This is the fourth installment in a five-part series about the challenges food tech companies face in scaling up. Previous stories can be found here.
Lisa Dyson has been an evangelist for the power of science for a long time.
In 2016, she gave a TED talk about how 1960s-era NASA research could change the way food is created, starting a buzz among consumers. According to this research, a common kind of microbe can actually be used to turn carbon dioxide into physical protein.
Dyson took that excitement and interest and founded AirProtein, a startup that uses that technology to make meat analogs. AirProtein is scaling up and perfecting its prototypes, while Dyson watches her business grow.
“Initially, it's just really that founder or founders team's vision that really has the energy that gets you to the next phase,” she said at the Future Food-Tech conference in New York City this summer. “And as you have some initial success and bring on more people, you're just kind of trying to accomplish multiple things at once. Really leveraging your successes and building from there. But then you bring in processes, and more industry experts, what have you. So just that process, …that's kind of an important thing for a startup to really go through that and mature as they're growing.”
AirProtein is growing and maturing the same way as many other companies in the food tech space.
In the cultivated meat space, Upside Foods has been making that sort of transition. It’s shifting from being a mostly scientific research company to a food manufacturer.
See how they grow
Some of the biggest companies in the food tech space have dramatically expanded their employee headcounts and office footprints in the last few years. Here are some comparisons, with information provided by each company.
May 2020: 15 employees, 11,000 square feet
November 2022: 138 employees, 65,000 square feet
2014: 50 employees, 3,000 square feet
November 2022: 270 employees, more than 100,000 square feet
May 2018: 7 employees, 6,500 square feet
November 2022: 48 employees, 11,500 square feet
February 2020: 53 employees, 40,000 square feet
November 2022: 216 employees, 245,000 square feet
January 2016: 5 employees, 1,400 square feet
November 2022: More than 250 employees, 860,000 square feet (San Francisco area only)
February 2016: Less than 10 employees
November 2022: More than 200 employees, more than 80,000 square feet
Chief Operating Officer Amy Chen is part of that shift. While she is enthusiastic about Upside’s mission and the way the company uses science and technology to create the food of the future, she’s not a scientist.
Chen came to Upside Foods last summer after more than a decade at PepsiCo, where she was most recently the senior vice president for the North American region of the company’s beverages division. She also worked for the CPG giant’s Greater China region.
A lot of her work at PepsiCo was focused on promoting a positive company culture, which is what she’s hoping to do at Upside Foods. Chen said the company culture is already prevalent — the people who work for Upside Foods generally want to use science to improve the food system, planetary health and animal welfare — but she’s formally pushing it forward both inside the company and out to the food industry and potential consumers. She also has deep experience working with a complex organization and ensuring that different parts, from supply chain to regulatory to marketing to distribution, run smoothly.
“That kind of experience that I had had in terms of working in different contexts, managing a tremendous amount of complexity, dealing with customers, partners, regulatory environments — I think all of that has proven to be really useful as we scale,” Chen said. “In part because I've seen what it's like to be part of and to help lead a very complex organization, which then gives me the ability to help make sure we're building that in the right way from the start.”
Several food tech companies are bringing on new hires with skill sets like Chen’s: people who are more skilled in brand and company building than they are in fermentation and cell line growth.
She often uses this analogy: Cell-based meat is like a relay race. It starts from the first cells and it ends when the meat is on a consumer’s plate. But in the middle, there are several crucial hand-offs. Working on communication is “unglamorous,” Chen said, but it’s vital.
“It's amazing because we have this opportunity to build while there’s wet paint,” Chen said. “...It's wet clay. We can mold it and shape it in a way that works. And I can take the best of what I learned from my time at PepsiCo, meld that with the unique and special culture that Upside has, and create something that's going to sustain ourselves over time as we continue to build.”
A team that is ‘deeply committed’
A diverse team is key to a food tech startup’s success, said Mark Warner, a former consultant and founder and CEO of scale-up company Liberation Labs. Not just in the traditional standpoint, with members from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds and genders, but diverse in their knowledge and experience.
Warner said this team should be experts in a wealth of fields, from food science to biotechnology to cell and plant biology to engineering — not to mention business, sales, communication, marketing and merchandising. The best way to move a company to success, he said, is through a hybrid of knowledge and perspectives.
Upside Foods’ Chen has a wealth of experience that’s vastly different from the scientists who made up the core of the cultivated meat startup’s team for years. One of the things she brings to the table is the ability to forge connections — inside the company and with consumers in general.
As people from a wider array of disciplines join Upside Foods, Chen said, they all have to be on the same page about what they are doing and discussing. Vocabularies need to match up, and communication across all functions needs to be effective. The biggest challenges Chen has seen aren’t necessarily dealing with difficult science or how to grow and build infrastructure, but are more around how the culture scales.
But the different backgrounds on the team bring new ways to look at and solve problems, which Chen said has unlocked another level of creativity and transformational thinking. And because this industry is completely new and different, it also means there’s a whole new set of processes to design.
“While the challenges I think are hard, and the problems have never been solved before, I also think that the fact that people are deeply committed to what we're doing and believe, with urgency, that it is important to solve allows us to move in creative ways and at a speed that might not be possible if that wasn't true,” Chen said.
The right team for right now
Shannon Cosentino-Roush, director of strategy for cell-based seafood company Finless Foods, has a similar job. She doesn’t do work in the scientific part of the company, but is focused on furthering the company’s mission. Cosentino-Roush came to the company in 2020 after working for sustainable fishing entities including the Sustainable Ocean Alliance and Ocean Outcomes. Her focus is on working with entities in the seafood industry, ocean conservation, the federal government and others in the cultivated meat space to clear a path for the company’s future.
Cosentino-Roush said there have been several strategic administrative hires to perform functions the company hadn’t previously needed. Finless Foods now has its own director of communications. It has a director of marketing and its own copywriter. People in charge of sustainability, policy and impact have been brought on. An 11-person sales team has been hired for the company’s plant-based seafood launch, she said, and some of the more manufacturing-related hires for the plant-based side will be integral in helping set best practices for cell-based seafood, when they get to manufacturing that.
“Every hire has been very selectively placed,” she said. “Really strategically, what's the next hire we most urgently need for the breakthroughs we need?”
Karuna Rawal, chief marketing officer at fermented protein product maker Nature’s Fynd, said at a panel at Future Food-Tech in June that the company has been building its culture and message slowly.
Rawal joined the company in 2019, when it was still known as Sustainable Bioproducts, and is its first chief marketing officer. She came to the company from advertising agency Leon Burnett/Publicis Groupe, where she was the lead strategist for Procter & Gamble’s Always brand’s award-winning “#LikeAGirl” campaign.
At the Future Food-Tech session, Rawal said Nature’s Fynd has a great story to tell. But they couldn’t run out and start getting that message out too early.
“It's knowing at what stage to bring in the functions that you need,” she said. “Once I came in, it took us some time before we were ready to bring in sales, because then we were at a point where we were ready to go start engaging with customers. So I think we've been very measured about when we bring different functions in — when we are sure we're ready to take the next step.”
The excitement shifts
As companies scale up, the scope of what they — and their leaders — do also changes.
On the Future Food-Tech panel, Arturo Elizondo, CEO of The Every Company, talked about his company’s story. He started The Every Company, formerly known as Clara Foods, in 2014 to use precision fermentation to create animal-free egg proteins. In the last year, Every has launched some of its first proteins — a highly nutritious and soluble protein found in small amounts in egg whites it calls Every Protein (initially launched as Every ClearEgg), and a functional traditional egg white protein called Every EggWhite.
In his years at the helm of Every, Elizondo got deep into the science and technology needed to create the same proteins commonly found in eggs through fermentation. And he was used to talking about the process.
When Every launched Every EggWhite in March, the company partnered with California baker Chantal Guillon to make a line of animal-free macarons that showed off the ingredient’s effectiveness in performing traditional functions of eggs. On the panel, Elizondo talked about the launch event at the bakery’s San Francisco location, which was attended by several influencers.
“I did not get a single question about the technology,” he said. “It was like, ‘Which macarons did you like best?’, you know. ‘Oh my gosh, it's so good. I can't tell the difference [between the animal-free and traditional egg white macarons].’ …And it was this really big aha moment for me.”
Eat Just founder and CEO Josh Tetrick readily says he got into food tech to change the way food is produced, making items that are both nutritious and desired by consumers accessible to people around the world.
Eleven years in, Tetrick’s job is no longer all breakthroughs and excitement. Prior to speaking with Food Dive, he’d been on the phone with Eat Just’s chief revenue officer, discussing the most effective way to set up appointments with carriers to drop off product.
“That’s not the sexiest thing, to be honest with you,” he said with a laugh. “...But, you know, it’s part of the job.”