Rachel Sheppard, director of ventures at Mars Petcare, is one of the leading corporate venturing professionals in our 2024 Powerlist.

Rachel Sheppard is a champion of underrepresented groups in venture capital, having helped broaden financing opportunities to founders who identify as female or a person of colour.

As a director of ventures at Mars Petcare, Sheppard is responsible for early-stage investing pet care partnership at the US confectionary and pet care company. The company does seed-stage investing through startup accelerator Leap Venture Studio & Academy, which is a partnership between Mars Petcare, non-profit Michelson Found Animals Foundation and R/GA Ventures.

Before joining Mars Petcare, Sheppard was director of global marketing at Founder Institute, a pre-seed accelerator programme. While there, she co-created a female founder initiative after noticing few women taking part in the scheme. “Through that, we managed to double the number of women coming through our programmes, which was really important because we were operating in 90 countries,” says Sheppard.

Leap Venture Studio’s seed-stage investing group invests $200,000 in startups at the studio level to either kickstart or close a round. It has 51 investments in its portfolio. In addition to the studio, it runs an academy programme that includes a week-long fellowship to support pre-seed pet care companies, which includes the opportunity for early-stage founders to meet Mars Petcare leadership. It has teamed up with the Black Pet Business Network to support founders who identify as a person of colour to pitch their startups with a total investment of $10,000 on offer.

“We managed to double the number of women coming through our programmes, which was really important because we were operating in 90 countries.”

Mars Petcare also does early-stage and growth-stage startup investing in partnership with VC firm Digitalis Ventures. In October 2023, it co-launched a $300m Companion Fund II with the VC firm to invest in pet tech companies. It has 23 investments in this portfolio. The new fund is the second such investment with Digitalis. It follows the first Companion Fund, a $100m investment vehicle created in 2018. The fund invests in startups developing veterinary diagnostics and medicine, primarily in the US and Europe.

Partnering with external venture companies helps Mars “support the pet care industry and also expands the resources that founders who participate in our programme get access to”, says Sheppard.

Doing early-stage investing requires extra programming, such as fellowships and organising networking events so that the team can support as many companies as possible. “We try to expand our deal flow as much as possible,” says Sheppard. “Doing six to eight investments a year is wonderful, but it is not moving the industry forward as much as we need to. So, we have created some other opportunities for founders to gain some momentum and for us to help them out as well.”

Some of the technologies the venture team has its eye on include monitoring tools that can tell us more about how pets are feeling physically, mentally and emotionally. It invested in UK startup Moggie, an activity tracker for cats that allows owners to monitor their cats’ movements. It claims to be able to help vets more quickly uncover up to 80% of illnesses that can be detected through subtle changes in activity.

Sheppard is also interested in technologies that help owners detect acute and chronic pain in their pets. Startups in this sphere include PainTrace, which has invented a wearable monitor that quantifies if an animal is in acute and chronic pain. Sheppard is also interested in senior pet health, which she says will become a large market following the surge in pet adoptions during the covid-19 pandemic. “There was a huge spike in adoptions and people becoming pet ‘parents’ for the first time in 2020. If we think about seniors starting as early as seven for giant breeds, we will soon have a larger senior population,” she says.

Sheppard trained as a veterinary assistant and studied Animal Science at University of California, Davis, but found her calling in the startup ecosystem and pursued an MBA in entrepreneurship.

Powerlist cover

The Global Corporate Venturing Powerlist represents the 100
individuals spearheading the future of the corporate venturing industry.

These individuals excel in terms of their venturing approach and structure, number and quality of portfolio companies and in their contributions to the corporate venturing profession.

See the full 2024 Powerlist here.