When Planterra's Ozo brand debuted on shelves last year, CEO Darcey Macken knew they were somewhat behind the curve.
After all, plant-based meat was already a hot category. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat had already cleft large footholds in the category, and other plant-based brands from Big Food, private labels and new upstarts were duking it out for consumer attention. Even though Planterra is the U.S. plant-based subsidiary of JBS — the world's largest meat company — the new Ozo brand needed a bit more to stand out on the shelf.
Planterra is based in Colorado. Macken said she looked at local food companies for inspiration and found all she needed close by: at fermented protein ingredient company MycoTechnology, which is also in Colorado. The ingredients company, founded in 2013, ferments mushroom mycelia to create functional food ingredients. The company is one of the oldest and best known for fermented ingredients. At MycoTechnology, Macken found the ingredients that would differentiate Ozo's plant-based meat line. As a veteran of the yogurt business, Macken knew consumers associate fermentation with function.
"I thought, 'Wow they're really on to something, and we want to be a part of it together,'" Macken said. "And so by using their fermented shiitake mushroom mycelia and our pea and rice formula, [it] really helped us stand apart because we could talk about fermentation and people got it — the overall gut health, overall well-being."
Earlier this month, Planterra and MycoTechnology formally entered into a collaboration agreement. The deal brings a more in-depth R&D partnership between the plant-based meat company and the fermented ingredients maker, and could create unique ingredients for Planterra's plant-based products.
At the moment, the partnership is just a formalized agreement for the two companies to work together. No new ingredients have yet been launched, and there are no new products or processes that have come out.
In the weeks since the partnership was announced, Planterra's Ozo expanded its grocery product line to include Nuggets, plant-based Chicken Patties and Italian Style Meatballs in the frozen section, and Smokehouse Burgers and plant-based Ground Turkey in the refrigerated section. The launch had already been planned, a company representative said, and all of the products include the same pea and rice blend fermented by MycoTechnology's shiitake mycelia that's in the original Ozo Burgers and Grounds.
MycoTechnology chief revenue officer Jim Ellis said the partnership is helping both companies work together to look at issues faced by the plant-based foods sector as a whole faces. So far, he said, Planterra and MycoTechnology have the same attitude toward innovation.
"We looked at our mission, which is to solve the most pervasive challenges in food and beverage today," Ellis said. "As we partner up with Planterra, what we continue to look at is how we'll work together to make plant-based foods more appealing in the short term, with exciting evolutions and meat analogs and that sort of thing."
Both Macken and Ellis said consumers becoming more familiar with fermentation will help the partnership pay off. Planterra's initial research found that 26% of Ozo puchasers were new to the category, meaning there is something very different about what Ozo brings to the table. Macken said this inspired the company to take a close look at how it communicates the difference MycoTechnology's ingredient makes in the end product. Planterra has been working to use its packaging to say that the fermented ingredient not only makes the plant-based meat products more clean label and less artificially processed, but also that they contribute to good gut health.
Ellis said by communicating this connection, there will be more of a demand for fermented ingredients. If consumers are aware of functional benefits in Ozo products, they will look for those same functional benefits elsewhere. This creates more demand for and understanding of what MycoTechnology does.
The agreement also implicitly brings MycoTechnology closer to working with JBS, Ellis said. While Planterra is its own entity inside of the larger company, it makes it easier for the meat giant to connect with MycoTechnology for some of its ingredients that go well with meat.
Macken said the partnership brings two startups — in a way of speaking — together to strengthen each other going forward. Macken and Ellis said there are exciting new initiatives that go beyond general food manufacturing practices and expectations coming through this partnership in the future.
"Our purpose as a company is not only to provide the best taste and quality, it's to increase access to consumers, and then grow this adoption of plant-based and its impact on the world. And they just help us move that much faster for speed, and then we help on the commercialization standpoint from a new technology and a new food," Macken said.