In this podcast episode, I had the great pleasure of speaking to Adam Lowry, the cofounder and CEO of Ripple Foods, a dairy-free food products company. Adam is set to speak at the Future Food-Tech Summit in San Francisco next month on a panel discussing new frontiers for plant-based foods. But plant-based dairy and Ripple are not his first foray in sustainable business; Adam is a climate scientist and inventor who cofounded the sustainable cleaning products business Method. I use these products in my home so I was really excited when Adam agreed to be on the podcast, thanks to an intro from the folks at Rethink Events.
Both Ripple and Method are Certified B Corps and Adam has contributed several innovations to the sustainable business space, including the first 100% post-consumer recycled and recyclable PET packaging; the first packaging made from ocean plastic; and several new green chemistries. Considering he’s worked in and around sustainability for so long, Adam’s is not combative in his approach to this industry where others are and it’s really refreshing; he doesn’t claim his company will save the world and he’s also a flexitarian on occasion.
We talk about the contrast between launching a cleaning products business and a food business, why food was the next step for him, the key mistakes and lessons learned from Method, why he and his colleagues chose the pea as the key ingredient for their products, the nutrition science behind their process, and his moonshot hope for the food system. I’m slightly kicking myself that we didn’t manage to get onto the topic of packaging as an area of innovation that’s finally gathering pace in the agri-foodtech industry, but I’m sure you’ll still hear plenty of interesting nuggets to make it worth the listen!
If you want to see Adam speak at Future Food-Tech, you can find out more details about the event here.
Listen below or on your favorite podcasting app.
Here’s a short, edited transcription of our conversation.
Louisa Burwood-Taylor: What took you into the food space?
Adam Lowry: What took me into the food space was really impact. So I actually started my career as a climate scientist and it was the frustrations of trying to be a climate scientist in America that led me to start Method around this idea of how do we use business as a way to create social and environmental benefits. And so Method was always about impact from day one. And as things went on, I got really interested in the food space because there are even larger and more important impacts both environmentally and from a human health and nutrition standpoint that are obviously associated with the food sector.
LBT: How does it differ as an industry to launch a start-up into?
Well, I think that there are some things in the food industry that you really have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s on even more so than in a non-refrigerated, non-food product because you’re talking about things that people are eating; they’re putting in their bodies. So, aspects of food safety and food quality are absolutely paramount and need to be done with the utmost rigor. And not that we didn’t do similar types of things on the Method business, but it’s another level, and you have to build the capabilities and the team in order to do that stuff the right way.
LBT: Why pea?
AL: The only reason we use pea really is it’s a highly sustainable source of protein that isn’t soy. Soy has a bad reputation, particularly within the dairy alternative space. One, because soy milks historically have tasted a lot like soy. And there’s another reason that’s not really a great reason: that people are concerned about phytoestrogen but, without going into science, you can’t really eat enough soy to have an estrogenic effect. But nonetheless, a lot of consumers are starting to resort to avoiding soy for that reason. So pea is an available source; it’s a very sustainable source — obviously it’s a legume so doesn’t need fertilizer, and so we picked pea for that reason, but Ripple is actually feedstock agnostic. So what makes ripple unique is not that we make a milk out of pea, it’s that we make the most highly-pure plant protein anywhere in the world. Right now we make it from pea, but we can make it from other things like soy and sunflower, as highly pure protein has no taste. And so that’s how we are able to create a milk product that has all of the protein nutrition of dairy and doesn’t taste plant-y the way traditionally a soy milk.
LBT: So what is your IP? Is it around that extraction process?
AL: Exactly, yeah. So when, when you get a typical plant protein isolate, it’s about 80% protein and about 20% other stuff. What that other stuff is, are generally small molecules. Proteins are really big. They’re small molecules that are bound in the protein and they’re things like tannins that make red wine or coffee bitter. And so it’s those small molecules that actually carry the characteristic plant flavors, and that’s what we’re able to extract the protein without. And so if it’s pure, it has no flavor.
LBT: This is where the interesting dichotomy at the moment in the food where there’s been a big consumer movement towards whole foods, little processing and so on. And then on the flip side, in the meat and dairy alternative space, you’re seeing consumers ok with consuming quite highly-processed products. It also sounds like your pea protein is going through quite the process. What you do think about that dynamic, and at the same time, how can we be sure that these kinds of extracted isolates have the same nutritional benefit as they would within a whole food?
AL: I think on one hand you’ve got consumers who really want to look towards the past, I’ll say in more traditional ways of food and farming as a way to build trust in their food. And on the other hand, you also have consumers that are looking for what’s new and different and interesting with food. And often they’re the exact same consumers, just making decisions in different ways for different categories. With respect to the dairy alternative space, if you want to make a milk out of plants, obviously you’re making sort of a milk analog and in order to do that you’re putting together protein, fat, and carbohydrate in reasonably equal proportions to a dairy milk. And so every plant-based milk has some processing associated with it.
You can make a nut milk at home by grinding up almonds and putting it through a strainer, but you’re going to end up with something that’s super expensive and isn’t really gonna work very well as a milk product because it separates. And so some people do that, but the vast majority of people in the non-dairy space are looking for a milk out analog that has functionality. To your nutrition question about is there anything missing in a dairy alternative versus a whole food, the answer is that they’re different animals for different things. So pea, for example, contains fiber and when we extract protein from peas, a good amount of that fiber is left behind, right? So you could say, Hey, I would get more fiber by eating a pea than drinking a glass of Ripple at whatever equal proportions. And you’d be absolutely right. It’s also true that Ripple milk contains some really healthy fats like Omega threes, and actually balances omega three, six, and nine. And that’s actually something you won’t get from eating a pea. And so I think it’s not an either-or. We’re producing products with the best nutrition and tastes better than we think of any in the category. And that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t also eat whole foods. Whole foods are great for you and are generally just in different parts of your diet depending on what those preferences are.
LBT: How has the fundraising process been with Ripple compared to Method?
AL: The market has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, since we raised our first money for Method. And then also having success under your belt really opens a lot of doors. Being able to point to the Method business and talk about some of the commonalities between that business and what we were trying to do with Ripple Foods, as well as talk about some of the mistakes we made, what we learned from those and how we’re going to do it differently going forward, made the fundraising process a little easier with Ripple Foods.
LBT: What were some of those mistakes?
AL: How much time do we have?!
Listen to the podcast to find out the mistakes Adam and his cofounder made while running Method, and other great insights!