We interviewed Irina Gerry, CMO at Change Foods, a precision fermentation food tech start-up, creating real dairy products, animal-free. She will participate in the virtual event Future Food Tech Alternative Proteins, happening June 22 -23, and will be joined by global leaders in the food industry. If you’d like to attend, you can register here and save 10% with code EA10.
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Can you give us an overview of what Change Foods is about and what makes it unique?
Change Foods is a food tech startup focused on (re)creating dairy, animal-free. We harness the power of microbes to create real dairy proteins, fats and flavors via precision fermentation. We then utilize traditional cheesemaking techniques to turn them into cheese that tastes, stretches, and melts just as you’d expect. No cows required!
After pioneering plant-based products at Danone, what made you want to join a startup?
I had a fantastic experience working on Silk and So Delicious brands at Danone. This is where I learned food marketing fundamentals and made life-long friends. I’ve launched new products, developed new marketing campaigns, and built a deep understanding of consumer needs and motivations. This is where I found my purpose and my passion: to drive broad-scale adoption of plant-based lifestyle, by giving people delicious, sustainable and healthy options.
Working at a large food company provided tremendous resources to drive this mission. Companies like Danone play a very important part in driving the sustainable future revolution. They can use their scale and distribution networks to democratize the trends and bring plant-based foods to every grocery store in the country. These companies do not operate in a vacuum, however. Startup companies, like Change Foods, provide the initial catalyst that sets new trends in motion, by discovering, testing and initiating new trends. They can act nimbly and hone in on developing niche spaces and help build them into new categories. They are the spark that starts the fire.
While the plant-based sector has firmly established itself on our plates and in our business, over the past year it became clear that a new wave of sustainable food revolution was coming fast. Cell-based and fermentation-based technology is coming on the scene, and its potential to change the world is tremendous.
When I met Dave Bucca, Founder and CEO of Change Foods, we immediately connected based on a shared mission to change how we feed the world. I jumped at the chance to build a new food company and join the ranks of sustainable food technology pioneers.
How will the communication strategy differ as CMO of a startup?
Many younger consumers today, especially Gen Y and Gen Z, care deeply about sustainability. They expect the food they buy to come from companies that do it right and stand for something beyond the product. They want to support companies that do good in the world and are creating the products responsibly and sustainably. Everything matters – the ingredients, the packaging, the supplier choices, employees and company mission. They expect to see the companies walk the talk, and not just present nice slogans in advertising. It is a true shift in expectation that is creating a powerful momentum behind new food companies. As a CMO of a startup, I focus on telling the story behind the company as much as inviting consumers to learn about our products and technology that enables them.
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What are the biggest obstacles that Change Foods is facing? And how have/will you overcome them?
Challenges and obstacles abound, when you are charting a new course and creating a new industry. In order for companies in the emerging food tech space to become successful we need a lot of infrastructure. This infrastructure comes in the form of scientific research, favorable regulatory framework, financial investments, technology scale-up and manufacturing partners, suppliers, distributors, advisors and top-notch talent. We are highly focused on developing relationships within this new food industry ecosystem, because business is built on human connection. Amazing things happen when talented and passionate people, united by a common mission, come together to build a better future.
How does precision fermentation cheese fit into the traditional dairy market?
While over 1/3 of consumers have invited plant-based products into their lives, taste is still the biggest barrier, especially when it comes to categories outside of beverages, such as yogurt, ice cream and cheese. When it comes to more indulgent products, like cheese, taste and texture become paramount and most consumers are not willing to sacrifice on taste. This is why household penetration of plant-based cheese is hovering at around 3% in the US, compared to plant-based milk at around 42%.
Precision fermentation allows us to create molecularly identical dairy proteins, which are necessary to give cheese that stretch and melt that we all crave, without the use of animals. This will provide a true unlock in bringing more consumers into the animal-free dairy world.
Traditional dairy companies see the tremendous potential of this technology and many are looking to either invest in or develop animal-free offerings internally, as a way of diversifying their business portfolio. We have seen a similar approach among the world’s largest meat companies, with major players like JBS, Tyson and Smithfield creating their own plant-based offerings in response to accelerating plant-based eating trends worldwide.
Where would you like to see Change Foods in the next few years?
Today, we are working on developing our first line of products – animal-free cheese. The beauty of precision fermentation technology, however, is that it allows us to create a wide variety of animal-free dairy products, such as yogurt, ice cream and milk that taste just like their animal-based predecessors. Our vision is to usher in a new era in dairy and help build a thriving and sustainable food system that is kind to people, animals and the planet.
Thank you Irina for this great chat! We are excited to see where the future will take Change Foods!
Check out our other interviews with great industry experts here.