Lever joins UC Davis in chickpea startup’s $4.5m seed round

Founder and managing partner Nick Cooney says participation by a University-backed investment vehicle helped feed investor interest in NuCicer, which is developing high protein chickpeas.

Lever VC acted as lead investor in an early March seed financing round of $4.5 million for NuCicer, a Davis, California-headquartered startup developing high-protein chickpeas.

Lever – a venture capital firm focused on early-stage alternative protein that maintains offices in New York and Hong Kong – was joined in the round by Lifely VC, foodtech specialists Trellis Road as well as The House Fund, an investment vehicle backed by the University of California endowment.

Lever founder and managing partner Nick Cooney told Agri Investor there is a relatively small group of investors focused on scientific developments at the crop level, but the high level of competition among the group was evident in NuCicer’s oversubscribed round.

“The interest and money at the table was significantly larger than what they were able to take in,” he said.

NuCicer was established in 2019 to develop proprietary non-GM chickpeas with increased protein content based on about a decade of research conducted by Douglas Cook, a professor at the University of California at Davis’ Department of Plant Pathology. Capital from the seed round will support commercialization of the company’s first-generation seed varieties, development of a genomics-guided speed breeding program and expansion of product offerings that will start with whole beans and high-protein flours.

“We aim to cut the cost of chickpea protein nearly in half, making it price competitive with other plant proteins such as soy and pea,” NuCicer co-founder and chief executive Kathryn Cook explained in a statement. “This creates opportunities for our partners to develop new food and beverage products using our highly functional chickpea flour and purified protein ingredients.”

Cooney said Lever was introduced to NuCicer last summer by another investor that has a connection with the University. The widespread respect that exists within agricultural circles for UC Davis, he said, helped feed interest in the company. He said UC Davis has already invested in other alternative protein companies and the city of Sacramento where the school is located has emerged as a hub of research and development activity for the market.

“The fact that the University is putting a significant check into NuCicer as part of this round is not that common. We do not see that much in the US,” he said. “There are other investors that we spoke with that have their own affiliation with the University. The fact that the University was actually putting money into this directly in a meaningful amount was a significant creditability booster for them that got them more interested.”

NuCicer’s immediate plans include development of seeds for chickpeas with other specific characteristics, said Cooney. Over the medium and long-term, he added, the underlying genomic knowledge can be transferred to other crops, especially other pea crops.

Lever VC Fund I surpassed an initial target of $50 million to close on $80 million in mid-2021 after drawing support from a mixture of family office and corporate investors from Asia, Europe and the US in roughly equal measure. The firm plans a successor vehicle targeting $250 million from larger institutions launching later this year.

Lever’s portfolio includes Chinese plant-based dairy replacement provider Marvelous Foods, plant-based pizza and meat alternative producer Blackbird Farms and The Good Spoon, a French company offering eggless condiments.