Plants: The Food Industry's Next Big Trend
Disrupt or die has become the mantra of many a startup. And for loads of food companies—including one Chilean newcomer—plants are a big part of that disruption. That could be just what the food industry needs to tackle major issues like climate change and food insecurity. But only if companies can convince consumers they won’t be making any grand sacrifices.
The food industry has to change, and that’s what NotCo comes in and proposes to do. Really disrupt the food industry by producing delicious, mouthwatering products that—by the way—are made of plants.
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This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.
There’s a lot riding on the future of food. It’s not just our personal health and the health of our environment. There’s also the growing issue of food security—with Zero Hunger on the list of U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Even before COVID-19 left many people scrambling for food, the U.N. estimated that nearly 690 million people are hungry, roughly 9 percent of the world population.
One potentially promising avenue is food made from plants. The revolution that started with almond milk now includes everything from plant-based meat to mayo. And it’s reshaping the global food ecosystem quickly, with the segment growing at about 12 percent annually through 2027, when it’s expected to hit 74.2 billion U.S. dollars, according to a forecast from India-based Meticulous Research.
Now, that’s hardly a majority of the global food market, currently pegged at 7.5 trillion U.S. dollars. But it’s enough to signal that customers are hungry for change. And that includes how all food is packaged.
Today we’re going to meet leaders from two companies at the forefront of those changes: NotCo, purveyors of plant-based mayonnaise, milk and ice cream; and Footprint, which makes biodegradable, fiber-based packaging.
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Now, let’s start with ice cream, which is something I like to do whenever possible. Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt spoke with Giulia Braghieri, head of growth and expansion at NotCo. Giulia shares how the Chilean food-tech company uses artificial intelligence to create plant-based products and how collaboration is key—for the organization’s future as well as the future of the food industry.
Let’s start talking about NotCo. Tell me about your role, and why did you join the organization?
NotCo is a food tech company that works 100 percent with plant-based food, and the way that we do it is very out of the box. So we use AI and machine learning to develop accurately, and in a very fast way, products that mimic in terms of taste, functionality and nutritionals the animal-based product, but made 100 percent with plants. It’s a very young company. We’ve been five years in the market and counting.
My role in the organization, as any startup would be, is very plural, I would say. I started as head of business development at NotCo and, when I started, we were only with one product and only in Chile. So only with Not Mayo. And fast-forward almost two years later, we’re currently present in four countries with four different categories, which we’re going to talk a little bit more about. My main role has been assisting this growth. How do we open new countries? How do we set the teams? How do we organize the operations and strategy part of it? So it’s been a very unique role and learning as we go by.
Like you said, NotCo creates plant-based products that include mayonnaise, milk, ice cream and most recently meat. Talk me through the process to develop one of these products. What teams are involved, and how do they collaborate to create the final product?
I think the heart of NotCo is collaboration and having a 360 view, and it all starts at our AI, which is also called Giuseppe. So we currently have an algorithm that works with artificial intelligence and machine learning, which basically consists of a database with practically all the plants that exist in the plant kingdom. This database can correlate which plants combined can give the same texture, the same nutritional and the same functionality aspects of what we’re trying to replicate when we look at an animal-based product. This helps us speed up the process, which is super important, but it also helps us think outside the box.
So after that first step is accomplished—so Giuseppe runs through his database, suggests a few formulations for us—comes a very important next step, which is we have a team of culinary chefs which then replicate these formulas in our lab kitchen and then feed back to Giuseppe which ones were the best or the main feedbacks, what were the main attributes that really made it stand out. So to give you an example, when we were first developing Not Milk, one of the formulas that Giuseppe suggested used red beet, and even though the taste was good and the functionality was good, the milk turned out to be a little bit pink, and that’s not what we wanted in terms of a visual aspect. The feedback from the culinary chefs was super important for them to get on track in terms of color as well.
Our next step in the process—so as soon as the culinary chefs decide what is the winning formula and we feed it back to Giuseppe, we then have the biggest challenge of them all, which is how do we take something that we did in a kitchen lab version and scale that up to industrial versions? So this is very important because we need to be able to scale this up and also be able to use what is currently available in terms of manufacturing. So that’s when our R&D teams and operation teams come together and work very closely to understand how do we take something that, for example, our milk, which used cabbage, and have a supplier have this ingredient in the best way possible?
Obviously, Giuseppe is a very big part of the team. As the tech was developed, what effect has it had on these different projects?
Everybody always asks me, “Oh, I want to meet Giuseppe. Who’s Giuseppe?” And I joke that if he were an employee, he’d always win employee of the month because he’s the most innovative and most hardworking person at NotCo. But jokes set aside, Giuseppe is the heart of everything that we do. I think what really helps us with Giuseppe, and what really changed after we started realizing how much collaboration was important, was how do we get all these different areas that we mentioned before in contact with him?
So when we first started out, we only had the culinary chefs working with Giuseppe, which was great. They had a lot of insights; they brought a lot of cooking insights to Giuseppe, but we always had the challenge that when we wanted to scale it up afterwards, industrially speaking, we would have the challenge because there were ingredients that we hadn’t thought of.
Some formulas would come from very specific places—maybe a plant in the Himalaya—and that would make the access, for example, harder. Or for example, in terms of cabbage. He wanted the water from the cooking of the cabbage, and then when we would take that up industrially, that would be hard. So we needed to also partner up with some suppliers to see how we could get the best ingredients. What was key for this next step in our AI and machine learning was really involving the other teams, especially R&D and operations. So I would say that Giuseppe now has some parents within the organization. The biggest of them all being the culinary chefs and the machine learning team, but also having participation from R&D and ops. And that was what really was a game-changer for us in terms of speed.
Now I want to shift to leading projects at NotCo because when you joined the company, there wasn’t exactly a focus on project management. How did you build buy-in, and how have people responded?
It was a great experience. When I first joined NotCo, we currently only produced mayonnaise, and we were only producing it in Chile. And the challenge is we have a founder, which is Mathias, who is very visionary. He has a lot of energy. So how could we make his dreams and his visions turn into reality? So execution was a key milestone for the company. So in order to be able to have all the projects run and his vision was that he wanted to be by the end of the year in three countries with three categories. We’re in Chile; he wanted to open up Brazil and Argentina. If we didn’t have a very lean and a very accurate project management office, this wasn’t going to be able. What was essential for this was two key hires for my team, which were in charge of everything to do with project management and also part of creating that culture, so how could we turn from a very visionary, dream-driven company to an execution-driven company to really take it to the next step?
In terms of how we change culture, I would say that we had to do a lot with relationships. It was a company that was very young. It was a very close, related company. So when I joined the company, we were only 30 people. That helped in terms of the cultural shift that we had to make. So really partnering up individually, showing them the value that project management could do. What was very interesting was that we used the agile methodology, which is normally used for tech companies, not normally used for food companies, and we adapted it to a very tailor-made way for NotCo and that really helped.
The key learning of it all is that since everything at a startup is very quick, we were learning by doing. We had to be very open to adapt and to hear feedback of all the stakeholders involved and always tailor-make what we needed from that process. If you ask me, there is not a one-size-fits-all, especially for NotCo. It was almost as if each category had to operate in a different way, and having a backbone in project management was essential.
How would you say projects have evolved now, having maybe not only the company has grown and matured, but also you have people working together longer, and this process has been probably in place for a little bit longer? How has that affected projects and launching different things within NotCo?
If you ask me, during the end of last year, we were very on an execution mode because we needed to prove that we could be accelerated and we could reach these milestones. And now, as a second turning of growth, I would say that we’re more linked towards how do we plan—not plan too much that we lose speed, but plan just enough that we know where we’re going and we analyze data beforehand. This wasn’t something that we used to do last year. And then I think that’s normal because that’s normal steps within growth, but it’s so interesting to see how quickly we evolved to this next step, which is super important. So currently we’re doing portfolio plans. We have market data analysis. Things that beforehand weren’t on our radar, not because nobody knew about it, but because execution was coming first and we really wanted to be in the market as quickly as possible with our winning products.
So you start organizing the house, you aim towards execution, then you start planning a little bit more. And then when you look at big companies, that’s a little bit of the tradeoff. They sometimes plan much more than they act. We’re keeping our eyes open to not convert into something like that. We don’t want to lose the agility that we’ve gained throughout the years.
What’s next in the food industry, projects or innovations? And how do you see the food industry changing over the next 10 years?
Just taking a step back before even talking about the food industry, we need to talk about climate awareness and climate change that’s been going on. That’s why we do feel at NotCo that the plant-based industry is going to play a major role in this. So when we look at an average consumption per person, the impact that we cause when we’re eating is huge and mostly due to livestock industry. The equation is not closing and when we look at projections that by 2050, we’re going to be around 8 billion people.
It’s also really important for us because that means we’re not targeting the vegan or the vegetarian consumers. We’re targeting people who would normally not think of having something plant-based basically because of taste because they can’t find a good product in the market yet. So that’s very important, and then we do feel that that’s going to be a major shift in the food industry. We already start seeing some signs of this, especially due to the COVID situation. So people being more aware, understanding the climate impact that what their consuming has. So being more open to plant-based food.
But when we look at the organization standpoint, I think project management is super important, is at the soul of this. We do see employees who are more plural, who like to have a 360 view, and this is very possible, especially at startups. But not taking away not only the employee standpoint, but also the consumers’. So the consumers want to be more involved. When you ask consumers to co-develop with you, to co-participate with you, that brings so much value that I think we’re only at the top of the iceberg when we’re deep diving into this. So how can we really bring the consumers more to the table to discuss it with us and understand how we can develop a product that’s good for the planet, good for you and also accessible, which is part of our goal.
In terms of how I see the future, it’s going to be super important for big companies and small companies working in the plant-based sector to really partner up in terms of lobbying, in terms of capacity if they really want them to see the needle move for this cause, which is climate change and better options of plant-based food.
The plant-based food revolution isn’t limited to the stuff we eat. It’s also disrupting the way food is packaged, with the plastic-based solutions that have long dominated that segment coming under fire for the damage they do to the environment and potentially our health.
I spoke to Troy Swope, co-founder and CEO of U.S.-based Footprint, about how his company is remaking the frozen food aisle at grocery stores.
You made a surprising midcareer jump from microchips to frozen food. Tell me about what got you excited about pursuing this opportunity with Footprint?
I ran a materials organization for Intel, for a global group supporting Intel’s manufacturing process and making microprocessors. One of my projects my team was working on was actually trying to reduce costs. We were having to clean wafers—basically the raw material before you start building a microprocessor.
Ultimately when we looked into it, we found that the actual plastic that we use to transport the wafer was contaminating our product. So like a curious engineer, I started just going, well, if we’re seeing this on Intel’s product—and it was just really just 24 hours tops that this product was sitting in this container—what about food that sits in there for weeks or months at a time? It was just out of curiosity, just said, “Hey, what’s going on with plastic? If it’s contaminating microprocessors, what does it do to food?” The data was alarming. We were just really concerned.
Let’s fast-forward to the present, because of course you did develop those solutions, and now you’ve got several of them on the market. When food companies approach you now, how do you evaluate all of these potential projects, knowing that each new food product represents its own project?
You’re absolutely right. The demand for our technology is a bit overwhelming, for lack of a better term. But it’s exciting. The number one thing they got to protect for is the food product, right? We can’t change the taste or smell of the food product, and we certainly got to protect it. You can’t have food spoilage, and that’s one thing plastic does well—it keeps food from spoiling. So to get a solution that works, those were the key metrics for us.
So now we’ve done that, right? We’re virtually in every supermarket in the country, and we’re selling hundreds of millions of units—selling billions of units in Q4 this year and tens of billions next year. The real strategy for us relative to the customer demand is just: Does the customer know what they want? The best analogy I can give you is—imagine you’re running a clothing store, and someone walks in and says, “I’m just browsing.” Okay, then you go, “Well, raise your hand if you have a question.” And somebody else walks in and goes, “I need a blue shirt, size extra-large, long.” That’s the priority, right? They know what they want. So, you have different customers that have clear ideas and clear visions of what they want; they become the priority, and they kind of help us set the priority internally as well.
What does a project look like with one of those, I guess, less directed, and especially at this stage in your own arc, kind of late adopters who’s ready to experiment with some different technology than they’ve been using since 1987, but they’re unfamiliar and scared with the whole thing. How does that work in terms of your engineers interacting with their product, their own team of engineers, etc., from spec to finally rolling something out?
Well, I think nowadays it takes us about nine to 12 months to get a solution from “start to finish,” to “out the door.” In the beginning, it was two to three years, right? But now that we’re in supermarkets, we got a lot of validation, and we kind of know where we’re going or what our technologies can do. We can speed up the development process, if you will. What it looks like really, when someone comes to us, and says, if it’s new, they’ll go, “Hey, this is the product I have.”
We’ll have our solutions team, which is a traditional sales team, but our solutions team are engineers and scientists. They’ll sit down with the customer and talk about, “What is the technology targets? What does the solution need to do? How does it perform? What do you want from a brand differentiation standpoint?” Once we get that technology target spec, we create designs and prototypes for the customer.
Then you start shelf life. That’s where you start getting customer testing. How does it perform protecting the food product? How does it work on my factory floor? It has to work at the same speed and the same rate with our existing factory. So we design and engineer it to work with their existing manufacturing processes. They validate that, and that usually takes a couple of revisions.
Then you get marketing involved, which is another couple of revisions on how do they want printing? What color do they want? Do they want it to look like plastic but have the benefits of a cellulose material or fiber material? Or do they want it to look completely natural, and you get that brand differentiation? Then some customers have asked us to make pinks and blues and other things. That gets dialed in with marketing.
Then once you have that, you usually have a pilot study, which is, you get it out into the marketplace. You get it into where consumers can feel and interact with it and get some sort of data of: How do they like it?
So you had your initial technology, and then obviously you work on an endless series of client customizations. Have those client projects yielded any sort of insights into the core tech that have caused you to go back and refine the sort of core product?
Yeah, absolutely. We’re always looking to get better. What we’re doing to replace plastic is so immature, for lack of a better term. The process technology is immature, the material science is immature, that we’re constantly innovating and creating better methods and better materials, not only for shelf life but also for end of life and ultimately for the consumer.
Speaking for Footprint and its packaging focus, as well as all the other actual things-we-ingest-level innovations, what are you excited about, and why are you passionate about what we eat and consume and how that’s changing?
I’m certainly excited about all the plant-based options, especially the plant-based protein options. I think as we learn more and more, it’s better for the environment, and these guys are making food that’s better for us. But I think initially, with all the plant-based options, it was clear that plant-based protein was certainly better for the environment than traditional proteins, right? I’m excited about that. Excited where that’s going and the quality of the food, the taste of it. A lot of companies are just improving their overall food quality. As we learn more about what’s really good for you, these companies are responding and developing solutions for us.
Food companies have been doing amazing things with plants, grains and nuts for generations, but this latest act, where they’re capably replacing animal-based products and even plastics—this is next level. It’s going to be fascinating to watch this revolution unfold over the coming years and to see just what the future of food holds.
I don’t know where it will all lead, but I do hope we’re able to finish the same way we started—with ice cream.
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