Season 2: Next Gen Proteins
The curated panel of industry fellows that discuss how to future-proof traditional markets
In Season 2, recognized world-class Researchers, Scientists, Faculty Members, Senior Executives, Experts, Chefs, Investors and Entrepreneurs from around the globe, engage in strategic exchange of views and share startling intel on viable transformative innovation in Agriculture, Food and Beverage, zooming in the next gen proteins space.
Virtual Coffee: S2:E06
On E6, moderated by Tommaso Di Bartolo, Founding Partner at Awesm Ventures, and experts of global reach, Andrew Ive, Founder and GP of Big Idea Ventures, Jeff Banas, Entrepreneur, Biochemist with extensive experience in enzymes, DNA and molecular research, and Kati Ohens, CEO and Co-Founder of Plantcraft, explore sustainability, nutrition and entrepreneurship in food of the future related topics.
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Below is a transcript of the episode, edited to offer you a reading alternative with increasing convenience, of our guest speakers' conversation with Tommaso, this episode’s moderator. For more information on the people and ideas discussed in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. Additionally, for more on sustainable transformative innovation in FoodTech, please register for the upcoming live streaming episodes of Season 2 on Corpor8.
Andrew Ive: Tommaso, Kati’s a winner. So, that's a good start. You know I've known Katie now for two years, 18 months something like that, I mean let's use Kati’s case and the example she's got a phenomenal company doing some incredibly exciting things. The team is really strong; they've got a really comprehensive multi-skilled team with a great experience and great background Kati's very vision-driven very kind of forwards on moving the company to success. So I mean, you know, all of the things... And I was desperately trying to get Kati and her team to come to the US. We were trying to give them money and they didn't want to do it at the time because from a timing issue perspective. So, that's just some examples. It's a great team. It's a focused team, mission-driven, very passionate about what they're doing and why they're doing it, it's not just about the money. Now obviously there are some founders who are driven by money, that's not a bad thing but we're looking for great teams, great leaders, we're driven to change the world and make a big impact. And, I would have loved to have gotten Kati and her team into our portfolio, like, two years ago. I would say the same about Jeff but I don't know your business very well so I would just be kind of guessing so we can talk after.
Tommaso Di Bartolo: Andrew, you mentioned something about, we tried to get her to the States… Does vicinity mean something, or what are your thoughts on this?
Andrew Ive: We have offices in New York focused on the North American market we have offices in Singapore focused on Asia. We're probably one of the few firms in this particular alternative protein space. That's really trying to join the dots between the big marketplaces. We recruit and invest in companies in Australia in Europe in North America, we'll invest literally in any company if it's the right company, wherever it is except North Korea. I just think that's a bit too difficult. But apart from North Korea will pretty much invest in any company in any part of the world. So vicinity is not that important. But when we talk to Kati about, you know, in investing she would probably give you the reason why she, she said, it wasn’t the right time for them. We were sort of talking about whether the US was the first market or not.
Kati Ohens: Actually, we took your advice and we're heading to the U.S. So, pretty soon. Yes.
Tommaso and Andrew [laugh]
Andrew [continues]: I mean, the reality is since Katie and I spoke the market for alternative protein has gone global that consumers are making the right purchasing decisions around plant-based meat, seafood and dairy in the US that they're making that same decision to the positive in Europe. It's happening, increasingly across Asia. So, now, it isn't about where the big markets are at all because the market is global for this kind of product.
Tommaso db: Let's continue the conversation on your startup and what along the lines of Andrew were saying you run a startup and I got to know that you're on a startup actually so you have people around the globe, right. So, how did this happen and what is it like you know what are the nuances of this?
Kati Ohnes: Before answering your question, just because well, we startups are doing in a food space we like to challenge things so I would like to start by challenging the title of your series which is “Alternative Protein”. I know I'm a player in this field and I'm playing in this space but the whole notion of protein is a little bit outdated. And I don't really like to be called an alternative protein so first of all protein as a micronutrient, it's been just picked out just right after the Second World War, because scientists used to think that that's the reason of malnutrition in children protein deficiency. There is no such thing. There was a good idea but it just didn't work and then that science has been debunked, yet it lingers on and then when you look at a TV show when Gordon Ramsay asks what's your protein on your plate? I want to say hemp. That's my protein, but it became, you know, part of common knowledge or common language that protein is a piece of meat and therefore, what we are doing is alternative protein. I would love to have a different name for that. But having said that it's just an idea that I would like to plant in your head and in your audience's head that just gets detached from this whole protein thing because it's a thing of the past.
Tommaso and Kati [converse]:
We are super open-minded! Innovation means, let it flow, right?
What do you throw out there for our editor team?
Kati Ohens: You can call it “Meat Analogue” whatever there are so many names, it's just being attached to a single macronutrient is just like odd. If you actually read the science, and think about it just, just start thinking about it just read up about it read up on that the protein fallacy read up on the proteinaholic problems and then, just start researching for yourself don't take the knowledge from, from 20, 30, 50 years ago, open up the books right now. Keep learning.
Tommaso: So you just distributed right so how did it come about?
Kati: So that was interesting my business partner reached out to me. Um from a Hungarian origin, I know you didn't pick it from my accent, but I'm actually not from New Zealand. And my business partner then was just an acquaintance who reached out for help, he had this amazing IP Foodtech that he didn't know what to do with. And, and he reached out to, to ask for some help in terms of turning it into a marketable product, and that's when I looked at it it was developed for pasta products and confectionery, and I saw the opportunity to put that nutritional food technology together and turn it into a meat alternative, and that's how it all started. And so when we started building a company, and we started exploring different markets, then we started working with other people in other markets, just like this.
Kati [continues]: And so, you know, three 3am meetings are not anything uncommon for me and, and we are currently running a company that was an enormous hub during the COVID times when people were trying to adjust to that, that sort of work being able to work remotely being able to carry out difficult decisions, especially in food tech when you actually need your senses, you need to touch you need to smell so how can we use technology to actually support that sort of work. And then, when COVID hit and we were thinking that oh the US might be a problem. We could very quickly pivot, and look into different markets so during the lockdown my business partner, worked out a strategy for a launching in Europe, and I worked out a strategy for launching in in Asia, and I wouldn't have been able to do that, if, if I was sitting in a physical office in a randomly picked city anywhere in the world I think this is the future of work.
Tommaso Di Bartolo: Very interesting so basically really reverse this is a situation where the market is in a downturn, an entrepreneur said, Okay, how can I read an opportunity out of it. So thanks for sharing the story. It is very interesting!
Tommaso [continues]: Jeff. We're looking at your profile prior to forming some posts, you were at Algenol biotech was focused and specialised in a company focused on engaged biofuels researcher for allergies. Right. And I would like to pick your brain regarding this and you use it, do you understand its algae potential in a trend of the market that has largely been understated or overlooked? What do you think?
Jeff Banas: It actually has been overlooked in my time that Algenol, we looked at a lot of alternative products that would come out of algae such as biofuels, potentially food products colourings and cosmetic products. It was my first exposure to algae. And what I've learned there in terms of what the algae landscape looks like in the hundreds of millions of species they estimate to be out there, represents a vast environment, not only for food tech cosmetic ingredients but also for medicinal purposes that hadn't been untapped coming into the actual food tech industry, I think, algae face a hurdle that it hasn't overcome yet. And that can be summed up in two words “Organoleptic Properties”: taste colour, and smell. When you think of algae, as we do here in Florida, we think of pounds of green covering up our waterways, releasing very unpleasant odours, and the health supplement community has a very different view of algae, they see algae as an excellent protein source as an anti-inflammatory source as an anti-oxidation source, and they've been using it for decades now though then they help supplement market are dedicated to their health, and if they mix algae and or will focus on spirulina, that is the biggest player in the algae market. They have no qualms about mixing it in with bananas strawberries and any other supplements they want but he gets the shake and downing it because they're more focused on the health benefits.
Jeff [continues]: I think in the new environment of plant-based protein products. Algae is a big hurdle is that it doesn't exist in a form right now, that has the taste colour and odour properties that are required for consumer acceptance when you're putting it into a consumer-facing product. Just looking at massive successes like “Impossible” and “Beyond Meat”.
They have pulled in new consumers that are exploring flexitarianism by offering them something that's more familiar to them, something that is not a stretch from your traditional hamburger all the way to a soy burger or tofu or something like that they've found the middle ground that entices people into that market. Unfortunately when you're dealing with algae or spirulina, for instance, the innovation is not out there yet, that can integrate, agree; marine smelling kind of fishy tasting protein ingredient into a product that you're going to gain acceptance, within the mass market. So, Algae's biggest hurdle right now to overcome, is how do we take algae and turn it into a food ingredient that's neutral taste, neutral colour, no detectable odour, and even go beyond that, and if these functionalized going to be extremely can be texturized. Once Algae ingredient overcomes that, there are so many other benefits to algae and using algae as an ingredient that we feel it's gonna snowball from there, and gain acceptance into these consumer-facing products that are taking a market by storm.
Kati Ohens: I'm just nodding because as a food innovator, I've been looking for algae protein. And actually the exact same issues that Jeff was just describing, except you know, seeing but also there's some very exciting innovation out there but they're currently available in very small amounts and when you're doing mass production, then you need a continuous supply of, trusted and stable qualities.
Andrew: Two quick things that might be relevant.
One: is that there's a company out there think it's Holland, that called for “FUL” that using algae, as the basis for a beverage, and they put it through a fermentation process, which actually dramatically changes the flavour characteristics on the ingredient actually takes the fish, fishy to kind of see the aspects out completely. And the interesting thing about that drink is as well as it tastes like rhubarb which is just sort of weird, but it actually has a high content of (I'm not sure if Kati is going to allow me to say this but protein. So I'm not sure how I'm supposed to talk about it now. I'm kind of confused) 10% of the drink now includes a protein, because of the algae. Secondly, there's a company that's built the most incredible algae processing facility in the middle of the desert, and they're going through a pretty significant fundraising round now to produce what will probably be the world's largest algae growing facility so firstly it's solar-driven which is amazing. Secondly, it's going to create millions of tonnes of algae good quality algae. Thirdly, because of how algae grow, it's actually CO2 beneficial. So in other words, if you create a significant facility that grows algae, it's actually positive from a co2 perspective because it sucks it in which is awesome, at least not incredibly brilliant. The third thing that's worth mentioning is I can't, unfortunately, get the name but I'll talk to Jeff about it offline, there's a company that's top three in the alternative dairy space that's developed some really interesting plant-based processing technology, which literally takes all of the taste, and all of the fragrance out of the natural product and creates just a very pure protein source that can then be used in any way we want to use it so I'm really excited about that technology, especially when it comes for example to algae, pea and another kind of natural plant-based protein sources.
Kati Ohnes: I can add something interesting as well, in my industry specifically we're making plant-based deli meats: sausages deli slices pepperonis hotdogs and stuff like that. And in the very interesting innovation that we're currently looking at you know you wouldn't think about the challenges we face but for instance when we're filling our sausages, into the casing. Traditionally, those are animal-based. And If you don't want any more bass casing then you need to use plastic which is, of course, somewhat against our philosophy on being environmentally friendly as possible. And so there's this new innovation which is a casing made out of algae, or algae and that's pretty exciting for us so that we are running tests on that as well.
Tommaso Di Bartolo: Andrew, consumers more than ever want to understand where their food is coming from and how the key aspects are related to sustainability handled in their food tech, how does that impact early-stage startup, what are the challenges with them?
Andrew Ive: Good question. So, most of the companies that we deal with, so just to kind of backtrack for a second, Big Idea Ventures invests in plant-based meat, seafood dairy companies and cell-based meat, seafood dairy companies. It also invests in companies focused on ingredients and new technologies to facilitate both of those food categories so that's what we do. Generally, we are looking for companies that want to positively impact the world, we're looking for companies that want to bring this kind of products to market. Create delicious tasting foods. So, you know, they are inherently looking at using kind of natural ingredients and plant-based ingredients as the core components of the products that they innovate with and produce and bring to market. So, in terms of how they bring great products to market so that people consumers understand, you know where they're getting the ingredients from a couple of things…
Andrew [continues]: Generation one and two and plant-based foods used to focus exclusively on taste to the detriment of the ingredient set that was used. So a lot of the first iterations in the plant-based innovation space included processed ingredients in numbers other things that weren't necessarily wonderful for you. And they were doing that because they were trying to prove that they could get the taste profile that we'd grown to love, I guess, or like in our own you know foods. So if it wasn't enough to get a product that looked like meat or dairy or seafood we wanted products that smelt like, had the texture of and had the taste of those things. And because we were new to that from an innovation perspective, the initial producers were throwing the kitchen sink at those targets from an ingredient set perspective.
We're getting so much smarter. Now, as entrepreneurs, and as developers in terms of how we can still hit that type target of taste, but doing so with far fewer ingredients, much more natural ingredients, a much cleaner nutritional panel than ever before.
Andrew [continues]: You know the “Beyond” and the “Impossibles” of the world. I think they're probably on generation, three or four that products and getting better and better and being cleaner. And those guys are not the necessarily the leaders in terms of clean panel, or pure ingredients. There are some great companies, for example, out of the West Coast produces meat analogues using six or seven ingredients, all of those ingredients are ingredients your grandmother would know and be comfortable, eating. There's a company in Israel called “Ril Byts” that's using six or seven core ingredients for their meat analogue. They're using cranberry as a way of colourizing, the kind of meat. They're using very natural things in terms of what the ingredients set is as they scale and go to market. They need to be working with the right comb manufacturers who don't cut corners in terms of the ingredients that they use, and the formulation. And the great thing is some of the large food companies who really understand the processes involved in food production companies like Bueller Banga and others. They know how to achieve the targets of taste, texture, deliciousness and so on, at scale. So the great thing is we're finding some of the larger food companies are coming together with the entrepreneurs and the innovators to not only produce great tasting, simple products but also start to do so at scale.
Kati Ohens: Yeah. Actually Andrew just described everything I wanted to say so. Maybe I just elaborate some of our ingredients so yes, clean label is something we use in the industry to describe the ingredients profile which to me from the 8 biggest allergens: nuts, of course, dairy and meat but also wheat and soy which used to be the most common ingredients for meat analogues, And it's also free from additives preservatives, any artificial ingredients that were not found in my grandmother's kitchen however, there is one ingredient that wasn't found in my grandmother's kitchen specifically Hungary and that is “green bananas”. One of our main ingredients is green bananas which was just something that we've been using from the very beginning if you're if in food formulation if you don't have wheat or if you don't have soy and you need something to carry your product, which traditionally is some sort of starch, and it's usually either rice starch or potato or maize starch. And we are using green bananas, because it is a resistant starch. It behaves almost like fibre, and it's called a new superfood of the gut, because it basically carries all the nutrients and micronutrients all the way. And 90% of what would have been eliminated... It just goes through beautifully and it's a great addition to our product, but we also have linseed which would have been a traditional material sunflower we use a mix of proteins, we use different leggins.
Kati [continues]: To create a very healthy amino acid profile and, and really, we are very careful and detailed about our micronutrient profiles so we use, for instance, for colouring we don't use cranberries, we use beetroot, so our red colour is achieved by beautifully red beetroot, and there is an interesting thing that we've just come up with. We are making pepperoni out of these ingredients which is already almost like magic. But when you slice the pepperoni you have those little dots of fat, which is something that just like a sensory experience we used to. And so, we use buckwheat to create that sort of texture and mouthfeel and buy them those little thoughts and that's quite, quite an exciting thing that we're able to do.
Tommaso Di Bartolo: How much educational dollars do you think is important to invest because all that you described is from the inside-out perspective of a pro which makes total sense, right? But let's reverse engineer it from a consumer perspective... I am at the shelf and I see a bunch of new logos that I haven't seen before. He claims Meat analogues...
So, how do you convey that what you say is actually clean so where do you have the triggers within your go-to-market strategy. Does it make sense where we're going with this, Kati?
Kati Ohens: Yes, we are actually planning to do a mass education like that but what we as a brand stand for and that's how I started my discussion with us well, we want to encourage people to start thinking, to start taking responsibility for their own health so that's what our brand is communicating, and of course, on social media and everywhere we are going to point to the right direction, or we don't want to, like, I think people have been fed enough, and they just need to start looking for the knowledge for themselves. And we're going to make sure that the products that we provide will be exactly what we preach and exactly along the lines of how we think about nutrition, but first and foremost we want to empower and enable our consumers to start thinking for themselves, and look into the science. Forget about what the media or marketing, advertising has been feeding them for decades.
Tommaso Di Bartolo: Jeff I'm so intrigued I'm thinking about the last question, regarding the algae… We have a bunch of alternative proteins on the market… Why algae over other alternatives. What are your thoughts there, what are the benefits?
Jeff Banas: Oh, actually I'm glad this conversation developed this way because we're talking about Clean Label Products, we're talking about consumers wanting less processed food. That's exactly one of the strengths of algae that you can buy on commodity market is already non-GMO, some of it could actually be raised organically, but one of the key things to take away from algae, is that it is the most sustainable protein source that we have studied so far, and nine years ago I knew nothing about algae, but having spent so much time in this space, the learnings that are out there and these are recent findings from these papers go back 20 - 25 years. Algae per kilogramme of protein by reliever specifically uses 20 times less land than your regular terrestrial plants and uses eight times less water per kilogramme of protein than terrestrial plants. And if that wasn't enough, you can grow algae on non-farmable land with brackish water so freshwater sources and farmable land are not even required and as Andrew mentioned earlier, you can set some of these Algae Farms up in the desert. If they're big enough, they're carbon negative, they pull carbon dioxide out of the air just like terrestrial plants do they use the sunlight to generate their food and algae grow very fast.
Jeff [continues]: I'm reminded of a protein conference I was at about two-three years ago or one of the keynote speakers brought up the fact that in the United States Midwest, we may only have 40 harvests less than that topsoil before we run into nutrient depleted soil that will really kind of bring up another generation, or another challenge to plant-based protein. Right now they are the king of meat analogue in the realm of alternative proteins, but looking at agriculture, the future of agriculture, plant-based proteins are going to hit that challenge where they now need to be further genetically modified or possibly go look into vertical farming and hydroponics and things like this as we were down hundreds of years of topsoil and nutrients that are required to make plant-based protein. And so one of the exciting things about algae is because of the non-farmable land and the brackish water requirements. There's a lot of countries out there that do not take an ecological zone, where they can make agriculture and farming, as an industry for them, where they could do that with algae. So, bringing algae protein into the mix and bringing it into the growing population of foods and the flexitarian consumers are now buying quite successfully can also mean that you can bring more countries and societies to table as producers as well. Around the world, especially in an area where land and freshwater are at a premium.
Tommaso Di Bartolo: Locust plague… In India, Africa and in South America threatens World Food Security. How can we turn the locust plague slope into food, and in parenthesis (protein)?
Kati Ohens: So, we are plant-based, I see a lot of initiative in cricket and locusts protein. I think that there is an abundance of plants at the moment that we can check we don't even use 10% of the edible plants of the earth that are still out there for us to explore. And whatever we do, there is always going to be a fee to foods ratio in terms of animals. So as long as we don't have to feed another animal to eat them, we can go straight to eat the plants, and I think that that's that's the area that I would like to explore before going into the locusts or going to other space.
Andrew Ive: We were sent a whole bunch of investment requests from companies in the cricket space, I would say about two and a half, three years ago there was this big sort of upswell. And then our analysis was that crickets, etc. are obviously a protein source. However, it's not that it's not indigenous to the Western diet, it's more commonly used in some Asian diets and some African diets but in terms of for example the West. We didn't see it being a kind of a source of protein that would be ongoing, people would try it from a novelty perspective, outside of those cultures but wouldn't necessarily integrate it into their day to day habits. So I think this kind of gets to the secret of why plant-based is working now and why it's such a kind of global phenomenon. And it's, it's so not a fad it's such a sort of evolution or revolution in the food space, because for the first time ever, we're able to produce foods, using plants which look and taste and have the texture of all of the foods we've grown up to love.
Traditionally, we're not being asked to do anything different. And we're not having to change our way of consuming food, but we're able to get foods which are have a far lower footprint on the environment and on the climate and also in terms of animal welfare and, Oh and by the way that, as well as being delicious and potentially healthier for you in terms of cholesterol, and some of the other challenges that the more traditional foods that they're replacing. So I don't see locusts as being a good alternative, because they don't allow us to get to the foods that we've grown up knowing, loving and wanting, and, you know, I just don't see that happening, unfortunately.
Tommaso Di Bartolo: Jeff, Is there a timeline when you plan to commercialise spirulina-based algae protein?
Jeff Banas: Right now, we are in the pre-seed round, where we're putting an intellectual property around our process to produce the spirulina protein and our optimistic estimates say that we could have a commercial plan within two years, putting the protein on the market, and making it available as an ingredient supplier which is what our business model is.
Thank you for the question. Yeah, we do have a target for commercialization. And because of our background and done previously our R&D for lack of a better word is actually ready to put this together and get it on the market by producing samples to solicit interested customers to commit.
Tommaso db: Any timelines for that?
Jeff: We just reinitiate our seed round. So, we're already garnered some interest, like being up and running and producing samples for research and development purposes by the first quarter of next year.
Tommaso [question from Adelmo]: Kati, have you considered using enzyme technology to improve or customise the plant proteins functional properties for product application?
Kati: Yeah, it looks like a downlow might be an inside person because that's a very onpoint question, if you look at my ingredients that I have just listed green bananas and grape seeds. How on earth would that turn into a pepperoni and yes, the answer is microbial fermentation so that is already what our technology is based upon, we use traditional methodology and enzyme technology in a very innovative way that has not already been used before and that's combined with recipes that we've been developing for over 20 years based on our original technology and the past two years, specifically for these products. So yes, it's our our IP is a mixture of microbials technology and special recipes,
Tommaso [continues]: Adelmo has very specific questions. Here goes another one: Loupin as a source of plant protein for your product. Are you using something like that?
Kati: No we don't. We don't use Loupin at the moment, and not sure why we have, we have a lot of legumes and lupini scale, a legume but not. We are continuously improving and researching so just as Andrew mentioned before that, “Beyond” and “Impossible” have I don't know how many fifth, sixth, seventh iteration of our products, and that is how we are operating so we will continuously improve our products and not just the ingredients actually because from a sustainability perspective our biggest issue is packaging. Something that has been on our plate for so long but there is currently no way around it and you have to use plastic if you want (your products) to be mass-produced and if you want to be on the shelves of supermarkets. So that's something that we encourage people like Jeff to keep working on alternative use of, you know, algae or cellulose or other plant based products.
Jeff Banas [interjects]: Kati, you got a company called “FootPrint”
So there's a company called footprint that is moving away from plastics and the kind of polystyrene trays and so on. They've got some really interesting technology. Very cool company.
Kati Ohens [agrees]: Yes. And again, here is a question for us to scale. So we need to be able to work with companies that can support us with the volumes that we are planning to come up with. So that's a challenge for you out there, Jeff.
Tommaso [closing the episode]: Thank you so much. Andrew, Kati and Jeff for sharing the inspiration. I always like to end on my inspirational quote that I call it mine and made it my own quote and I shared in my book too which goes like this: “Never forget where you come from, it keeps you humble. But where you come from can not limit you from where you want to go.” With that, I would like to thank Kati, Andrew and Jeff for taking part in this episode that allows us to pick your brains to share with the world and make it a better place. All the best. Bye, bye.
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