Providing advertising makeovers and comms tips to a fast food giant used to gnaw at the moral fiber of former brand strategist Rich Kelleman.
“I was a vegan at Burger King,” he explains to AFN.
This was a decade ago, long before the days of vegan Impossible Whoppers. He felt sheer awkwardness and cognitive dissonance in helping to mass market something he personally objected to, he says. This feeling was at its most acute during meetings with his premier client, where steaming trays of meat-based products would float into boardrooms to be offered to all attendees – only for Kelleman to coyly refuse, before collaborating to convince others to gorge on them.
Eventually, he succumbed to Shakespearean advice: To thine own self be true. He left the ‘royal household,’ but stayed in the same city — Boulder, Colorado — where he and his wife bought a dog named Rumples.
That dog, though, was persistently carnivorous; Kelleman began to wonder each day, as he spooned out large and low-grade chunks of meat for Rumples’ delectation, if there might be a healthy way for pets like his to be vegan too.
There were reasons for avoiding the plant-based route. It’s harder for naturally carnivorous dogs and cats to get the right nutrients with plant-based options like soy, which could in fact block absorption and hamper digestion.
Inspired by early cultured protein trailblazers like Memphis Meats, Kelleman thought: “What about cultured meat for pets?”
The name’s Bond. Bond Pet Foods
By 2017, Kelleman founded cultured pet food company Bond Pet Foods, where he now serves as CEO.
Fast forward to September 2020, and the startup has just closed a bridge round of funding to accelerate its work, with follow-on capital from its seed investors Lever VC and KBW Ventures, and Stage 1 and Trellis Road coming aboard for the first time.
These investments, combined with the $1.2 million seed round previously reported by AFN, equates to a total of just under $2 million to date. The presence of KBW Ventures brings Kelleman under the auspices of a royal household very different from Burger King; KBW is an early-stage VC firm founded by the Saudi Arabian prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal.
Skyping a prince
“In early investor conversations,” Kelleman recalls, “I was like, ‘wait – I’m about to Skype a prince!?’”
While it was initially “pretty surreal,” he soon found the prince to be “very human” and “down to earth,” asking “penetrating questions.”
For Prince Khaled, also a vegan, Bond Pet Foods solves two issues: sustainability, and the desire to feed pets higher quality food.
“It has never been a high-quality food market, and that’s very unusual since most people see their pets as family members. It makes sense to consider why we’re feeding out pets the leftovers from the traditional meat sector, and that’s problematic for a number of reasons, health included,” he told AFN at the time of Bond’s seed round in December.
“I definitely prioritize this as a sustainability issue; Bond will be producing high-quality protein from sustainable sources using only the natural resources required. Agriculturally speaking, and from a water conservation standpoint, Bond’s products can be good solutions in that respect.”
Along with the recent bridge funding, Bond Pet Foods is claiming to have created the world’s first animal-free, cultured chicken meat protein for pet food applications. Using what it says is proprietary technology, the startup takes a harmless, one-time blood sample — in this case, from a heritage hen named Inga who is alive and well at a farm in Lindsborg, Kansas — to determine the genetic code for the best types of chicken proteins to nourish dogs and cats.
Yeast that can make chicken proteins
The genetic code is then coupled with a strain of food-grade yeast. When this yeast is grown in a fermentation tank, it churns out meat proteins that are identical to those typically produced on farm and field. The company likens this fermentation process to one in use for half a century to make enzymes for cheese, but Bond is reassembling the process to harvest high-quality meat proteins.
“Industry understands fermentation,” Kelleman says, seeing this as an advantage to swifter production scale-up than cellular agriculture options where muscle and fat tissue are grown in vitro, and where there are few if any industrial or regulatory precedents.
Bond’s first consumer product launched last May: its Protein-Packed Dog Treat Bar made with a pure nutritional yeast. While not derived from animals, the yeast protein in the recipe is made through a similar fermentation technique, and provides high-quality supplemental nutrition.
The startup’s cultured chicken protein, once fully developed, will have the same primary nutrients of conventional chicken meat including its essential amino acids, and will meet or exceed Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requirements for both dogs and cats. Its first chicken-based products are expected to debut in 2023.
To demonstrate the cultured chicken protein’s cooking characteristics as well as its palatability with its target audience, Bond’s food science and nutrition teams developed a baked treat recipe with the ingredient, and then fed samples to a select group of dogs at the company’s Boulder headquarters. The exercise showed promise on both fronts, with high mixability and enthusiastic uptake from the canine guinea pigs.
More robust feeding trials will be performed in the future.“Our initial tests with dog volunteers have been very promising, and [the protein’s] nutritionals, palatability, and digestibility will only improve on our path to commercialization,” says Pernilla Audibert, co-founder and chief technology officer at Bond. The food science team, she says, is also working on production of “other cultured meat proteins made through a similar fermentation process.” The successful chicken prototype “is a demonstration of our technology’s potential to create a complete portfolio of animal proteins for pet consumption, and beyond.”
Cultured meat is going to the dogs
Impressive science, no doubt; but will this be prohibitively expensive, even for the most cherished puppies and kittens? After all, other cultured meat startups have struggled to get their products cost competitive with higher-end animal meat options for human consumption. Cultured meat pet food arguably has an even tougher task, since it is going up against cheap off-cuts that would otherwise be wasted in meat production streams.
Kelleman pounces on the part about the off-cuts, saying that’s all part of the disturbingly opaque supply chain for pets that owners ought to be concerned about. There have been instances in the past of cats and dogs being fed meat that comes from animals other than those listed on the packaging, or that has been contaminated with toxic substances. In early September, US pet food maker Sunshine Mills voluntarily recalled three of its product lines after they were discovered to contain potentially dangerous levels of a fungal toxin, aflatoxin, during routine regulatory testing. The US Food & Drug Administration did the same to another of the company’s products a few weeks earlier over salmonella concerns.
On the unit economics, Kelleman says that pets have a few advantages that make production for them easier. “They’re less picky,” he claims, so taste and texture do not have to simulate animal meat to the degree that human diners would expect. That takes away a lot of the high-end production required to reach that ideal. Likewise, regulations for pets are more open to these novel foods, so they stand a better chance of reaching pet store shelves before they make it into human supermarket aisles.
So dogs and cats, rather than humans, could well be cultured meat’s first mass consumers. You might say that cultured meat is going to the dogs.