For most people, a bad bagel is a regrettable — but quickly forgotten — eating decision.
But for Ryan Pandya, co-founder of animal-free dairy company Perfect Day, that bagel changed the course of his life.
It was 2014 and Pandya, who has a degree in chemical and biological engineering, was working at a Boston company making medical antibodies. He wanted a bagel with cream cheese, something that isn't so easy to get when you're a vegan. Pandya went out of his way to find what he was looking for, paying a premium for the breakfast staple made with alternate ingredients.
And, he told Food Dive, that bagel was awful.
"It was this really disappointing runny texture with, like, cardboardy flavor," Pandya said. "And that fake cream cheese kind of ruined my life, but also made everything amazing because it literally sparked me to think about what was missing from the vegan cream cheese product that was making it so bad."
What was missing was easy to figure out: milk. Dairy can more easily make the products people love, from an accompaniment to cereal to cheese to ice cream. Those proteins also have a vitamin-filled nutritional profile, which dairy alternatives cannot match. And then, Pandya started thinking about how milk proteins are made from a biochemistry standpoint. If only there was a way to make milk without a cow, he thought.
"Well, of course there is. That's exactly what I do at work every day," Pandya said. "... I was using technology to make medicines, which are in the form of protein. Why not use that same approach to make food ingredients?"
He mentioned the idea to a friend, who introduced him to Perumal Gandhi, a graduate student with a bachelor's degree in biotechnology. The two formed Perfect Day and won a $30,000 grant from the accelerator now known as IndieBio to do some research on the concept. An article from that research attracted the attention of investor Horizons Ventures in 2014, which gave the company $2 million to get off the ground.
Five years later, the company has raised a total of $61.5 million, from both Horizons Ventures and Temasek Holdings. Last year, it inked a deal with ADM to produce animal-free milk ingredients on a large scale. On Thursday, the company announced it's selling its first products: three varieties of ice cream, available for purchase on its website. And, Pandya said, the company is ready to revolutionize the way all food products are produced.
"What started off as a crazy idea is actually totally possible," he said.
Part of the dairy industry
Perfect Day has no cows. Its products are made in a wholly different way than milk has been produced for centuries.
But Pandya said he sees the company as a regular part of the dairy industry. And so far, the industry has opened its arms in return. While the dairy alternatives market is established and is likely not going anywhere, Perfect Day is actually in the dairy business, just in what it considers a more sustainable way.
"It's really bringing that pride back to dairy," Pandya said. "So our goal is to really make that new category possible and make it compelling for ... people that are looking for these [sustainable] options, but not necessarily to stomp on the dairy industry and affect the everyday farmer."
Pandya said Perfect Day is "dairy done responsibly." According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, butter and cheese are two of the most polluting foods, based on the emissions produced when making them. Almost 12 kilograms of carbon dioxide are produced for every kilogram of butter, and a kilogram of cheese produces 9.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide.
Many consumers truly care about sustainability. Nearly half of U.S. consumers — 48% — told Nielsen they would be more likely to change what they buy based on sustainability.
There are other things consumers don't like about traditional dairy, Pandya said.
"It's really bringing that pride back to dairy. So our goal is to really make that new category possible and make it compelling for ... people that are looking for these [sustainable] options, but not necessarily to stomp on the dairy industry and affect the everyday farmer."
Co-founder, Perfect Day
"I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone in America who is pro-factory farm, right?" he said. “That's the side we're on, and frankly, that's the side of the farmers are on too, right? So if we can take that commodity pressure off the industry by doing ... more with less, I think that actually leaves more pie on the table for those that can actually do it right. And, you know, maybe pay more for the cow and for the farmer."
The secret to Perfect Day's process is fermentation. And while the average consumer thinks of milk coming from barns full of cows, Pandya said the company actually doesn't have a problem explaining how they do what they do to consumers.
"I think it helps that what we're doing turns out to be built on fundamentals that are very, very old and very, very familiar to people," Pandya said. "So everyone knows what dairy is and milk is obviously like 10,000 years old. Likewise, everyone knows what fermentation is and everyone can picture that tank where … beer is made or wine is made."
Pandya said that almost every food product nowadays that doesn't come directly from a plant or animal is the process of some fermentation. And any consumer who thinks this all sounds strange likely hasn't been told about fermentation and how it works.
"We've been really kind of blown away by how ubiquitous all of this is — but the fact that, for whatever reason, we're the first group to actually want to talk about it," Pandya said. "And we really do, because it's super cool."
Screaming for ice cream
Perfect Day has been working behind the scenes, creating dairy in small batches for five years. But the company is finally putting some of its items on the market. Starting today, consumers can buy three ice cream flavors made with Perfect Day's dairy protein: Milky Chocolate, Vanilla Salted Fudge and Vanilla Blackberry Toffee.
"What we're doing here is completely new to the world," Pandya said in a press release about the ice cream. "We wanted our first debut to be under the care of our own brand so that we could demonstrate the consumer benefits inherent to our protein while starting a conversation about this new approach to making food."
While these new products have a Perfect Day label, Pandya told Food Dive that future products using the company's dairy proteins might not. That's a big reason for the partnership with ADM, he said. As a massive global ingredients company, ADM has both the scale and reputation to make enough dairy protein to supply many of the world’s products, from milk to ice cream to cheese. Pandya put it this way: Part of the reason Perfect Day was founded was to try to make a real difference in the way the industry works. If the company is working solely on its own to make a few products and a few brands, Perfect Day's true mission would not be fulfilled.
"We wanted our first debt to be under the care of our own brand so that we could demonstrate the consumer benefits inherent to our protein while starting a conversation about this new approach to making food."
Co-founder, Perfect Day
Pandya said the goal is to make consumers aware of what Perfect Day is and how its technology works, but not necessarily looking for a brand name product.
"We'd like people to realize that you can actually find Perfect Day inside other products," Pandya said. "And it'll end up being something that you can actually see on the label. You can think of it a little bit like 'Intel Inside,' ... a seal or an emblem that helps you understand that ... the product you are picking up is imbued with that nutrition and … food functionality of dairy."
Possibilities and problems
Right now, cows are the only origin for actual dairy products. This means a large animal needs to be raised, live somewhere and produce milk. That milk needs to then travel to factories or consumers.
In some places, this is relatively easy. Dairy farms exist a short distance from consumers, and supply chains are efficient. When the products are for places that are more far flung and less conducive to dairy farms, like the Caribbean, they are more expensive and have a much shorter shelf life.
Pandya said fermentation technology makes it possible for every part of the world to have fresh dairy close by. It's much easier to use fermentation tanks anywhere than establishing dairy farms in some of these places with little land and difficult conditions for cows.
"You can think of it a little bit like 'Intel Inside,' ... a seal or an emblem that helps you understand that ... the product you are picking up is imbued with that nutrition and … food functionality of dairy."
Co-founder, Perfect Day
The biggest problem Perfect Day faces now is scaling up, Pandya said.
"We're in Year Five now, when we're ... getting to that point where … we're operating at a full commercial scale, but we have to be making … 10,000 times as much as we're making this year in order to start becoming … something that can actually ... work with many multinational brands and kind of operate at that scale we're looking for,” Pandya said.
ADM is helping with that, Pandya said. More knowledge about what the company is doing — and familiarity with the quality of its products — will also build scale. And more news is likely to be forthcoming from the company soon.
"Our goal has always been impact — to pave the way for a kinder, greener planet," Gandhi said in a written statement. "The best way to achieve this will be to work with food companies that already purchase huge amounts of dairy ingredients. While our B2B deals come to fruition, we are eager to share our progress with the world."