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    42 min read

    [S2:Ep #13] What’s ahead in next gen proteins?

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    What is coming down the pipeline as it pertains to next gen foods, specifically those mimicking legacy, animal-based products? Hosted by Tommaso Di Bartolo, founding partner of Awesm Ventures, panelists MJ Kinney, Food Scientist specializing in plant-based product development, Nick Cooney, Founder and Managing Partner at Lever VC, and Christine Gould, Founder and CEO of Thought For Food, highlighted key aspects of sustainability, nutrition and innovation on next gen proteins as well as opportunities and challenges ahead for emerging players.

    Virtual Coffee: A Curated panel of industry fellows to 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. 


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    With Special participation of



    [Industry Fellows] Virtual Coffee: S2:E13 

    MJ Kinney

    Nick Cooney


    MJ Kinney
    Nick Cooney
    Christine Gould
    Food scientist specializing in plant-based product development
    Founder and Managing Partner at Lever VC
    Founder and CEO of Thought For Food



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


    Key points: 

    • Global market, challenges and investments
    • Helping to make a change in the food system
    • Bringing young people to the table
    • Food in 2050



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    Episode's 🔖 Transcription

    Tommaso: We are live and I wonder if I have to say good morning, good afternoon or good evening. I’m thrilled to have you guys joining our 13th episode of our Virtual Coffee. Today I have the pleasure to learn with three brilliant panelists that I would like to kick off here. 


    Mimic animal based products

    Tommaso: I would like to kick off things and pick MJ's brain with the first question. MJ, what is coming down the pipeline as it pertains to plant based foods specifically those mimicking legacy animal based products? Please take it from here. 

    MJ: Yeah, great question. Something that is always on the forefront of my mind, especially in my line of work developing food products in the space. So, when I look at the alternative protein category as a whole, I look at it in terms of applications and meat, eggs and dairy. And so one of the first things that comes to mind is defining what plant based means as a standard. I think we really saw this emergence come about as an alternative to the word vegan and also to describe what was really a revolutionary and innovative category being an alternative to legacy animal products in that meat, egg and dairy category. So what that means is that as a standard for the whole food industry I think it's going to be one of the more immediate things coming down the pipeline, and hopefully it will benefit the community, as opposed to limited severely. I just know that I was going shopping for groceries the other day and I love my classic little cup of ramen noodles and they are now being marketed as plant based, and if that's really a nutritional story for the consumer, I myself know that I am consuming a lot of starch in that product, but there is also a true complete meal to be had in the application. So what does plant based mean? Is probably the first thing that comes to mind. I think also collectively as a community to know what to keep, what to drop and what to reduce when it comes to nutritional equivalence and animal based products versus plant based barns or soon to be cultivated I hope. Because it's more than just a protein story, complete protein is kind of being approached in a very tiptoe fashion. Some companies abide by it very strictly and others kind of fly under the radar hoping that someone might catch their mistakes later. But don't really incorporate a true complete protein narrative with their product.


    I think that products that currently mimic animal based ones, especially in the meat category will spread into other types of meat products so not just focusing on beef and what is now I think becoming more popular being chicken, but also within pork and seafood. I think there will definitely be a stronger emergence in seafood in the next couple of years. Fingers crossed. And that as those products develop, they're going to move outside of this restructure mean category and into what I refer to as like a whole muscle cast is something that's really going to match the five porosity and texture of something that isn't pre ground. So those are some things that come top of mind. I think as far as things that I've seen that I couldn't have expected but are growing in popularity in my line of work, our alternative products in meat, eggs and dairy and dairy specifically being yogurt and cheeses, they're not trying to make it taste exactly like the animal based product but actually tried to really take advantage of and leverage the whole food ingredients that are being utilized to create similar structures or formats, or those types of products, and I think innovative ways to launch a product is like probably the last one I’d include. So, we live in a pandemic era, and it's not maybe the best time to start a food business when it comes to getting your product out there to consumers who have never heard of you before. So how do you go about doing that and I think subscription services might be a gateway and a new way of launch. 


    Thinking globally


    Tommaso: So thank you so much and Nick, maybe you want to build the bridge here from one perspective to the perspective of  VC investing in those categories. How about the Lever VC experience investing in the next gen proteins space, why don't you focus on plant based at all and cultivating meat?


    Nick: Sure. So, as some of your listeners may be familiar with this space that's growing very rapidly, and not just here in the US but globally. So, for Lever VC we're a global fund our main offices are in New York and Hong Kong. And we're looking at the sector globally. So whether you're looking at the view of growth rates in these categories, some of those plant based dairy categories that MJ mentioned, plant based meat itself, other areas. If you look at the growth and innovation on the higher tech side, so companies producing real animal protein from self cultivation, or from fermentation or directly in plants, and there's just a lot of really interesting innovation that is starting to bring more serious ways to bring these real animal proteins into plant based products, and then in time into fully cultivated or fermented dairy products over the next couple years. 


    So, it's really exciting from a technology perspective, it's growing very quickly from a market size perspective and from a deal flow perspective, there's more and more companies entering this space all the time. You know we at Lever VC have a proprietary database we'll be proud to track, pretty much all the companies in the sector, somebody who's doing the eggs or dairy from either plant based ingredients or higher tech self cultivation and so on. At this point, there's over 30 companies globally that we're tracking into several new ones, at least several new ones that come to mind pretty much every week so they're all of those things, it's both a really exciting space to face with a huge amount of financial opportunity. 


    And of course it's also a sector that as the sector grows, and now these companies and our portfolio companies succeed, it's also nice to know that it has a really great impact on the environment and society in general as well.

    Tommaso: How did you get actually at all into the space? I mean, the future of food is one umbrella, but already just focusing on protein, how did you get into the space? Why focus on that? What was the team's background? 


    Nick: Yeah, so for me personally I got into it over 20 years ago, so I've been eating these products for over 20 years, and really have watched them evolve from the early forms which are not very good tasting or well marketed or accepted by the mainstream public to where things are now. So further back I worked on the policy and geo consulting side of things, began investing in the space five years ago, a PVC through a family office investment vehicle and around that time around 2015, 2014 as this space was starting to hit a bit of an inflection point and we're starting to see increased investment funding, starting to be a number of these high technology companies, starting to see more mainstream placement of the plant based meat and dairy products. It became pretty clear that this is an inflection point there is a lot of opportunity here. 


    So for me it started, certainly from that personal ethical perspective, that's what led me to begin eating these products and continued eating them to this day, and that passion for this space and wanting these companies to succeed, that certainly would drive my work, day in and day out. My colleague and partner Lawrence, who lives in Hong Kong, has a background in the general financial industry. So, I've been doing VC and private equity investing for over 15 years, deployed about 1.5 billion in capital. He's made major investments in the conventional animal protein sector, but also began making direct deals in plant based meat and dairy and so on about five years ago as well. 


    So that included early investments in Young Meat and Impossible Foods and a few others. And so for him was also seeing the way the total protein sector was trending. Seeing the opportunities here in alternative protein so they're both coming to us from different backgrounds, but seeing the opportunity.


    Making a change on the food system


    Tommaso: Christine you have been creating more and more opportunities in this space right? What are the main areas and programs in which topics food acts to stimulate the creation of new ideas and support the launch of game changing social impact startups in food tech. I’m curious to hear your perspective on. 


    Christine: Absolutely. Thanks for the great question, and I've been taking lots of notes from the previous speakers. Indeed Thought for Food, we're actually a nonprofit organization that's really focused on creating change to our food system at the systemic level. So we run innovation challenges specifically targeting millennials and Gen Z's who are the largest demographic alive today. And they also bring forward, kind of really interesting innovation mindsets and approaches, especially when it comes to food and agriculture. So what we do is we really like to catalyze the creation of new ideas, we accelerate the most promising ones, and then we also invest in well bedded companies and connect them also to partnerships in the industry. 


    And what we've seen even before you know Corona times and I know the other speakers here will understand is that there has been this big rise of interest and innovation in a plant based space, which has been driven in large part by millennials and Gen Z’s who tend to bring like an open mind towards some of these innovations in terms from a sustainability perspective but also from like that experiential perspective like open to trying new types of food products, and especially products that are bringing forward impact. 


    Now one of the things that I mentioned is that we are focused on system change. So we do want to create companies that keep kind of a positive impact at their core, and of course what you're seeing in the plant based and alternative protein space is that there is a narrative that's very pervasive about positive impact on animal welfare and the environment. We're trying to actually really push that to go further to say okay, how can we avoid the mistakes and pitfalls that agriculture has created to date, such as monocultures? How can we also create more circular business models that are empowering farmers and are leveraging underutilized crops for example, or that are focused on kind of like open source models so that we can empower more innovation and not just hold back IP? 


    So these are kind of like the experimental ways that we're trying to foster, not only new innovations but new approaches to business that can really make our food system more sustainable, more regenerative and more inclusive than it's ever been. And I think the other thing that is exciting to see in the young people like companies that are generating of which there are1000s around the world, is that they are demanding, like I said more from food products and they want to see the companies that are emerging answer questions around nutrition, about transparency, and a lot of these things it's like they're seeing past hype and really demanding kind of more authentic approaches to these new companies that are coming forward.

    Tommaso: In terms of geography, Christine, where are you seeing the most demand from ideas coming from? I mean we've learned over the last weeks that Europe has just a big supply but also big demand, and you live in Switzerland. What are your numbers in terms of what's next movements? 


    Christine: Well, yeah, I mean we're actually a totally global organization, so we're working actually in 175 countries and our innovation focus areas aren't just in plant based, it's actually across the whole food and ag value chain and we're seeing types of innovations emerge in different geographies in what you might call food tech and alternative protein space. So since 2011 we've been seeing companies and insects, insect protein for both humans and animal feed. We've definitely seen you know different types of plant based approaches happen all around the world, but particularly in Asia and of course, South America and the United States. And then, we had a company in Eastern Europe actually doing some plant based charcuterie products, so  it's kind of interesting, I mean that's been a phenomenon for some time. And then of course over the past five years, I would say, we’ve really seen an upsurge in companies like in the cell Ag and fermentation space, and this is something that's really fascinating to me because my personal background is actually in biotech and GMOs, and I've been really interested to see that there's been more interest on the consumer side for GMO processes to bring these types of products, then, for example GMO crops which were met with a lot of reluctance from the consumer. 


    I think there's kind of more of an open mind. Now when it comes to biotech and its potential in this industry and the other interesting thing that I see is that seven years ago people were saying sell AG, it's never gonna get past through the hype, this is never going to work and over the past five years you actually see some success stories emerge and this slew of investment coming in, and some really interesting ways of people, proving what people said wasn't going to be possible that it is possible. So it's a really exciting time to see.


    Cooperating with the traditional players


    Tommaso: I have a question, maybe for the group, what are we seeing in terms of acceptance from cooperation, from the traditional big players when it comes to collaborating with ideas, projects or names in startups, in ideation phase. This might be maybe for our audience also something very interesting, we see a more growing receptivity in terms of embracing these projects or is it still a very traditional approach to “now we are the big ones, we do all our business”. Maybe someone who has some experience might jump in here.


    MJ: And observation that I've made in that space is I think that more collaboration is happening that falls outside of the traditional route for product development at the very least. I say that because many store brands, private label brands are actually launching their own products and that's really great because private labels do a couple of things. The advertising and high expenses affiliated with the cost of a food product or really any product on the market are simply reduced when it is a store brand as opposed to one that's trying to make it out on its own, as like a flagship product for that category. But the other thing too is that traditionally that hasn't happened because private labels only come into the scene once a product has almost reached a commodity level. It's been developed in such a way that it's no longer, it's so obvious it's no longer almost innovative. 


    So for Stuart brands to almost be the other innovators in the space in launching a product  is huge and that takes a lot of collaboration. Because of manufacturing facilities they don't necessarily brand themselves in this space right now. And that means that private labels have to secure a very large volume so they are making those partnerships and creating those collaborations to make at least the manufacturing route happen, and they're working very closely with those manufacturers I take it because they don't necessarily bring the expertise to develop the products themselves.

    Tommaso: Very interesting. And the other perspectives? Christine?


    Christine: Well, I can just jump in. I mean I think if you've been reading the news of course you've seen companies like Danone really announcing their intentions to I think it was 5 billion euros in plant based product sales by 2025. So you're seeing some of the big incumbents really embracing disruption. I also have a background in a big multinational agribusiness that provides like inputs and seeds right into agriculture and many years ago, they were already talking about how they could start to feed into this market with premium eyes, like pea protein and soy products so I do think that there's like opportunities for collaboration and that's also something that I think is an important message for viewers to understand, so much of the conversation right now and how to be a plant based innovator focuses on the product innovation, but there's also this whole supply chain that requires innovation. And I think that's also a really exciting place for Copper Food is trying to catalyze that and for other innovators to get involved in how do we innovate breeding programs for their crops, how are we also like managing processing technologies and waste streams, etc. Again, back to that circular economy point I made. So I think that there's a lot of opportunities for innovation beyond just the product itself that's sold to the consumer.


    Challenges on the consumer accessibility

    Tommaso: MJ I would like to hear your opinion again. What are some of the biggest challenges that will either significantly slow down or prevent plant based foods from reaching consumer accessibility? What are your thoughts on this?


    MJ: I think that there will be things that happen in the day to day, something that you might stumble upon in your routine work that could prevent some of these challenges from actually coming into fruition. I think there will also be things that happen collectively over a long period of time, but I often find myself wondering like how can I prevent  these bad things from happening essentially? and so I looked at the routine day to day stuff. I think what that looks like is a lack of misalignment and communication between ultimately the consumer communicators or marketing, and the product developers being typically food scientists getting on the same page with what is expected of a food product is Keystone, and it also is going to really have a hand and a play in overall that organoleptic experience of the product. Sometimes what I've seen to be true is that there's a very long list of deliverables from a marketing aspect, but without any insight into how that actually looks on the formulation side. So as long as those two parties can communicate effectively what those challenges are, I think that is going to lead to better tasting products in the end and also ones that taste, not just tastes better but may deliver on a lower price point. I think also on the day to day and to Christine's point about circular economies and supply chain. 


    I think that level of unpreparedness in procurement and sourcing these raw materials is really critical. If we are leaning on plant proteins in false category for instance, so basically one source of raw material to meet everyone's plant based protein content across all plant based products we have to look into, which geographical regions those crops grow best, when there are times of harvest star, we need to get very intentional about our conversations as a b2c brand with our b2b partners that are an ingredient manufacturer, and knowing if we sign a commitment with you today, can you grow enough product to have it available for us in one to two years. 


    There have been a lot of really great ingredients that have entered the plant based market that didn't really have a place before the creation of these new categories and I think potato protein is one of them. But for anybody who is formulating with potato protein it's very hard to find a reliable supply, you haven't already contracted to somebody in that ingredient business. Long term things that happen collectively over time, I think limited availability in the co manufacturing landscape is going to be a major, and is already a major bottleneck. So you don't have very many players in that landscape that are saying “hey, we know how to produce plant based meat, egg or dairy products. Come to us we are your turnkey solution”. Right now what's happening are our companies are bringing level of intellectual property to a co manufacturer and they're partnering together and collaborating very strongly in order to really release products, and that's not necessarily a problem but it may lead to some challenges when it comes to that committee fractured wanting to establish themselves in that space, but having learned everything they did from essentially first customer, and in that same vein, it would be something collectively over a period of time. 


    I think the intellectual property limitations for these customized solutions. One of the main things I learned regarding the b2b ingredient space industry is that the ingredients can really make or break how great an end product is. And if you're leaving on a customized solution, whether it's in your equipment or in your ingredients. And that is only limited to the biggest customer that can purchase the largest volume, then it's not going to help the community as a whole. Yeah, I think that's all I have to offer for that question.


    Tommaso: A lot to unpack, MJ. And actually you know, I would spread a couple of questions also to Christine and Nick from what you're saying here but one point that I've heard now multiple times is the mix between the development from a product as a scientist perspective, and the marketing as a startup. Where do you put more energy because at the end of the day, once you've once the product hits the shelf, go the traditional retail route, how can the user make the difference? So then you were mentioning in your previous aspect that the new business models are right,  would you say MJ that a potential new business model meaning going maybe direct to consumer online might help leverage bigger awareness or might educate the end consumer better instead of going the traditional route and being on the shelf? What are your thoughts on these experiences? What have you seen there?


    MJ: Oh admittedly my experience is very limited here. I don't pretend to be a marketer. I'd like to believe that I can communicate effectively with somebody who's in marketing, but launch strategy I really view that as “oh, tell me more because it's something that I admittedly don't know about”. I'd like to believe that something that's going to bring more convenience to the consumer like a direct to consumer subscription service would be a winner, but I don't know for certain that I don't feel qualified enough to speak up on it. Maybe Nick or Christine might have something to contribute. 


    Nick: Sure, having to jump in with the thoughts. I guess maybe taking a step back to the broader question. I think one of the biggest challenges which is a challenge that's hard to control in terms of the sector is the inertia that people have as individual consumers and that companies have, whether it's the retailers, which service companies etc might be using the product so I think from a long term perspective I would view that as one of the major barriers to the note about convenience and getting on things that really do matter to consumers who are trying to product, certainly, I think price convenience and taste are clearly the things that dominate these decisions and convenience is one of those prices, another taste is the surveys I've seen in research I've seen always ends up being one of the number one determinant. When you look at actual purchasing data, it appears anyway. And so within of course certain ranges in price. So I think that's one area where to the extent that these products continue to improve in taste and texture and flavor and so on. That's what's going to really unlock a lot of things. It’s obviously going to make more people willing to try the product, cause they'll hear positive reviews and will be willing to repurchase the product. If we look at what's happened in the US with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, there were probably a few reasons that three or four or five years ago, there were no QSRs plant based meat. Part of that might be less consumer interest but I would attribute 95% of the reason that you have that in those places now, you didn't five years ago because you didn't have a product that was good enough to really succeed in those channels, and now you do with Impossible and Beyond. 


    I think as there are more products that hit that threshold and work in these additional channels that  taste improvement is what's going to allow the convenience improvement, so that now we can go to Starbucks, Burger King, etc and get plant based meat. And it's directly attributable to a few things, primarily the improvement in the quality of the products. And I think this will also in turn contribute to the price coming down and being more accessible. MJ's point in comments about some of these products becoming to some extent commodity products when you have white label producers and so on. I think, as there are better tasting products, they become distributed more, it becomes much more convenient sales growth that stimulates others to get in the game, whether it's making the producers in startups, etc. And that competition and that kind of spreading of knowledge on how to produce these products. Even though it's indirect, it's looking at ingredient labels, trying to replicate it etc. that ultimately is what leads towards the commodification, and that is what is going to bring down the price in time there is more entrance in the market at a larger scale. So I think that long story short, I think the quality of these products, the taste and texture, that's really a linchpin that will drive those other levers that lead to this broader consumer acceptance for whose challenges are not matching these categories will hinder those things. 


    Where to invest on

    Tommaso: Very interesting and actually let's stick to this topic, Nick. How are you, I mean, tastes and texture meaning you investing in startups. How are you actually figuring out IP and value into startups early on given the fact that in food IP it is challenging, because it's not like the bits and bytes investments so how are you betting those startups? How are you making your bets of what's going to be flying through the roof or maybe not?


    Nick: Sure. The project varies based on whether we're talking about a plant based meat or dairy brand or a cultivated meat Harry Gary brands. So, on the ladder side the high tech side of course these companies don't have products in the market. So when we're betting on a company or we're making that decision around a few things, the quality of the team, certainly, and how sensible we think the strategy is. 


    One of the big issues in this category certainly price points. So what price point are they going to be able to get to in time, in the years ahead, and is that price point going to work for the markets that they're targeting? So on price for example, one of the things we've looked at for the companies we've invested in is that they can get the price point low enough, they have this large commodity animal protein market or market that they can address. But even if they can't get the price point, nearly low enough to compete on a commodity level, they have at least these secondary markets that are sizable billion dollar plus, where we can have a very high level of confidence that they will be at a lower price point to do really well in those sectors. 


    An example of that might be one of the companies that we invested in the US called Mission Barns based in California. So they're doing a cultivated product for use in cultivated meat that makes up the majority of the flavor in a meat product and so by focusing on the fact that they can create a really excellent hybrid product. So think for example Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger so on with 5% to 10% real cultivated animal fat, you get this huge boost in flavor at only a modest cost increase. So they can get the price point low enough, there's a lot of opportunity here to be brilliant. If they get lower still there's even more opportunity for the pure fats category. Pure fat products and a chef my buyer so on. But if things go poorly, and they can't get their price point low enough to work really well in those sectors. There is still the secondary market for very highly purely still fat and things like the medical cosmetics research sector, etc. that have an incredibly high price point where we can be very confident that we'll be able to lower that price point while still hot, while at the same time having high quality. 


    So long story short, that's one of the other things we're looking for for companies in the high tech side. Lastly, first movers are early movers, so companies that are doing something whether it's a particular type of technology, or the particular market where they are the first mover at least in a broad geographic region and broad category with a large addressable market. So on the high tech side it's all those things. On the plant based side it's quite different and it's a much different risk profile. So for us, the companies we’re investing in, we're typically investing in the seed stage. But nevertheless, these are companies that already have proven product market fit.


    So they might be on a couple 100 grocery store shelves and 1000s plus there's already been cleared backwards. Yes, this product works for consumers. Not only does it look appealing to get people to make that first purchase but the repeat sales and the weekly and monthly turn off grocery store shelves is stable and ideally increasing, and it's clear that it's going to be expanding into more points of sale, more outlets etc. And so the rounds, even though they're still early stage companies. There's a lot less risk there, the round is really to grow the marketing distribution, etc.


    So, even for an early stage investor like Lever VC when it comes to plant meat and dairy side, and we can look at those sort of things the real sales data, as well as the other things like team, strategy, market, the quality of the product, getting feedback from various folks including buyers about the quality that can give us a pretty high level of confidence in how the company is going to do. Now, whether they're gonna get 5 million sales, 30 million in sales, 100 million in sales, obviously that's often the bigger question, but in terms of the risk in the investment we can feel confident and have decent returns. In some cases there are really fantastic returns. That's kind of how we're thinking about the plant based side.

    Tommaso: Makes totally sense and how many investments do you do per partner in a year? Just to get a sense of how aggressive you guys are in the market. 


    Nick: So for Lever VC we began raising the fund last year where we target $50 in million funds. We did first close to the sum of $22 million and raised more than for the earlier stage checks that we're doing around the stage. These are anywhere around a couple of $100,000 to $7.500. For those checks we've begun deploying July of last year. 


    Bringing young people to the table


    Tommaso:  I think you build such a unique culture driven and forward thinking and engaged community that focuses on collaboration, diversity, creativity, and transformational change, especially because we're doing our homework, we see that you mainly target Gen Z and millennials, so share with us your secret sauce. 


    Christine: Yeah, so I mean I've spent like over 20 years in the agriculture industry. And less on the food side, more on the production side and with getting a little bit disenchanted towards the end of my corporate career after attending meeting after meeting all around the world, talking about the future, how we're going to feed 10 billion people by 2050 and mainly seeing old white men and gray suits dominating the conversation, and so back into the 2011 I remember vividly walking out of one of those meetings, hearing the same conversation, kind of by the same people without real energy and passion behind it and I thought to myself something's got to change, we're talking about feeding ourselves, something that every single person who can connect to, hopefully has a joyous experience around and it's really fundamental to our existence. 


    So together like in that quintessential back of the napkin, brainstorming over drinks with a couple of friends we came up with this concept of how are we going to bring young people who at that time were flooding to Silicon Valley actually to work in tech, how do we bring the brilliant minds that are shaking up the world, and bring them into agriculture. And that was the genesis of Thought for Food. And again, like I said, we have a few things on our side and I actually have a book coming out about this topic. Young people, millennials and Gen Z's are the largest demographic alive, and they are also the most highly educated, the most globally connected digitally savvy and socially conscious generation that the world has ever seen that embraces diversity. They're naturally collaborative, a large part of it has to do with the fact that they've grown up as digital natives and that's a pervasive trend everywhere in the world. 


    Now of course there's still a lot to be done to bridge the digital divide, but that's a whole other conversation, but for the most part today's young people because of how they've grown up and also the kind of world that they've lived in where economies obtained and the climate change has been real, and something that they've seen a failure of leaders to address they've said “okay, we're going to turn to entrepreneurship as a livelihood choice and we're also going to try to build solutions that are focused on impact and with purpose”. And so that's why we step in to say, agriculture needs this, and the places where the largest proportion of young people live is in emerging economies, where agriculture is the basis of their economies, and where it's dominated by people over the age of 65, who are not digitally savvy and have this important role to play in feeding the world but like are still the yield gap that you were seeing and important crops  is why. 


    So we wanted to just bring in this innovative mindset, creative collaborative approach and bring it into this angel industry and shake things up, and it's worked, and we really aren't trying to say it's all up to young people, because definitely young people have a lot to learn. So we spend a lot of our time like building bridges between incumbents and startups, and also identifying these innovation opportunities so even in this conversation like my mind is buzzing to say functional ingredients like there's a whole space and it's not just again the consumer product that like fats, so people can like cook with, like fatty materials and grease and how do we foster innovation there.  I mean I even heard some of the stuff that MJ was saying about the supply chain etc. So, this is what we're trying to excite young people around, that there's the opportunity to make money, to transform the world's most important sector, and to do this through the attributes that come naturally to when you're chintzy entrepreneurs and we help them hold on to those attributes in terms of how they innovate so that they are able to build businesses that make real impact and serve a purpose.


    And to your question earlier about marketing, I think another really interesting phenomenon and there are a few studies that show this primarily like in the US, but that these young generations are actually the first generations to really put their money where their mouth is. So for older generations, it's definitely cost is like the first factor that's taken into consideration when buying food and tastes and safety, but for young people they are putting sustainability and transparency into their purchasing decisions and actually proving that they will pay premiums for products that align with their values, and we have actually supported a number of startups in Canada, in Brazil, and in the Philippines, that are being super transparent, through QR codes, allowing you to buy their product and connect back with the grower and really understand their supply chain. This is actually like a premiumization, that is working in the market and setting them apart from competitors so  there's some exciting I think new business models to the question you were asking earlier that are being forged right now that again are like bringing forward new values into the food system that had been there, but I think are like becoming more prominently placed in purchasing decisions. 

    Tommaso: And would you say you help those young entrepreneurs, are you primarily working with universities or is it more.. I mean, what's your strategy there to tap into this pulsing ecosystem?


    Christine: Yeah, I mean there's a lot happening at university so we do have collaborations with universities around the world, but I actually think what's really interesting is we're, like I said, we're trying to create innovation through global collaboration for locally relevant impact so we have 25,000 people in our community. We are able to reach them through a structure that we have where you have regional coordinators 14 of them across all key markets. They manage ambassadors, through that we're able to scour the planet for the best people and startup, bring them into our programs. And then we run a number of acceleration programs as I mentioned to really take forward those startups. 


    We also work with partners to run topical challenges. So for example I mentioned Danone earlier, we worked with them and Mista in San Francisco based incubator on Circular Economy of food solutions. So we do have an ecosystem approach, it's not just universities, but we're really trying to get to just really people who are passionate about this and bring forward these innovation mindsets and we want to operate what we call the TFF way which is through openness and collaboration and bringing this new dynamic to shake up food and agriculture, which is sometimes a little bit, especially on the AG side, a little bit like old fashioned compared to other sectors. 


    We also work a lot and I'm sure Nick can appreciate this but with investors to understand and appreciate the differences in this sector, the timelines are longer usually. There's regulatory issues that are different even than pharma because you have environmental relief and human health regulations oftentimes that you have to deal with. You have farmer uptake, requirements that you have to take into consideration and oftentimes their risk appetite is different than in other sectors.


    So it's totally, it has its own unique challenges, its own unique opportunities, but that's why you need people who really understand the sector to be the right investors and these companies that are trying to create change, because it's just not like investing in FinTech or software or something like this.

    Tommaso: Just from a close loop understanding, your definition of success is that they get into a corporation or they get funding or where do you high five with your team?


    Christine: Good question. So our definition of success is taking  great ideas and turning them into startups that exist, that are viable and so we measure how many startups we've launched. And then, are they still there five years later and have we played a role in their success? We are starting now to measure their positive impact in the world. 


    There's different metrics for that, like how many farmers they've reached? How many people they've helped to nourish? and things like that so we're working together with some partners to develop those types of metrics, but to data it's really about the startups that we've catalyzed, supported and that are still around. 


    Tommaso: Awesome. Congratulations, Christine. You guys heard it out there so if you have an idea or an ideation phase of being in Christine's team and get into a startup mode. Well, we could talk for hours about it, but I want to be respectful of everybody's time now also our team here and the virtual coffee, and we have three already featured, one each. 


    Questions from the audience

    Tommaso: I would like to kick off things with Olivia from UC Davis California. Hi Olivia. Thanks for the question. This is for MJ. MJ, so muscles are elastic and springy. Plant cells on the other hand are relatively rigid and flexing. To put it simply, plants are crunchy and meat is chewy. So despite these differences and without animal fat, what are the viable solutions today to bring the bite and springiness of animal protein to plant based burgers, and then quotations that can often feel crumbling and mushy in texture? Thank you, Olivia for MJ. 


    MJ: Yeah, okay. So, great question. I will try to answer as quickly as possible and as thoroughly as possible. I think he looked at ingredients at their standalone level, you will find exactly what Olivia said to be true. When you combine those ingredients with the right matrix things can begin to change. So when we're looking at the optimal value that's really going to match something like an animal based meat product. And we're using let's say twins for extrusion technology as the processing platform to create these products, the textured vegetable protein, the immediate output or extra date of extrusion can be made better by having the right moisture levels incorporated. 


    This is really a collaborative r&d approach, it's one that understands the ingredient inputs, but it's also the very rare hard to find, talented extrusion operator, who is setting those parameters and receiving the feedback that you are giving them and saying, I can fix this, I can tweak this, I can make it better. One of the cool things about plants is that we don't have to rely upon these standard ideas of how to fix I guess an inexperienced form from a taste standpoint. So let's say we get a product off the extruder and we say, this needs more moisture, it can be an idea of just adding water to the formulation or we could say, let's dehydrate this, will rehydrate it later and when we rehydrate it, we can add fats and oils that's obviously one aspect or one way of approaching it, but it could also be putting fibres into the dry ingredients blend in itself to create that springiness and that chewy and also to retain moisture if it is transported in a hydrated state. I know that's a lot of information, it really requires somebody to be actively in the r&d space for plant based formulations to perhaps understand. But I hope I've answered this question. I think I know that I have in some ways, but maybe not as comprehensively as she would have liked so please follow up in that case.


    Tommaso: In general there was too much I learned in your detailed answer so thank you so much. Olivia, thank you for your question and MJ thanks for the reply, and in breaking it down in a way that also nonscientists understand it. 


    Second question here comes from San Francisco, so local from Lee. He's asking Nick. The most common exit strategy for plant based investors today has been acquisition by a larger third. We believe that Beyond Meet IPO, which was considered unusual among plant based startups could change that perspective in the near future. Thank you so much Lee for Nick.


    Nick: Yeah, yeah, I don't think that things like IPOs are ever going to be the majority standard route to exit, but no doubt there's going to be a lot more. So I think it would be extremely likely that a company like Impossible IPO, that a company like Oakley, would certainly see an IPO. We've also seen a couple of companies that are quite small, doing very small IPOs, not in the US, typically foreign stock exchanges in more cases. 


    So I think that's also a route that for the couple companies that have done it so far it has worked quite well for them, whether that was a smart choice for investors or not is another question but in terms of the company it has worked pretty well in terms of getting financing, and of course liquidity for their investors. So yes, I think we will keep seeing more of that, both from the blockbuster companies like Impossible Foods, but also from smaller companies, and certainly that's not just in the US, but many other markets around the world.


    Tommaso: Awesome. So more IPOs. Thank you so much and also thanks Lee for your question. Awesome. Thanks Nick for replying.


    Last but not least, Laura from San Diego asking Christine. What are the key takeaways from the outcome of the 2024 Thought for Food challenge? Thank you so much, Laura. Christine. 


    Christine: Well, that's a good question. So we just had our Thoughts for Food 2020 challenge finale which was a global broadcast, unlike anything you've seen. It's like Shark Tank meets Eurovision is how he would describe it. It will be available for broadcast for public viewing next week, so check our website for that and I promise you won't regret it. We had DJs perform, we had dancers, and we had startup pitches from around the world. Our winner gave away a team from Indonesia with an aquaculture solution but we saw several plant based companies featured in our Circular Economy of Food Prize categories, some really interesting companies in all parts of the world. Like I said, focused in this space. 


    Then we also had in our finalist cohort a team from the Philippines that's actually taking surplus bumper crops and creating Filipino cuisine. That is  quite nutritious, they have a focus on nutrition, because they are nutrition scientists in the company. And they're also kind of taking what is a very big trend actually and experiential eating which is Filipino cuisine and making plant based versions of some of their traditional meat based dishes. And also bringing in that sustainability angle of taking bumper crops from farmers that they are using to create their products, so it's a win win win situation. But I definitely encourage you to check out our broadcast next week and we'd love to hear your feedback on it but we came here to save 2020 by bringing a really like larger than life pitch event that I hope will bring some joy into what has been a very challenging year, and also really showcase that there are people around the world at the frontlines of creating a better and more nourishing food system for all.


    Food by 2050

    Tommaso: We are coming also here in our 13th episode of our Virtual Coffee to an end. Amazing learnings Christine, Nick, MJ thank you so much for allowing us to pick your brain, share it with the world and educate the world. One step at a time, I think we'll need to get a we are strong, and we are wrapping up usually with our inspirational question for you guys, which we would like to hear your thoughts on how you are envisioning the world by 2050 or the mankind consuming eating by 2050 and what your thoughts are on that. I’m really curious to hear your vision from a future back perspective today the year 2020. How is it going to look like by 2050? I'd like to start with MJ. MJ, what are your thoughts?


    MJ: Oh no I need more time. Okay, so I think that by 2050 clear face, alternative, meaning also cultivated or prevention sources are so affordable that it only makes sense to purchase those over legacy animal based products, that's definitely a wishlist item for me but I think that we're moving and we're making strides toward that becoming a reality in the next 30 years, and I think something that's very feasible to happen in the short term is that companies prioritize and act with a high level of integrity toward their sustainability initiatives and that they approach it not just from an environmental point of view, but also a social point of view. Obviously economic being a business, but people are the decision we make with the food that we buy is truly a vote, and we can make people's lives better that are a part of that supply chain apparently by also focusing on people's rights. So that's what I hope for BY 2050. 

    Tommaso: So, Christine, what are your thoughts?


    Christine: I definitely have a vision of first of all being able to eat at a restaurant with people but that's just because that's been taken away from us at the moment, but I hope before 2050,we are back and having food via communal experience. But I think that something that really like energizes me about the world in 2050 is that I believe that through more openness and collaboration we will be seeing all kinds of innovative experiential food products emerge, and that will have positive impact, a net positive impact we're going to go beyond fixing problems to actually using food to solve climate change and to also be having a positive impact on economies on our health and on our environment. I think it's the biggest lever we have. So I just joined the Advisory Committee for the UN food system summit, and we're bringing together all kinds of different stakeholders, even outside of the food industry, people like telecoms companies and social media companies to start to get involved here to shake things up and really make food this positive contributor to the world. And I think we could do it before 2050 if we try, but that's my vision.

    Tommaso: Thank you so much, Christine. Last but not least, Nick. What are your thoughts on this?


    Nick: My views will be tending more towards a less optimistic than perhaps some. I think that the food system 30 years from now will be very recognizable to what it is now, we're going to have probably a significantly more total say animal protein consumption as a result of increasing the population. That being said, I have little doubt that the portion of that total protein landscape as part of the general food landscape is going to be more diverse with a meaningful percentage from plant based and cultivated hybrid products. In 2050 I can review that anywhere from 10% to maybe 20% of the global protein supply and more yield higher figures and perhaps more industrialized wealthier countries lower figures in other countries. So I think that it's going to progress in a positive direction overall, but probably on a slower timeframe than some of us might like. 


    Tommaso: Thank you so much. Well, it's coming to an end and we love always to wrap up things with our broadcast with a quote, a quote that I crafted in the last twenty years 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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