“Most of my experience starting Nowadays has been seeing big brick walls and trying to run through them,” declares Max Elder, co-founder and CEO of plant-based foods company Nowadays.
He’s not one to be deterred by such challenges, though. From the earliest points of his career, Elder has consistently taken on difficult problems our global food system faces. He’s presented his research on animal ethics for a University of Oxford think thank. For years he led Institute for the Future’s Food Futures Lab, which brought researchers, strategists and others together to develop ideas for more sustainable food systems.
Over the last couple years, his primary role has been leading Nowadays. Earlier this year, the startup entered the growing plant-based chicken nugget space that also includes the likes of Daring, Simulate and others. Nowadays is available in retail and has so far raised $10.5 million in funding. [Disclosure: AFN’s parent company, AgFunder, is an investor in Simulate.]
Below, Elder discusses the ups and downs along the way, and what excites him about alternative protein. He also explains why we need solutions for a more sustainable food system right now.
AFN: How did you go from leading Food Futures Lab to starting Nowadays?
ME: When I turned 21, I became a fellow [at a] think tank at Oxford. I was doing work on the intersection of animal agriculture and sustainable foods, and animal ethics. I thought that the ideas were amazing but would take too long to have impact at scale. I saw all of these systems crumbling around me — both planetary and food systems.
I spent a year, in 2015, thinking the best thing to do would be to start a cultured meat company. Back then there were two incorporated companies in the world working on cultured meat. Over that year, though, I got much more bullish on plants as potential solutions to this problem.
Since I had a very strong perspective on the future of food, I got a job working for Food Futures Lab doing consulting, long-term strategy and innovation consulting across the food value chain. I did that for almost five years, and thought that I could help big companies adopt more healthy, humane and sustainable practices through Futures’ Strategic Foresight lens. Then I realized that there was amazing work done but that we needed to move the needle faster than what I could do.
I’m quite impatient. I see a lot of problems around me and want to spend all of my days trying to have the highest impact possible. And I eventually realized that was in starting an alternative protein company designed for the mainstream by making delicious, nutritious and affordable plant-based meats.
AFN: Why switch from cultivated meat to plant-based meat?
ME: One in five deaths globally is diet related. Today, about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions are related to agriculture and its land use. We kill more animals for food every year than the total number of Homo sapiens to have ever existed in history. Broiler chickens right now, if we paused time, account for three times the biomass of every single other bird on earth combined. Seventy-five to 80% of all antibiotics produced globally are fed to farmed animals prophylactically because they’re raised in such horrible conditions that they will be sick and die otherwise.
These systems are on the edge of collapse. We have very little arable land on which to grow more food. Chicken is the most efficient land animal and it takes 9 calories of feed to produce one calorie of meat. That’s an 800% loss system and that’s the most efficient land animal we have. And we’re headed towards a population of 9.8 or so billion people. We don’t have time to develop moon shots. We need to develop “earth shots,” and we need to involve those products with existing supply chains with existing feedstocks, ingredients, scale, manufacturing technologies, and existing distribution channels. I don’t think we have 15 years to figure this problem out.
AFN: What are a couple challenges you’ve encountered along the way?
ME: Challenges? Quite frankly, they’re almost more of a norm than than anything else.
We deal with everything from massive supply chain challenges to challenges with proteins and consistent supply of ingredients. Quotidian things like getting enough dry ice to ship product. These past couple of weeks, we’ve been getting a lot of phishing attacks and pretty malicious software attacks, which is surprising for such a small, early-stage company like ours. We have challenges raising capital, finding talent.
No matter what, all of this stuff is pretty hard. And in fact, the deck is pretty stacked against you [as a startup]. It was hard to raise the first amount of money to even just get us off the ground. Most of my experience starting Nowadays has been seeing big brick walls and trying to run through them.
For us right now, there are a couple of challenges on the top of our mind. The external market is a big challenge for any startup right now. In particular, it’s been pernicious for alternative protein companies, mainly because there’s been a massive influx of capital that has funded a lot of companies around the world. Given the market dynamics, and given the performance of a few small number of them and in the market, investors are confused. They are now trying to understand how to deploy capital strategically in an environment flooded with “me too” and very undifferentiated brands.
AFN: What excites you about the alternative protein space?
ME: I’m really excited about the innovation that focuses on solving real pain points in the mainstream market. That’s really innovation that makes alternative protein products healthier for consumers. The number one primary motivating factor for flexitarians to occasionally choose an alternative is health. The next wave of innovation is really focusing on cleaner labels, and I think those products will be able to drive the kind of loyalty and repeat purchase rates that are required to scale alternative protein businesses.
I’m also excited about soy-free products. Soy is horribly undifferentiated in the market. From a technology standpoint it has very little freedom to operate when you look at how to take soy and turn it into something that’s a meat analogue. And soy is an allergen, so it continues to spur moral panic in consumers minds. Soy is a super industrialized ingredient. It’s really easy to use, it’s available everywhere, it’s high in protein.
The other thing on my mind is companies developing new forms of manufacturing. There’s a rush of brands to the market, but they aren’t driving a lot of innovation on how to make these products. The worst thing right now is consumers navigating a grocery store aisle or a restaurant menu, trying to make sense of what kind of value all of these products can bring to them. In my mind, the long-term sustainability and the category for all of these companies requires one to have a truly defensible manufacturing platform. So these kinds of like enabling technologies are going to get a lot of investor interest moving forward and will enable companies to have better impact at scale. That’s what we’ve been focused on at nowadays: building a proprietary technology platform to manufacture whole cuts of clean label plant based meat that’s soy free.
AFN: Any advice for other founders in the space?
ME: What advice do you have for other founders in the space?
There’s so much opportunity for scaling healthy, humane and sustainable solutions. That path doesn’t necessarily need to be starting an alternative protein company.
I really think we need to ask ourselves, what problem are we solving for for mainstream consumers and with that market size because so far, I think most alternative protein companies have made sustainable and humane products. Unfortunately, very few people are climate warriors at breakfast or animal rights activist at lunch.
For example, I think if you ask 100 Parmesan cheese eaters tomorrow whether they’re concerned about the climate impact of their Parmesan, you’d get 100 answers that say “no.” So we need to build products that actually solve problems with animal products.
Last, I think, is to figure out why you’re interested in the category and double down on that. There are a lot of people in this space for lots of different reasons, some of which are to make a lot of money. Some people care about removing animals from food supply chains, because of the suffering we inflict on them when we farm them. Some people really care about sustainability. And some people will care about human health and will care about racial justice. This is a really intersectional movement. Regardless of what you do and how you do it, always be very clear on your Northstar. That’ll help guide all the decisions that you make and where you go and what you end up doing. So radical clarity on where you’re trying to go and radical flexibility about how you get there is really important.