A Plant-Based Cheese That People Would Love?
To explore if it can be done, I’m now a Senior Advisor to Noquo Foods.
I’m excited by how breakthrough science, innovation and technology are helping us advance a more nourishing, and environmentally sustainable, food system. I think it brings us hope that — despite all the noise and negativity in media and politics — we can actually build a better future.
I think this excitement has also influenced where I’ve decided to engage professionally. I’m a consultant to the Rockefeller Foundation Food Team, a mentor to the startups of accelerators/funds Big Idea Ventures and Katapult Ocean, and supporter/advisor to a number of other startups in the AgTech/FoodTech space, such as Holistal. What these organizations all have in common is that they’re innovative, data-driven, and believe in breakthrough science and technology to make the world a better place.
For the past year, I’ve been helping super entrepreneur Sorosh Tavakoli in his quest to explore how to build an impact-driven food startup. This journey has taken him from microalgae, to duckweed, and finally to alternative protein, by starting Noquo Foods.
So it feels like a natural step for me to formally become Senior Advisor to (and angel investor in) Noquo Foods. I’m excited about Noquo, for a few reasons:
Helping to build a better food system
The modern food system has focused on delivering cheap calories and high yields. And it has been tremendously successful in feeding the world; we’ve reduced global hunger from 50% to about 10% since 1945. But we did not optimize the food system for e.g. nutrition and environmental sustainability.
- Poor diets are today the leading global cause of disease, disability and premature death. Evidence seem to indicate that significant underconsumption of foods such as fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts, legumes, whole grain and fish is the core issue. The U.S. spent $327B in 2017 alone to treat just one disease, diabetes. Our food system is driving our health system bankrupt.
- The food system is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 70% of all freshwater use, and 40–50% of total land use (food production). Animal agriculture is about two-thirds of the entire environmental footprint. While new technologies are being deployed which are reducing food system environmental impacts, the world’s population is also growing towards 9.7B by 2050, and global diets are generally shifting towards more animal-sourced foods (which are resource intensive to produce); demand for these foods is expected to rise with 70% by 2050.
Plant-based foods, on average, seem to be beneficial both from a human health perspective and from an environmental perspective. While plant-based alternatives to animal-sourced foods are not automatically healthier, Noquo Foods has the opportunity of developing something really interesting.
The global market for animal-sourced foods — meat, dairy, egg and seafood — is worth well over $1T (trillion); cheese alone is worth over $100B. Consumers everywhere love the price, taste and convenience of these products. While there have been plant-based alternatives to animal sourced-foods for a very long time (e.g. Quorn and Tofurky), they’ve only managed to attract a small minority of consumers. Consumers have been aware of the health impacts, environmental impacts and animal welfare impacts tied to the production and consumption of animal-based foods, but they simple loved the taste, price and convenience of these products too much to give them up.
In recent years, challengers such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Oatly have managed to developed direct replacements for animal-based products that sufficiently replicate the price, taste, and convenience of animal-sourced foods — and consumers have started to shift. In 2018, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew by 17% (vs. 2% for general retail sales). Plant-based cheese grew by 41% to $133.2M, one of the fastest growing categories. This shows that while people are loyal to the price, taste, and convenience of meat, dairy, egg and seafood, most consumers are not loyal to the fact that these products were made from animals.
Plant-based cheese is still a very small category compared with plant-based dairy and plant-based meat — simply because the existing plant-based cheese products have not met the price, taste, and convenience expectations of consumers. Noquo Foods has a window of opportunity to establish market leadership in this emerging category.
As mentioned, Sorosh is a super entrepreneur. His previous venture, Videoplaza, had 100+ employees in 7 offices across both Europe and North America, when it was acquired a few years ago.
When Sorosh explored alternative protein, he realized he would need a scientist co-founder for his next venture.
Meanwhile, biotech scientist Anja Leissner, with deep domain expertise from the dairy foods industry, had just finalized the prototyping of a plant-based cheese. She was now toying with the idea of commercializing her scientific breakthroughs.
When Sorosh and Anja met and started talking, it didn’t take long before they both understood they had struck gold. And so Noquo Foods was born. Anja is heading up R&D, and have already hired two international stellar scientists to support the R&D efforts in the lab.
I have had the opportunity to taste some early product samples, and I think Noquo is on to something good.
The team is such an important predictor of startup success, and I believe Noquo has a strong team to start executing on the mission.
So there you have it. This is why I’m exited about Noquo Foods. There are of course regulatory barriers, technological barriers, and consumer acceptance barriers — just like for any startup. And I’m still not sure if you can build a plant-based cheese that people would love. But I believe in the Noquo team, and I really look forward to supporting them, in my role as Senior Advisor, to achieve what they’re setting out to do.