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    27 min read

    [S2:Ep #2] Plant-based and the biblical protein in the mainstream

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    The powerful and regenerative effect of legit problem-solvers in an unsustainable global food system. In this episode, hosted by Tommaso Di Bartolo, founding partner of Awesm Ventures, watch industry fellows, Jinesh Shah, serial entrepreneur, YCombinator-Alum, advisor and mentor to several Alt-Protein startups, Navneet Deora, PhD, food engineer with a PhD from Indian Institute of & IT, hosts entrepreneurs Joshua Nixon, co-founder and CTO of Prime Roots, and Dror Tamir, Co-Founder & CEO at Hargol.

    TopFloor: Where handpicked startups present sector-specific innovations to a jury of industry fellows



    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.

    Topfloor is where inspiring and passionate game changers, visionary entrepreneurs share startlingly impressive intel on food of the future with a panel of experts.

    With Special participation of



    [Industry Fellows] Topfloor: S2:E2 



    Jinesh Shah
    Navneet Deora, PhD
    Food | Tech | Alt Protein | YC Alum | Founder @ eazyChef, MylkGuys | Solving some of the biggest problems our planet faces
    Chief Technology Officer / Future of Food / Alternative Protein

    [Startup Entrepreneurs] Topfloor: S2:E2 



    Joshua Nixon
    Dror Tamir
    Co-Founder and CTO at Prime Roots
    Co-Founder & CEO at Hargol™ FoodTech Serial entrepreneur for food and healthy eating



    Serial entrepreneur w/ 2 exits, author, advisor, faculty, investor.
    Tommaso Di Bartolo


    Key points:

    • Crickets: a great horizon of opportunities in a growing market worldwide
    • Standing out in the shelves as “clean protein” is the way to go
    • Innovation and automation are key to promote next gen proteins growth


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    Episode's 🔖 Transcription

    Tommaso: I would like to pick up things with Josh, with your presentation. Josh, without further ado, take it from here. 

    : I'm Josh here, Prime Roots, we're making the next generation of alternative protein, the first real wave alternative protein, as a lot of the older legacy brands are really gathering towards vegan and vegetarian audiences. They're not really trying to replicate me from a taste or texture perspective or from a conceptual perspective. But then, more recently, we've seen the second wave of meat alternatives bring a lot of new popularity and interest into the space and things like Beyond and Impossible, really going after the scientific approach of how do you make something taste like meat? One of the things that's resulted in is some ultra processed products that are seen by many now as not being super healthy for you. But that's a shame, because it doesn't have to be that way. And so here at Prime Roots, we're taking a compromise approach between the third way of using technology to actually make our products meaty and delicious, with less ultra processed ingredients. 

    The main thing we do differently is we grow our textures rather than processing and forming them. So we use Koji, super protein, it's the national fungus of Japan. And so say why fungi, why not plants? Well, if you look at these pictures here, microscope images, you can see the animal muscle fibers are in the same range as fungal fibers in size and shape, but plant fibers are much too large and stiff. And so to use a flat fiber to create a meat-like texture, you really can't. You have to blow it apart. And also plants tend to be lower in protein content except for the non fibrous parts, like the seeds. And so you have to refine that into a powder and now do an extrusion process to regenerate texture. But that often results in a spongy matrix, whereas we can do is we can take these fungi fibers, and we can align them on a microscopic level, and create microscopically identical texture to meat and a very dense knee tear. But Koji doesn't just stop in texture. It's high in protein. It's a whole food protein because we aren't processing it all. It's a complete protein, it has micronutrients and some healthy prebiotic fibers. The way we do this is we start with a starter culture. We grow it similar to beer brewing, we strain it out to harvest that we incorporate in natural flavors, which can be much more minimal in our case, because we're starting with a neutral tasting protein source. 


    Joshua: Today, the alternative meat market is growing rapidly. Protein consumption today, really the majority is coming from animals, but the shift is obviously in the opposite direction. And so in terms of attributes of what we do, we prioritize taste. But our products are all natural, made with whole food proteins, non GMO, and the great texture. And we're able to create a wide variety of products and because of the simplicity of working with our platform, we really like to start with the consumer. First, we start with lots of testing and free formulation to try things with people within a two week cycle. So we're rapidly iterating through all of our products and trying to bring the Lean Startup methodology into food. And we recently did a limited release of our bacon. First thing we ever made was a salmon burger. We've made tuna made sausages, chicken tenders, ground meat. Also an associate got meat, and shrimp, and crab cakes, and lobster chunks, it goes as well. But it doesn't just stop there we can make things that aren't meat or seafood, anything that's high protein, and needs a white and neutral application. 


    Jinesh: What are your key business challenges? In a way I see that there's several companies around the world in sort of plant based/fungi based, animal alternative meats, not doing things exactly like you do, in the wild, where you just call for the pet foods and a couple others are trying to experiment with it. What are your key challenges in terms of the market right now? Which regions are you focusing on? First, were you thinking it was inefficient to begin with. 


    Joshua: we're really focusing on a direct to consumer strategy where we are focusing initially in the West Coast (United States), a big reason for that is the grocery store resets are really slow. And we want to have a continuous feedback rational model. We want to take advantage of that early on. And so we want to have a platform where we can directly communicate and turnover products with consumers and of course, you know, staring on your own in that way, it's much less simple than say going to a distributor and right into the stores that's a lot easier.


    Jinesh: how are you finding that sort of consumer based on social media channels, organic paid? What are your ways to reach these initial sort of beta customers for your DTC channel? That's one lock. The second part is which particular product segments are you focusing on testing initially and why?


    Joshua: We've got a lot of organic interest to the point there's about 10,000 people who are on our waiting list, waiting for the product. So we've surveyed those people of all the products we've made to see which ones they liked the best. And so we have a rank ordered list of the things that people who are interested in the brand are most interested in terms of product. And we're kind of going down that list in terms of where our capabilities are taking that into account a little bit as well. But mostly just going down my list. And in terms of early on, I think there's a lot of organic interest, you know, directly, people just coming to us very interested in what we're doing. And we've done some limited testing with paid advertisements and very low cost of getting or so we're going to use that after the other channel isn't sufficient.


    Navneet: In terms of technology, I wanted to understand let's say, you try to make different products out of it, maybe in the direction of fish, chicken. So is there a way or technology in which you can naturally create those flavors? 


    Josh: We use natural flavors across all of our products using artificial flavors that really come down to chemical sourcing. It's still natural flavors, but you're looking at the chemistry and trying to understand where they're similar or the same compounds elsewhere in nature. Rather than in  meat, a lot of these compounds come up the food chain as the animal eats food. And so there's usually a plant source for the same compound. If not, you can find things that are very similar and incorporate them as well. Just looking and surveying a whole space of the base ingredients out there you can use. We're growing mycelium, the goal is to make very little flavor there and it's very good at it. So we end up with something of a very slight umami, a white color, and not much taste or flavor at all that provides a blank palette on which we can paint all the other flavors that I was talking about. That's really what's enabled us to go quickly versus say, if we're using a pea protein. Now I have to fight the pea protein flavor and the taste that's present there. But we've gotten around that by creating our own protein that's far superior. 


    Tommaso: My question is, as a startup, you have limited resources in time, budget, and people like if I reverse engineer the challenges as a startup entrepreneur, and then you see your product placed in a shelf, and envision in a shelf multiple products, so, the moment where the customer might take the decision. How are you going to be really standing out? What are your thoughts there in terms of product versus market differentiation?


    Josh: I think there's a few products you've made that there isn't really anything else. That's certainly a way to stand out. I mean with some of these like particularly, I think of, in the case of bacon and tuna, for instance, those are highly demanded products that there are plant based products in the sense that someone made something the same shape, but no one has really made something that's true the same texture and flavor as either bacon or tuna. And so for some of our products, like say a sausage, yes, there are other plant based sausages just such as the Beyond Sausage that are like good tasting on the market. But for others, we have something truly unique. I think that all in all, once someone tries our products, they're going to be very interested in the rest of them because they'll realize just how delicious it is. But on top of that, we like to lean pretty hard into the nutritional benefits and the power. This is a more natural product when compared to other meat alternatives, that are really going out a little taste and the texture of meat.


    Tommaso: Without further ado, Dror Tamir, you're ready to rock the stage?


    Dror Tamir: I'm the co-founder and CEO of Hargol. And we are the first in the world to grow grasshoppers on a commercial scale. Because grasshoppers are nature's most efficient protein source, healthier for humans and more sustainable to grow. I guess you all know that global demand for protein is expected to double over the coming decades. And you are also aware of the fact that existing protein sources are reaching the limitations. There is a race in the world to develop alternative protein sources. However, some of the new sources suffer from their own set of limitations. But it is available around the US and North for many years as a very efficient protein source are insects and the main products you can find in markets today, especially in North America are crickets. But crickets suffer from several problems. 


    First, crickets do not fit intensive farming, crickets, even individuals and they tend to die in high densities. Second, crickets suffer from very distinct taste and flavor, making them a very challenging ingredient to work with. And last, well crickets are not kosher, so that's a problem as well. So for us, the real solution are grasshoppers and we find 10 distinct advantages grasshoppers have over the competition. 


    First one, superior nutritional content. Grasshoppers contain over 70% growth with no processing on essential amino acids and very high nutrients such as omega three, omega six, iron, zinc, folic acid; very low on saturated fat and cholesterol. Second, they are almost neutral in taste and flavor making them the perfect ingredient for the food and beverage industry to work with. Now, also at this point is intensive farming with grasshoppers' fantasy to swarm. It is 20 times more efficient to produce than beef reducing greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, arable land usage and more and now healthier. According to our research, we already know that grasshopper protein can support the growth of Children by reducing sugar and cholesterol levels and even reducing body fat. 


    In terms of demand, now 2.5 billion people across the world that consume insects as part of their diet, grasshopper is the most widely eaten insect in the world, enjoying very high demand and pay the highest prices in markets across Africa, Asia and Central America. Why is the only insect that is recognized as food and feed all over the world are grasshoppers, other insects don't. And that's because of the advantage number nine: grasshoppers eat only fresh grass with no pesticides and no fertilizers. As a result, this is a super safe product and very clean. 


    For all the plant eater eaters among us, well, grasshopper protein is even more humane than any plant based because in order to grow the plants rating, farmers have to use pesticides and fertilizers to kill the insects that come to the plants. The insects die in a nasty way, just being wasted in the field and they contaminate the soil and the water sources. The way we grow the grasshoppers will also grow the feed for them. We are not using any fertilizers, we're not using any pesticides in all the animals that we grow we use in the finished products and the way we harvest them following the recommendation of the European Union have minimal harm done to animals. These are cold blooded creatures, we drop the temperature they fall asleep and then we collect them and freeze them. 


    We develop innovative methods and technologies to fund grasshoppers on a commercial scale, there's a lot of innovation involved, I will speak about the three major pillars of our technology. The first one is a closed environment, in a closed climate environment, that enables us to grow them here on a very high quality and constant quality. We have control of the temperature, the humidity, the structure of the cage to answer some of those biological needs, the density of the cages and the feed that they need.


    Second part, accelerated incubation of the eggs reducing the incubation period from 40 weeks to two weeks increasing the number of life cycles from one to 10 per year. And the last part innovative cage infrastructure that enabled us to grow 10 times more biomass per square feet, and at the same time, keep a well ventilated and sanitized environment for the grasshoppers. We are already operating for grasshoppers facilities in northern Israel, and the size of the team is 22 as part of it 15% of a workforce of persons with disabilities, it was set up as a goal from day one. 


    The market opportunity is huge. This is a research by Barclays Bank showing the potential of edible insects in North America and Europe and they predicted to reach a billion dollars by 2030. When we look at the graph on the report, we actually believe that they got it wrong and the potential is higher because the problem is not the demand. The problem is the supply. We get farmers that lead the industry today are losing crops every so often and, and are finding it very challenging to scale up because of the animals they're using. With our technology and animals, we believe the market can grow much faster and we already see the interest from leading food producers in our ingredients. We started selling two products, a year ago, grasshoppers and grasshopper powder. We sold those as an ingredient to food producers and restaurants. However, we believe in finished products and we identified several niches in the market where we identify early adopters and the will to pay very high prices by consumers that appreciated the added values of grasshoppers and I will show that a little bit later. To which those new products and new markets we believe in joint ventures with leading food producers. We are working with the largest food producer in Israel to develop and manufacture. We're working with two other producers on nutritional supplements that product is ready for market and we are also discussing with IAFF collaboration in producing a hybrid sausage, hybrid of beef, and grasshopper protein sausage that is healthier and more sustainable. We are also conducting pilots with leading food producers such as Nestle, Coca Cola and many more and they find the ingredient very exciting as part of overcoming the yuck factor. We generated a lot of PR some of it through direct contact with the media and the rest the rest through participating in international innovation competitions and we won 15 of them to date. We are also collaborating with leaderships in North America and Europe to develop their own special dishes based on grasshopper as a whole or as an ingredient and you can see some amazing samples of recipes that chefs published on social media. As I mentioned, we are generating a lot of traction from international media. And to date we raised $5 million dollars from investors from all over the world. 


    Now I started talking about identifying early adopters and we did something that is a little bit different. We have a very unique ingredient and that is grasshoppers, which are also a theological product, which are grasshoppers, are mentioned in the Bible, in the New Testament and even in the Quran is food. And we decided that we will develop a new line of products that will include locust honey in biblical ingredients, and we will tell the story of John the Baptist, because he used to eat locusts and honey, that's the story. And we are actually targeting the US evangelical market, offering an amazing experience of eating like it is 2000 years ago, while enjoying modern benefits of a healthier protein and more sustainable solution. We launched the product last weekend, offering energy bars and all grasshoppers and the traction, I can tell you, is just unbelievable. Beyond just consuming, consumers ordering the products. We already have distributors and affiliates, food producers and investors contacting us and it looks like we need to scale up fast and soon. So that's in a nutshell what Hargol is doing. And if you want to take a bite from the future, well now you can go online and order your first batch of full grasshoppers.


    Navneet: Just wanted to understand whether this product is available in India?


    Dror Tamir: it is because you have a very large local swarm that is flowing over crops. Last week we were contacted by the Indian government asking for help. Unfortunately the answer is we know how to grow them, but we don't know how to kill them in the wild. There's a lot of interest from the Indian market but you know, we just launched. We have to remain focused on the market we started. We will get to India soon, we do have a joint venture with an Indian company to extract the creatine in the grasshoppers and utilize it to other obligations. 


    Navneet: just to compare it with the plant protein, in terms of commercial, to get a package of a plant protein, let's say from soil pea and to get a kg of protein from grasshopper or from a meat. How does it compare to, let's say, he went to mycelium, he went to the plant. How does it stand out? 


    Dror Tamir: If you're asking about prices, well, we're not trying to compete in prices. That's not the right stage for us. We are still at a relatively early stage. As much as we have full facilities, our capacity is nothing compared to be in and around the world and the protein market. So we all focus right now on niches in the market, when we see when we find early adopters, willing to pay very high prices. And I can tell you that according to our r&d plan, and what we see in our research already, we will be able to get very close in terms of cost production to plant base, and of course, with their superior pro good source


    Jinesh: How do you one compare the food conversion ratio to feed conversion ratio, when it's the FCR when it comes to talking about plant based meats, about mycelium, about you know, other sources where that that ratio stands at potentially a much better place, then in the insect protein world at the moment and to any comments on the protein digestibility the pdks aspect of bioavailability of these proteins and its absorption amongst humans. So one is of course, from a sustainability point of view as to how much should he goes in versus how much comes out? If this was considered sort of a black box or just a machine, not as an animal, for example. The same way that we look at poultry or Katelyn, how much goes in and how much comes up. 


    Two, how does it work in the human body in terms of its bioavailability of the proteins?


    Dror Tamir: In terms of the conversion rate at this point of time it is still it's an early stage of development, we are already witnessing up to two to one conversion rates for feed to grasshopper biomass, which is almost as good as poultry today, which is not bad at all and and remember they've been developed for 10,000 years, we've been doing that for six years only. Second thing in terms of bioavailability. It's too early to say we are still researching gates. We established a consortium of researchers from Hebrew University in Israel, Weitzman Institute in Israel and Germany and university and we are in the middle of researching preliminary results that show that there is a potential for higher availability of raw silver protein. But it is too early to say.

    Tommaso: Here's a question from the audience and I see that our team has selected three questions already. I'll take care of the first one, that comes from Kimberly Mika. Goes to Dror. Are you considering expanding your production/growing beyond Israel?


    Dror Tamir: Absolutely. We're already marketing our products in the US and we are looking at expanding our marketing reach beyond that, we have permits for Europe and Australia. In terms of production, let me divide it first to producing finished products. And we are working with food producers all over the world. So production is global. In terms of farming, yes, we are looking at the opportunity to go global. We have interest from almost every country around the world. So we are considering when will be the right time and which market should we go first. It will probably depend on market attraction first, because the technology enables us to grow the grasshoppers anywhere. 

    Tommaso: Now, second question, I would like to ask Josh, this one comes from Jim from San Diego. Josh, what are some quality characteristics of Koji? In comparison to other plant based sources of alternative protein.


    Josh: There's a kind of nutrition side and then there's the taste side. I would say the taste side it's more about what it enables us to do in terms of the final product. And so that translates into a product with a lot less ingredients and no masking agents, as you might see in other meat alternatives. In the case of quality/nutrition it's a highly digestible, complete protein. It's a whole food, there's no extra additive processes that have been done to it. And then I think the biggest quality thing that it brings to the table really is the texture. The microscopic textures let us kind of play with pulling the coachee into alignment and we can create a mouthfeel that's very similar to the texture of meat.

    Tommaso: we just got another question. This is from Dan, from Tampa, Florida. What do insects taste like and why should we bring them to our diet?


    Dror Tamir: First, insects taste completely different based on their own diet and the conditions you grow them in. I can talk to you about what grasshoppers taste like, because other insects such as crickets and worms will display a very distinct taste of flavors. And grasshoppers, well, I can't tell you as well because you have to try for yourself. 


    Tommaso: it's a personal subjective. I had actually one for you Dror too, because you will keep mentioning about the early adopters, right which is fundamental in any innovation regardless if it's you know, any digital world, right. Early adopters, the one that responded poorly at the market must be sizable enough right for you to get from early adopters into the mainstream. Do you think that you have enough of early adopters market for you to get into the next round of scaling and production? What are your thoughts there?


    Dror Tamir: So let me give you a few numbers. Now, first, when we usually think about early adopters, we think about young people, millennials, Y generations, Z generation and so on. And you know, that's a very limiting thinking, because early adopters could be everywhere. And when you think about the product that has a logical story behind it, and you are focusing on an evangelical world, actually, early adopters are 70 and 80 years old consumers, most of them, so we did something completely different and from the responses, it looks like we got it. We nailed it. In terms of size and scaling up, I'm happy enough with this niche market with 80 million consumers in the US and 500 millions of them worldwide. That's a big enough market and if we got that right the Muslims because since it was Muhammad, the prophet, that ate locusts on his travels across the Middle East, it has to be a must or every Muslim in the world to eat a locusts at least once in his in his lifespan. So there's 1.2 billion Muslims that don't know what's waiting for them just around the corner from us.


    Tommaso: Jinesh, we get here to the second last part, which is the bottom lining if you would like to meet and follow up with Dror or with Josh accordingly, eventually, you know, synergies, business, investments. That's the purpose exactly here of Topfloor getting together potential business opportunities. Jinesh, would you like to pull off with Josh, yes or no?


    Jinesh: Yes. Keep in touch in that space. Definitely yes.


    Tommaso: Jenish, how about Dror, do you want to have a bite of grasshoppers? 


    Jinesh: I'm not yet having a bit of grasshoppers yet, but I do appreciate people trying to come up with more sustainable solutions. So I'm not an expert in the space, but I will definitely be following Hargol's story for sure as I have been in the past, and if I do end up in Israel, I will definitely be sure to say hello.


    Tommaso: Navneet, what are your thoughts about grasshoppers?


    Navneet: Great, interesting. I would like to follow up with him someday. No, because, of course the Indian government is also looking into it in a way, to create a sustainable solution using grasshoppers, I would be really interested to follow.


    Tommaso: Navneet, how about Josh?


    Navneet: Definitely, yes. That is something that has a potential to scale up. Because they will at least come from Japan and India also traditionally works on their format. Yes, I would like to work with them.


    Tommaso: Navneet and Jinesh have both said yes to Josh and softly follow Dror. I have some interest in the niche markets in Brazil. The majestic market in Brazil is huge. So I want to have a follow up on that. And we are already in contact with Josh and Kim and his business partner. So two yeses on my end. 


    I would like to wrap up and end on a quote that I have been crafting over the last 20 years as an entrepreneur that switch inside of the table five years ago, which goes like this:


    Tommaso: “Never forget where you come from, it keeps you humble. But where you come from, cannot limit you where you want to go.”


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