A Look Back on the History of Tovala: How an Idea for Fresher and Quicker Meals Became a $11M-Backed Venture

By Xiaohe Grace Gu

One Sunday afternoon, when David Rabie, MBA ’15, was trying to make food for the whole week, he realized that he was using four different appliances. So, he thought: Why isn’t there one product that does all the cooking for me without sacrificing health, taste, or convenience?

Similar to the genesis of many startup ideas, this personal pain point drove Rabie to create Tovala, a food tech company that pairs a steam-based oven with meal kit subscription service.

Founded in 2015, Tovala, formerly named Maestro, has raised $11.6 million to date. After winning the Edward L. Kaplan ’71 New Venture Challenge (NVC) in May of 2015, Tovala subsequently participated in a design sprint hosted by gravitytank, and Y Combinator (YC)’s winter 2016 accelerator program. Its Kickstarter campaign, launched during its time at YC, exceeded its pledged goal of $100,000 within 24 hours.

Currently, Tovala has customers from every state, with the majority of its customers being young working parents, and its headquartered city of Chicago taking the largest market share. Earlier this month, Tovala announced a new investment and partnership agreement with Tyson Foods.

In between idea generation and the various milestones it has achieved so far, Tovala has taken advantage of many programs at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to identify target customers, develop its product and business model, and connect with potential investors.

Growing Through Booth and Polsky
Rabie had always wanted to build his own company, and for him, business school became the natural launchpad for a new idea.

Rabie’s relationship with the Polsky Center could be traced back before he came up with the idea for Tovala, according to Starr Marcello, executive director of the Polsky Center, who was involved early on in Tovala’s formation.

Initially, Rabie came to Polsky working on a sports mobile app. Over the course of his first year, he realized that he wanted to do something that is more aligned with his personal passion for healthy eating and food technologies. Coming back from his summer internship at Google, Rabie had the idea for Tovala, and approached mentors like Marcello at the Polsky Center.

As soon as he received some positive feedback, Rabie moved fast to bring his idea from concept to launch. During the winter of 2015, Tovala went through the I-Corps Program, a seven-week customer discovery bootcamp sponsored by the National Science Foundation and run by the Polsky Center. Each team is given a $2,500 grant and partnered with a mentor who acts as their personal coach.

“I-Corps helped me understand the lean startup methodology. It [pushed] us to talk to prospective customers, better understand their meal habits — how they cook and how they eat, and figure out who our target customers should be,” Rabie recalled.

By the time of the NVC final in the spring of 2015, the team had a prototype ready and was able to serve sample meals to the judges. Coming in first, Tovala took $70,000 in prize money, including the Pritzker Group Venture Capital Fellows Award. The NVC, recognized as the #1 university accelerator program in the country, put Tovala on the “Startups to Watch” map in the Midwest.

“NVC was amazing largely for me to figure out how to pitch our company, what resonated with investors, and think about what is the best business model that we can put together,” Rabie said.

While Rabie was the only person that remained full-time on the team post-NVC, he had a support system that kept the momentum of Tovala going. The Polsky Founders’ Fund Fellowship (PF3), which provides recently graduated founders with a stipend, free office space and mentorship, helped Rabie transition from business school to being on his own.

“PF3 pays [graduating students] to not take another job. David was in the inaugural class of PF3, which gave him extra time to work on finding investors and building out the business,” Marcello said.

In addition to the formal programs that Tovala went through, Rabie is most grateful for the informal relationships he built through the Polsky Center. The support ecosystem acts as a lifelong resource.

“The people [at Polsky] are always connecting us with the people that could help us, whether it was investors, alumni who have done similar things, or strategic partners,” Rabie said.

Fundraising and Scaling the Venture
Indeed, through Polsky, a mentor could turn into an investor, and an investor could introduce you to a potential founding partner.

Rabie actually first met its Seed and Series A lead investor through the Polsky Center. Ever since stepping foot into Booth, Rabie has built a mentee-mentor relationship with Jason Heltzer, a partner at Origin Ventures (the first investor in Grubhub), who served as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Polsky while Rabie was a student. Furthermore, Tovala met its Series A investor Pritzker Group Venture Capital through the NVC, and received funding from UChicago-affiliated angel investors, such as Joe Mansueto, MBA ’80, Mark Tebbe (adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Booth), and Craig Wortmann (former clinical professor of entrepreneurship at Booth).

The Polsky Center also connected Tovala to the Startup Investment Program, a new initiative which co-invests alongside institutional VCs in UChicago-affiliated startups funded out of the University of Chicago endowment. A collaboration between the UChicago Investment Office and the Polsky Center, the program hopes to help enhance UChicago’s innovation ecosystem.

Tovala received $500,000 from the Startup Investment Program and was the second investment made by the program since its creation in December 2016. Joanna Rupp, Assistant VP and Managing Director of Private Equity at the University of Chicago’s Office of Investments, elaborated on why they took a leap of faith in Rabie and Tovala.

“[There is a lot of uncertainty] around business models [in early-stage startups]. We rely heavily on the diligence materials and references. [Companies that we invest in usually] have strong lead VCs, have gotten initial traction, and have the potential for a pretty large market. Tovala had sales and the entrepreneur had shown a great deal of grit and progress,” Rupp concluded.

Taking the Next Step
With the new investment from and strategic partnership with Tyson Foods, Tovala hopes to leverage the food prep giant’s strong brand, distribution channels, R&D resources, and the like.

“We don’t know what shape [the partnership] is gonna take yet, but the end goal is to offer more variety for our customers, more ways for them to get our product, and more ways to cook their own food in their oven,” Rabie revealed.

Tovala hopes to continue getting the word out, targeting the young working family segment, and helping young parents understand how Tovala’s product solves a burning pain point.

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