By Justin Chapman
Michelson Found Animals Foundation (MFA) has played an important role in the rapidly growing pet care industry. Entrepreneurship and economic development opportunities have expanded in the last few years, in part due to MFA initiatives such as Leap Venture Studio and its Bootcamp, which funds and helps grow the increasing number of companies and ideas in the animal welfare space.
Jerry Sullivan, former LA Business Journal editor who now runs his own media outlet called SullivanSays SoCal, interviewed MFA CEO Brett Yates for an episode of the “Making an Impact with Michelson Philanthropies” podcast series to highlight MFA’s focus on animal welfare as a source of social and economic benefit. Listen to the full conversation here, and read a full transcript of the conversation here.
Michelson Philanthropies is an organizational umbrella overseeing various initiatives and programs intended to “make life a little less unfair.” The multifaceted organization is run by founder and CEO Dr. Gary Michelson, a surgeon-turned-medical device inventor, and his wife and co-chair, Alya Michelson, a journalist by training.
“It’s not at all a surprise to me to see the sea change happen in this space,” Yates told Sullivan. In developing Leap Venture Studio, “it was clear that a program like this was necessary to help companies bridge the gap from having a great idea to being able to make solid revenues with that company.”
One of MFA’s partners is Mars Petcare, makers of Pedigree and Whiskas, which employs 85,000 associates in the pet care business.
“The pet care space is dominated by chocolatiers, such as the M&M Mars family and the Nestlé family,” Yates explained. “As we were starting to think about running an accelerator program ourselves, we had a conversation with the Mars team and from that the partnership was born. This is one of our amazing partnerships, with a culture of mutual respect. We also realized that we needed a third group to be able to run the operations of the accelerator program, and RGA was brought in as the third leg. They not only run the operations of the program, but they add an additional set of skills.”
RGA is a major international agency that provides marketing services and develops brands for some of the biggest names in business, including Nike, Mercedes-Benz, Netflix, Samsung, and other marquee brands.
“In developing Leap Venture Studio, it was clear that a program like this was necessary to help companies bridge the gap from having a great idea to being able to make solid revenues with that company.”
—Brett Yates, CEO, Michelson Found Animals Foundation
“They bring a level of professionalism and branding to the table that really any startup company can’t afford,” Yates said. “Being able to bring them into the loop is fantastic for all of these founders and startup companies.”
Sullivan asked Yates why the pet sector is experiencing such growth.
“We’re seeing people wait longer to have children, and in those years that they’re waiting longer pets are becoming their children,” Yates replied. “So pets are not going away from our culture. When we also couple that with the health and the mental, physical, and emotional well-being that comes with owning a pet, we see a lot of evidence out there that everyone would benefit from that. But as an accelerator program, I appreciate others jumping into the space. There’s a ton of room in the pool, so I’m not ever worried about other people helping companies to start from scratch.”
Yates added that entrepreneurs know that Leap Venture Studio is the go-to startup accelerator in this space.
“It’s an interesting inflection point in the industry,” Yates said. “When I first started here, the companies were pretty nascent, and they were still trying to figure out how to grow in this space. But I’ve seen a lot of M&A activity in this industry during the last few years and I’m seeing many more sophisticated entrepreneurs. The breadth and depth within the industry has really improved dramatically since we’ve been here. And I think what it really leads us to more than anything, is that I anticipate other industries to start to come into this and dip their toe in it, and see if it works and see if it’s profitable, and see if they can make something happen of it.”
Sullivan noted that that’s where “that blend of doing well and doing good” co-exists.
“I see a lot of not just social justice, but there’s environmental impacts that we see with a lot of the founders,” Yates said. “We’ve seen companies that are recycling goods, recycling products, upcycling food. There are some really interesting products that come out of that whole continuum.”
Sullivan noted that ideal situation seems to be a startup mind who happens to love pets or sees pets as an opportunity. Yates said MFA sees several combinations of people.
“There are the pet lovers that will do anything because they have this cool idea but they may not have the business acumen to go that distance, so that’s where we can definitely help with this accelerator program,” Yates said. “I’m also seeing some new entrants into the industry, people who have come from Silicon Valley and made their money with whatever large company that they’ve been with and they have this cool idea to get into the pet environment. And they’re doing quite well. They’re already beyond what Leap Venture Studio can do to help.
“But that’s exactly what makes the industry really powerful, when you have those different kinds of founders and they’re competing against one another. You get those crazy ideas, and that may be the next big thing.”