The managing director of the San Francisco-based venture capital fund unlocks opportunities for start-ups and mentors with food corporations in Japan

By Murielle Gonzalez

Portrait photo of Michael Proman

Michael Proman is a newcomer in the investment arena, but he has made a name for himself in the venture capital business. Proman took up the managing director role at San Francisco-based venture capital fund Scrum Ventures in 2018, bringing know-how for connecting large-scale communities, leveraging on marketing, partnerships and business development strategies – an arsenal of knowledge he gained from working with giants such as Coca-Cola and the National Basketball Association in the US. At Scrum Ventures, Proman is a driving force behind Food Tech Studio – Bites! – a programme set up to connect start-ups and mentors the world over with large corporations in Japan.

“I’m a big proponent of recruiting folks with macro-level skills and the ability to transform relationships and learnings from different industries and apply them in other settings,” he says, noting that Food Tech Studio – Bites! is a reflection of that. “We want to bring people together that are not your ‘usual suspects’.”

But why Japan? Proman reveals food corporations in the country are eager to adopt innovations in foodtech.

Proman recognises food as a core component of the culture in Japan and says companies are looking to identify where the biggest opportunities are. “For example, what technologies can bring food and communities together? Which companies in this space are doing the best?”

Japan connections

Scrum Ventures has deep roots in Japan, starting with its founder Tak Miyata. Proman says Miyata has been able to establish relationships with the Japanese corporate community through his journey as an entrepreneur.

He also argues that delivering Scrum Ventures’ Studio programmes such as Sports Tech Tokyo ahead of the Summer Olympics has given the fund ‘street credibility’ and goodwill among corporate partners in the country. “They understand the value that we bring,” says Proman. “We are thinking about how, with whom, and where we work in Japan, so the process is getting easier.”

Miyata formed Scrum Ventures in 2013 with partners Makoto Haruta (previously at Japanese e-commerce giant DeNA) and Hitoshi Hokamura (previously at Apple and Evernote), investing in a wide variety of sectors. Proman says the launch of Food Tech Studio Bites! is a testament to the fund’s willingness to invest in food and drink in a way that is long-lasting.

Scrum Ventures

Scrum Ventures has a team of seven people in Tokyo and 12 in San Francisco. Proman says the firm has about $80 million assets under management – mostly from large corporations in Japan. “We have made about 80 investments over the years, most of them between seed and Series A,” he says.

Proman explains that Food Tech Studio – Bites! is stage-agnostic, inclusive and diverse. “We’re thinking about what problems start-ups are trying to solve and where the opportunities are,” says Proman. “We did this in sports in the lead up to the Olympics, knowing that it was an inflexion point for Japan and the country’s continued growth in that space.”

Scrum Ventures also launched Smart CityX to focus on start-ups redefining the way we live, learn, and work as a response to Covid-19. Proman explains Food Tech Studio – Bites! is very similar. “Whether your start-up is upstream in the supply chain or all the way down to the consumer – we want to be at the forefront of the revolution that’s happening.”

To the point

Why should a start-up apply to join Food Tech Studio – Bites!?

Unlike traditional accelerators, we don’t take equity, and we don’t require any type of relocation – all the mentoring and connections are online through a dedicated website.

Michael Proman, amanging director of Scrum Ventures
Michael Proman, managing director at Scrum Ventures

We want to add targeted value to start-ups, and that’s refreshing, particularly to more mature companies that have multiple priorities.

We’re able to provide a gateway into a relationship-centric region of the world and able to leverage the expertise of everybody in our team to drive growth.

How does Food Tech Studio – Bites! work?

It’s similar to what we did with Sport Tech Tokyo – we selected 159 companies from 33 countries, and they came to Japan for the kick-off event in spring last year. In two days, we curated more than 700 meetings of about 20 minutes – a kind of ‘speed-dating’. From that, we isolated the matches and opportunities for our partners, and made the connections.

With Food Tech Studio – Bites! we’re not doing a physical event. We’re spreading the kick-off over a 30- to 60-day period. Once we launched the programme, it’s about making those connections and facilitating those discussions.

Why did you also include mentors and leaders in your call to join Food Tech Studio – Bites!?

We want to create a large-scale community, so we’re recruiting Japanese corporations, start-ups, and anyone in a leadership circle – our mentors come from corporations, venture capital, and academia.

Mentors are particularly attractive for us. If you’re a start-up with an interest in Japan, we want them also to engage with a community of experts that may not have anything to do with Japan, but the expertise in areas that are relevant to you in a stage-agnostic manner.

Why are you focused on attracting a diverse community?

The diversity of the programme is a reflection of our partners and the food and drink industry. We’re not talking about a cohort but a community that is upwards of 100 start-ups.

Look at the partner roster involved in Food Tech Studio – Bites! – fats manufacturer Fuji Oil, Nissin noodles, tea company Itoen, health food group Otsuka – all in diverse businesses, and yet all trying to identify new opportunities in foodtech.

What are these corporations looking for?

We’re saying to Japanese corporations, you can dip your toe in the water, get to understand the space, but let’s look at opportunities and pain points in your business and then address them in a very stage-agnostic way.

For example, when you talk to companies that aren’t looking for their first proof-of-concept or first investment, there’s a lot of credibility. You kind of know what you’re going to get, and that’s extremely attractive. That sense of consistency is in the mindset of our partners.

Then, we define this with our partners as chapter one of a much broader journey. We’re in for the long-term – our DNA is making investments in companies, so why can’t we figure out ways to co-invest together, incubate new ideas, and create open-source innovation? I think all our partners have bought into that journey.

Will Scrum Ventures and corporate partners invest in the start-ups joining the programme?

As a fund, we will start the conversation in the studio programme and decide if we want to move the conversation to the investment side. I think we’re fortunate to invest in start-ups when we see the right opportunity. In the future, I see Scrum creating vertically focused funds.

Proman smiles as he speaks, and I sense he’s biting his tongue so as not to reveal what’s on the horizon. “We’re not going to create a cohort, but a community that is upwards of 100 start-ups. We’re not trying to micro-manage or get in the way,  but we are working to enhance and strengthen their ability to grow,” he concludes.

About the author

Murielle Gonzalez
Murielle Gonzalez is the editor of NutritionInvestor. She is an experienced journalist with 20 years in the media industry, including work at B2B magazines in the UK and Latin America.
Gonzalez holds a Master in Journalism from the University of Westminster and flair for all things online and multimedia storytelling.

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Date published: 16 December 2020

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