The pandemic is causing turbulence across the food industry, including for companies in their R&D phase. But Dilek Uzunalioglu, the head of food applications at Motif FoodWorks, found a way to continue to work on formulas during the outbreak.
The ingredients innovation company is working to improve the texture, taste and nutrition for plant-based dairy and meat alternatives and now Uzunalioglu is doing just that from her kitchen. She said it is her job to take ingredients and understand their performance in finished products, and she can do that at home.
"After the pandemic, I start working from my home office in New Jersey," she said. "I set up a little lab at my home, where I could do some formulation work."
Before the coronavirus outbreak hit, the company was ramping up growth efforts with at least $117.5 million in funding raised last year. Startup Gingko Bioworks announced the launch of Motif with a $90 million funding round and then the company raised an additional $27.5 million. Motif's partnership with Ginkgo allows the company to use its biological engineering platform.
Despite the change in venue, Uzunalioglu said the company is still preparing to launch products by 2021 as planned.
"We are doing our best to make sure that we are sticking with our timelines for product launches," she said.
Shifting to a home lab
Although she doesn't have all of the equipment typically found in a lab, Uzunalioglu said she has been able to easily adjust since they are still in the development stage.
She said she uses Thermomix, which is a versatile piece of equipment that can weigh, mix, hydrate and homogenize ingredients as well as change the temperature. The equipment helps her formulate on a small scale and gives her information about how the ingredients are performing. She can then later use what she learns to replicate it on a larger lab-scale and pilot it once she is back in the office.
"In the process, I may do some modifications on some of the ingredients that are used. But still, even on the grand scale, I'm getting very good directional information on how our ingredients are doing," she said.
Whether working in labs or in a home kitchen, she said she follows all ServSafe principles, which are food safety guidelines, by keeping separate workspaces for raw and cooked food, using separate utensils, and cleaning and sanitizing the space.
"If we conduct any consumer or sensory panel testing, we will be producing the samples in pilot plants that have these food safety regulations in place," Uzunalioglu said.
When formulating and testing the ingredients, Uzunalioglu is working with dairy alternatives like yogurt, cheese, milk and ice cream, as well as plant-based meats.
For example, one of the formulations is plant-based cheese. She said she looks at products on the market, including their ingredients, nutrition and calories, then she formulates her own to test different attributes. She is able to measure the stretchability of cheese, and also test the meltability by tracking how much the thickness is changing when heating it in a microwave.
She is also experimenting with plant-based meat alternatives. With patty formulation she is testing texturizing proteins and binder systems like gum, starches and proteins. While mixing, she needs to observe how it is behaving, if it is sticking in the mixing bowl and if it is easy to process when she turns it into a meatball. Then she also analyzes its cooking behavior by measuring how much water it is losing when cooking and how much fat is draining.
The transition hasn't come without challenges. To conduct these studies, she said a lot of ingredients are needed so the most challenging part so far was working with distributors and suppliers to make sure the samples could be shipped to her home.
Motif, similar to other upstart ingredient companies, is at a point where it needs to make adjustments. Clara Foods, manufacturer of animal-free egg whites, also had to move out of its familiar lab space. Clara is expecting struggles like narrowing its research efforts, which could delay partnerships the company forges with CPGs to use its product.
A new tasting team
Who is the focus group for taste testing during a time of social distancing? Uzunalioglu said she has put her family to work, having them help with sensory evaluation.
Since the Motif team can't taste the products, she recruited her husband and 10-year-old son. She is examining the taste and attributes of the products, like elasticity and springiness when chewing.
"We sit down, I prepare a kind of questionnaire for them. I ask questions and they help me out," she said. "They are quite interested and I make it as good as possible in terms of I make sure that after every sample, they drink water to clean their palate. I make sure that they have also like a cracker in between to make sure their palate is clean before going to the next sample."
"My son is quite good with his descriptions, like he will give me words when we are tasting cheese, he will tell me 'Oh, this is creamy compared to the previous one or this is more grainy or this is more powdery.' I'm really happy with the descriptors that I get from him. I guess he got the right genes."
Head of food applications, Motif FoodWorks
As a food scientist, Uzunalioglu said that when she eats, she uses a lot of descriptors and her son seems to already have a knack for it too.
"My son is quite good with his descriptions, like he will give me words when we are tasting cheese, he will tell me 'Oh, this is creamy compared to the previous one or this is more grainy or this is more powdery.' I'm really happy with the descriptors that I get from him. I guess he got the right genes," she said.
She said an option in the future is that the team could do virtual sensory tasting, where everyone tastes it and then makes comments.
For now, Motif has big meetings scheduled for all the projects, where they share what they've done virtually. She works on presentations of the new formulations.
"First and foremost, communication has been very critical in the situation," she said. "Since I am not able to show the results to my team members, what I do is that I do prepare reports, I take a lot of pictures or videos to show them. That's how we are kind of shifting to share the results."
Challenging the 'status quo'
Uzunalioglu is mostly a one-woman formulation team, but they are expanding. Even during the pandemic, she said the company is not slowing down the hiring process and is searching for application scientists.
Before working at Motif, Uzunalioglu worked as a manager and food scientist at Ingredion in different areas, including bakery segments, gluten-free product development and plant protein applications. She decided to join this startup because she likes to "challenge the status quo."
Motif was a logical next step for her because the company is looking to develop the next set of ingredients in the plant-based category to bring taste and texture to the right place, she said.
The career path from bigger company to a role at Motif is familiar. Michael Leonard, Motif's chief technology officer, served as vice president and head of R&D for white space innovation and commercialization at Kraft Heinz. And Motif's Chief Commercial Officer Michele Fite has experience in companies like Nestlé, DuPont and Kerry.
"I've been in this business for over 30 years and these are the kind of things that just don't happen often, where you see a major change in how consumers behave, and the opportunity to impact that with a significant technology," Fite previously told Food Dive.
The company is also working with universities on research projects. Motif FoodWorks is partnering with the University of Queensland in Australia and University of Massachusetts Amherst to study the physics of how to improve the texture of plant-based foods and optimize the process of characterizing functional protein properties in food.
"The situation around COVID-19 continues to evolve rapidly, and we are taking all necessary steps to ensure the safety and health of our employees and partners," Michael Leonard, Motif's chief technology officer, told Food Dive in an email. "We’re currently still progressing towards previously planned timelines across our projects."