Venture Evolved
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Venture Evolved

Tovala to the TV: From Seed to Screen

There are many things that bind us together at Origin. One of our values — and a daily refrain — is that we believe it’s a privilege to work with entrepreneurs.

Working with startups is not all glory and fame. While we are not taking nearly the risk of entrepreneurs performing high wire acts with no nets, we ride through the ups and downs of companies’ fortunes alongside founders. The founder of modern venture capital, General Georges Doriot, warned, “if you want a peaceful life, don’t go into venture capital.” Another favorite quote of his sums up the challenges of startups:

“Too many bankers and counselors have forgotten the history of the early years of our industrial giants of today. The first fifteen years of companies and of human beings are very much alike: hope, measles, failures, mumps, reorganizations, scarlet fever, executive troubles, whooping cough, etc. are parts of one’s daily life. Hopes, disillusions, hard work, are all necessary, particularly during the first ten or fifteen years before a stable and healthy body or corporation can begin to exist.”

Since General Doriot said that, a startup’s average time from initial funding to exit has compressed to 7–8 years. That’s still a long feedback cycle, usually filled with difficulty and periodic misery, so venture investors and founders alike thirst for interim milestones that provide emotional and intellectual reinforcement. I got to experience one of these milestones earlier this month when Tovala was on QVC for the first time.

Tovala’s Journey from Seed to Screen

Tovala is a smart countertop steam oven that is paired with meal service. Its genius is that users don’t have to prep, cook, or clean. Fresh food arrives prepared at customers’ doorsteps, who scan the meals and toss them in the Tovala oven which cooks them to perfection using a combination of steam, convection baking, and broiling. The food is restaurant quality because professional chefs control every variable and customize the cook cycles. The oven also scans and cooks many frozen items from your local grocery store (including almost every frozen item from Trader Joe’s), and functions as a premium toaster oven for everything else.

Because Tovala solves the meal problem and saves time without compromising the quality of the food, its customer retention is 3x leading meal kit companies.

Origin invested in Tovala in 2015 when it had a single founder and the oven was a hacked humidifier (this is a generous description). Last week, co-founder David Rabie was on QVC for an hour, showcasing the endless features of the oven and the meal service. At that moment, Tovala became a very real company. Yes, it has scaled to thousands of customers and will shortly be on pace to serve a million meals a year. Yes, my family has depended on Tovala for meals for several years now. But for some reason, neither is as tangible for me as seeing the product on TV. See for yourself in this QVC clip of Tovala’s appearance on In the Kitchen with Mary.

What made this moment emotional for me was that I was watching QVC at Tovala’s office, surrounded by the team that created the product and service. The hardware engineers, software designers, chefs, marketers, and finance people who made this happen were all cheering on David. They all took a risk, believed in David and his co-founder Bryan, and pulled off something remarkable that has the potential to fundamentally change how people eat.

Much work remains to build Tovala to a successful financial outcome, and the company’s success on QVC is a mere waypoint. But that does not dim moments like this that pull investors through the the struggles. It’s precisely the relentless setbacks experienced by a startup portfolio that makes experiences like Tovala’s moment in the spotlight glorious. It’s why they feel like triumphs.

It’s also an important reminder of why we deeply believe it’s a privilege to do this work.



Jason is a venture capitalist, business school professor and former software engineer. Jason is a Partner at Origin Ventures and he has been in the venture business since 2001. He also teaches the venture capital and private equity lab class at Chicago Booth.

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Jason Heltzer

Dad, venture capitalist at @OriginVentures, @chicagobooth professor, Chicagoan. I was a nerd before it was cool to be a nerd.