“We’re using nature’s own efficiency” – Nature’s Fynd on making protein from microbes

Nature’s Fynd, a US firm making meat and dairy alternatives through microbial fermentation, has attracted more than US$500m from investors and, this month, secured its first retail listings. CEO Thomas Jonas and CMO Karuna Rawal discuss the company’s “pretty unique” protein and their plans for growth

Thomas Jonas: We’re glad to be talking to you today. We are on the shelves, selling at retailers, actually starting a few minutes ago.

Just Food: Which products? And where are they being listed?

Karuna Rawal: We are launching with both our meatless breakfast patties, as well as our dairy-free cream cheese. We have two flavours in each. All four are launching at Berkeley Bowl, which is in Berkeley, California – one of the more innovative, foodie-forward cities to be in and also a city that’s just declared that they're going to be 50% vegan.

Nature’s Fynd meatless patties on sale at a Berkeley Bowl store in California

You’ve had some tests in market, which I assume went well enough to convince the buyers of Berkeley Bowl to list you and gave you confidence the products could gain some traction.

Karuna Rawal: We did a direct-to-consumer launch in February with two of the items. They sold out within 24 hours and it was a great opportunity for us to get feedback from consumers and to make small tweaks we needed to do before launching in retail. We’ve had a lot of interest from a lot of retailers. It’s more managing our capacity and making sure we can continue to get great products out there at the pace that we would like and to make sure we can fill the demand. You’ll see several other retailers coming on-board in short order.

Would that be this calendar year?

Karuna Rawal: Yes. It’ll be retailers in several other parts of the country as well.

Thomas Jonas: There’s a reason why we’re launching a dairy alternative and a meat alternative. What we really want to establish here is Fy, which is our new ingredient, this new protein platform. We’re not just another pea burger or soy milk. We are commercialising the first wave of products from this new protein platform, which just like chicken, milk or tofu is a protein platform in its own right.

It’s relevant for a bunch of reasons. First of all, it is the most energy efficient and environmentally-friendly protein platform you can think of. That has tremendous value today. We’re launching in burning California and when none of us can open a newspaper in our respective countries without seeing the catastrophic changes that are impacting us day after day. Food is the number one provider of greenhouse gas emissions and, within a few months, you can literally change the way the world is eating, theoretically, so you have an ability to do much faster-impact things. We’re not expecting that everybody drops completely the way they’re eating today and moves to products that have that sort of impact but we do think that, if you make a compelling product, a product that’s good for the planet, good for you and good for your health, it’s a case of why wouldn’t you? And, of course, taste is so important. We’ve been working on that aspect a lot and we have excellent feedback from consumers.

Karuna Rawal: We did a lot of qualitative work to understand how consumers are going to perceive something that’s so new and different and we got some really strong feedback. People understand fermentation. Kombucha’s become such a common item for consumers, whereas five, six years ago, that would not have been the case. I think people are very open to this, especially younger generations. The consumer we’re targeting is not just in the younger generations. It’s actually a mindset. People who understand the connection between the food they eat and climate change.

Thomas Jonas: What’s really interesting with what we’re doing is I could argue that that’s the oldest thing around. These microbes have been around way before there were cows or chickens. Eleven thousand years ago, we started modern agriculture and we started cultivating a handful of species that are now the base of everything we eat. We were not able at the time to cultivate the other millions of species that are around. It doesn’t mean that they are not valuable. We just didn’t have the technology. Now we do. 

We’re developing a technology that enables us to cultivate this the same way you would cultivate wheat or raise chicken. It’s completely part of nature. It’s an ancient part of nature. We’re just finding a way to work with it now. We use 99% less land. We use 99% less water. We’re really taking a page from nature’s own biotech playbook, if you will, and that’s where we got the inspiration.

Are these the kinds of attributes you will look to emphasise to convince a consumer of plant-based meat or dairy to buy your products?

Thomas Jonas: Yes and no. It doesn’t matter if you’re great for the environment if the food that you make tastes bad. The way we’re thinking about consumer criteria is it has to taste good. Taste, flavour is the number one thing that’s not going away. It has to be good for me and then it has to be good for the environment. That is today the order of priorities.

What’s interesting is, very often, people thought if a product’s good for the environment, then it’s going to taste bad. There’s no correlation. There is nothing that tells you that because you’re pressing the mammalian organ of a big ruminant called the cow and you’re excreting a milk, that product is going to be more delicious than what you would get out of fermentation. These things are completely disconnected. As a matter of fact, in terms of evolution, before we became farmers, we were hunter-gatherers. We were eating lots more mushrooms, we assume. There are a lot of indications it was a much bigger part of our diet, simply because it’s much easier to catch a mushroom than it is to catch a rabbit and it takes much less energy. These products are extraordinarily well-digested by us, and that’s a remnant of evolution of our own biology.

What are the health credentials of your products over competitors in the plant-based meat market?

Thomas Jonas: A few elements here. First, I would say because we do this in a protected fermentation environment, we don’t need to put in pesticides, insecticides. There are no growth hormones. When we harvest the product, another aspect is a very limited amount of post-processing. If you look at plant-based products today, a lot of them are really plant-based isolates. They’re really built through stripping out the fibre portion and getting the protein portion out, so there is a very high level of processing. Our products are very minimally processed. We harvest them, we rinse them, we press them and then we start making the product – and that’s very simple food science. This minimal amount of processing is a strong argument. It’s not the nature you might be familiar with but this is a pure product of nature and you’re eating a whole food. Another aspect is nutritional density. This product is not only very high in protein, it’s 50% protein dry mass and it’s a complete protein with all essential amino acids. There are not a lot of plant-based proteins that are complete protein.

The meat-alternative market particularly has entered the mainstream in North America and in certain markets in Europe. As the market grows, competition will become more intense. How will you get across what you see as the benefits of your products to potential consumers?

Karuna Rawal: I think the concept of nutrient density is really important. Consumers are inundated with lots of information and one of the things that we can do, as we think about the kind of language we use, is really talk about if you can have one source that gives you protein and fibre. Fy has three times more protein per calorie than pork and four times more fibre per calorie than almonds. We have quite a collection of stats we can leverage to make the point.

But I think eating becomes too complex a scientific activity when I have to read, you know, six different packages and convert things eight times before I can decide whether it’s good for me. I think that makes it really hard for us to enjoy our food. We do have our stats and they are very compelling but, as we look at each category, what’s important to understand is different things are important to consumers in those categories. If you look at something like breakfast sausage, obviously protein is an important component but people have a lot of guilt in all the fat they’re consuming and so that’s where we focus with our product development team on how we develop a product that’s delivering just as much protein but doing it with 75% less fat – and you get several grammes of fibre as well.

Price can be another hurdle. It’s early days for Nature’s Fynd and you're building capacity. Like others in plant-based meat, are you aiming one day to get to price parity with conventional meat and, if so, how long will that take?

Thomas Jonas: We are launching this product at a price point that’s very competitive. We’re aligned with similar alternatives in the market. As we scale up, we intend to drop the cost of our production and we expect to pass some of that into pricing to the consumer. The beauty of our technology is we’re using a fraction of the resources and it’s very, very efficient. We’re really using nature’s own efficiency in building protein. As we scale up, this efficiency will definitely enable us to have the most cost-competitive protein in the world. Our goal is to be cheaper than chicken.

What are your ambitions outside the US?

Thomas Jonas: We’re very interested in developing in Europe as well. It’s something we are looking at doing in the next couple of years. Asia is a very important part of our strategy. Our plan is to put together a factory in Singapore in 2022 and start working in the region there. We have a team on the ground already. In this last round of investors we did bring along several, very large, Asian investors. It’s very important for us to be successful in this region.

With the setting up of the factory next year, would that mean products could go on sale in certain Asian markets next year, too? Or in 2023?

Thomas Jonas: It’s probably going to be – yes, 2022/2023. We’re finalising the plans but, if Covid taught us one thing, is to learn flexibility around timing. Twelve to 24 months is where we want a vehicle to start commercialisation, absolutely.

Would Singapore be the market where the launch would happen or would it be elsewhere in Asia?

Thomas Jonas: We’ll probably start in Singapore. It’s a small market, obviously, but what’s very interesting about Singapore is the government there has made a very deliberate decision to make Singapore the hub of food innovation for decades to come. There is a flywheel effect from that and we think Singapore is a great place to start, not just for the Singaporean market but also for all the regional markets. They have trading agreements that enables [companies] to sell without duties in various Asian countries, so we think there’s a lot of value in there.

What plans do you have for more production capacity in the US?

Thomas Jonas: We’re working on it already. We want to scale-up. Demand is definitely there. We want to make sure we can match the supply. We are creating a new protein platform. What’s challenging is it's completely new and, if we need to sell more, we turn to the supplier of that protein and guess what? It's us. In plant-based, you can always call your protein supplier and ask for another bag or two of textured soy or textured pea and you can make more products.

Looking ahead, to what extent do you think plant-based alternatives, or those made through fermentation, or with cells in a lab, could displace conventional protein?

Thomas Jonas:  I don’t think meat is going away tomorrow morning. I think there would be a lot of benefits from that happening but I don’t think it’s happening. What I absolutely do think you will see is alternative protein in meat get from – depending on geographies – but let’s say less than a percent or a percent now to 15-20% of the market. In the US, you already see plant-based milk being at around 15% and, when you look at the demographics, you see that in the younger generation that number is much higher. 

I think the only reason why meat is a little behind today versus dairy is because the products were not at the level but I think that this will change. Consumers have decided new product formats fit their diets, their tastes, their aspirations. You will see formats emerge in meat that are the equivalent of soy milk. Some will be more or less similar and reminiscent of existing formats but I think there will be a lot of new things emerging.