09 Aug IU Angel Network announces new investment in pioneering, alumni-founded superfood company
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — “IU knew before I did.”
Emily Griffith was a 17-year-old “crazy creative who didn’t look anything like a typical business person” when Indiana University awarded her a four-year scholarship to attend the Kelley School of Business.
“As excited as I was to receive the scholarship, and to be one of just two women (out of 10 incoming students) who got it, I was really torn,” she said. “It wasn’t just that I was a woman, but I saw myself as way more of a creative person. I wondered whether I should be majoring in art. But IU saw something else in me. They saw the crazy creative, yes, but also someone who could succeed in business. That gave me enormous confidence, and I absolutely wouldn’t be where I am today without the belief IU had in me.”
Today, the Chicago native is at the helm of a fast-growing consumer-packaged superfood company, Lil Bucks, that has introduced the first dedicated sprouted buckwheat brand to the U.S. market. What began as a “side hustle” has quickly blossomed into a full-time business venture with multiple product lines available online and through major retailers across America.
Griffith’s pioneering venture has also captured the attention of investors, including members of the IU Angel Network, one of several major investment programs managed by IU Ventures, IU’s early-stage venture and angel investment arm. The network, which facilitates connections between new ventures and prospective investors among IU’s global community of alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, will make a new investment in the company, which Griffith founded in 2018, just four years after she graduated from the Kelley School. The network’s members hope their financial support will help Lil Bucks achieve its mission to bring its unique brand of diet- and farmer-friendly superfood to “every pantry in America.”
“Emily brings a passion and energy to the table as CEO of Lil Bucks that made it impossible for us to not pursue an investment during this funding round,” said Jason Whitney, chief venture officer at IU Ventures and executive director of the IU Angel Network. “She has developed a line of products that are experiencing a high level of growth from coast to coast, and they are working every day to increase the awareness on the variety of uses of sprouted buckwheat.”
The benefits of buckwheat
Griffith first discovered buckwheat at a beachside café in Sydney, Australia, while studying abroad in a Kelley School program. After eating an açaí bowl topped with sprouted buckwheat seeds (instead of a sugary granola), she immediately became obsessed with the seeds’ unique crunch factor, and how great she felt after eating them.
“I was blown away by the texture and crunch of the seeds,” she said. “It was a unique, addictive texture experience. On top of this, I felt amazing after I ate them. As it turned out, buckwheat is gluten-free, high in fiber and antioxidants … adding it to my diet was a no-brainer.”
Upon returning home to Chicago, Griffith was shocked to learn that no brand had yet focused on this gluten- and grain-free fruit seed, which is packed with protein and prebiotic fiber and which also contains major soil health benefits. From that point on, she made it her mission to share her love of buckwheat with ordinary Americans wanting to both improve their diet and promote sustainable farming practices.
Griffith introduced Lil Bucks, America’s first sprouted buckwheat brand, at a freezing cold Chicago fitness festival in spring 2018. Four years later, the company is riding a major hot streak. In 2021, Lil Bucks won the top $100,000 prize in the prestigious Naturally Chicago Pitch Slam event. The company also entered into an exclusive partnership with Minnesota-based A-Frame Farm, which is among the first farms to be regenerative organic certified. Its products, including Lil Bucks Sprouted Buckwheat Crunch, Clusterbucks and Everything BUCKS Seasoning, are now sold by H-E-B, Kroger and Whole Foods Market, among other retailers.
But Griffith has even bigger plans for Lil Bucks.
“I remember looking back and saying that once I get on the shelf at Whole Foods, I will have made it, but I still go back to same vision that I want this in every pantry in America,” she said, adding that the investment by members of the IU Angel Network is arriving at the perfect time in the company’s growth cycle.
“To have Indiana University come in at this crucial turning point for our business — and to be so excited about Lil Bucks — it’s really energizing,” she said. “It’s a really hard time to be an entrepreneur, and it’s an especially hard time to raise money right now, but IU’s energy, its networks and its support give me great confidence that we’re going to continue to keep our momentum going.” “I really can’t be more thrilled with this partnership,” she added. “It’s funny … even before I started in college, IU was the first investor in my business career. Now it’s coming full circle, and I couldn’t be happier.”
About IU Ventures:
IU Ventures invests in and supports IU-affiliated early-stage companies. Its investment programs include the IU Philanthropic Venture Fund, IU Angel Network, Shoebox Fund and Innovate Indiana Fund. It further supports IU founders through the Executive in Residence Program and IU Founders and Funders Network. Student support is provided through a variety of engagements, including the new IU Venture Fellows Program. Each program takes unique approaches to accelerate and support the positive impacts that entrepreneurs affiliated with IU already achieve across the world. IU Ventures is a recognized leader in increasing opportunities for diverse and historically underserved entrepreneurs and investing in Indiana startups with a shared commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.