliveroo investor Destin of Accel said he probably wouldn't invest in an American food delivery company. But he thinks the size of the global market for on-demand food would probably allow for more.

"They're all attacking what we do, which is eat," he said. "That's massive."

F-U-N-D-E-D is a regular column looking -- and sometimes laughing -- at what Silicon Valley has backed in the last week.

Updated at 12:31 PM: Adds names of non-venture capital investors backing food tech startups.