Rich Kelleman didn't always plan to become the CEO of a pet food company. With a background in advertising, it wasn't until he was assigned a project, reimagining the future of Burger King, that his eyes opened to the challenges attached to conventional agriculture. Adopting a vegan lifestyle, he came home and wrestled with the idea of feeding his pets meat, and couldn't help but question if there was a better way. Fast forward to now and he is the co-founder of Bond Pet Foods, an early-stage startup that's utilising microbial fermentation technology, to reimagine how and what we feed our furry companions. We chat to Rich about the science behind their approach, and the benefits of acellular cultivation from an economic and structural standpoint. We also talk about consumer perception, the future of the startup, and the biggest challenges he's faced in his journey so far.
It turns out that microbial fermentation Bond is using to cultivate protein has been around for quite some time. In fact, it's the same technology used to make enzymes for cheese, as well as good bacteria for probiotic supplements, and even the heme used in the impossible burger!
Rich: 'It does sound to many people sci-fi. How can you make meat without harvesting it on farm and field?'
But how did the idea to use this process that has existed for decades for pet food, really come about?
Rich: 'It's not something I had in my life plan.'
With his background in advertising, Rich has spent the last 25 years working for different ad agencies.
Rich: 'Everything from diapers to motorcycles.'
It wasn't until he was assigned a project for Burger King, reimagining their future burger, that things really started changing.
Rich: 'That whole exercise with Burger King... opened my eyes to the challenges attached to conventional agriculture, especially the procurement of meat and meat ingredients for that kind of scale.'
Rich: 'I ultimately became a vegan working on Burger King, which always made for some interesting client conversations.'
A few years later him and his wife got their first dog together, and he couldn't help but wrestle with the idea of feeding his pets meat.
Rich: 'I wrestled with that tension of having to feed our dog and our cats meat, even though I knew it could and should be a great foundation to their diet.'
Rich: 'I just vegan to ask that question - could there be a better way?'
Seeing the progress in the plant-based protein space, with companies like Memphis Meats making headlines, he soon realised there could be a solution.
Rich: 'I quickly realised if a company could take a similar approach but crack the code for pets, the path to commercialisation could be easier.'
An added benefit?
Rich: 'For dogs and cats you don't have to fully re-create the meat-eating experience.'
So could this really be the way?
Before we delved deeper into the science that goes on at Bond, I wanted to know more about the context of pet food and how much meat is used in feeding our furry companions.
Rich went on to mention a study, that scientists had conducted in order to evaluate the environmental impact of pets and pet food in America. The study's top finding?
Rich: 'If America's dogs and cats were their own country, their meat consumption would rank fifth in the world.'
And that shocked me. It seemed, with so many animals slaughtered to feed other animals, that this should be something more people are actively working on creating solutions to. And they are.
Some like V-dog and Wild Earth are pioneering pet food purely on plant-based ingredients. While Bond have their own treats using plant-based foods, they're going one step beyond and utilising this clean meat technology. Why?
Rich: 'The challenge with plant-based diets is they have to be really well-calibrated. There are a number of legumes and other plant-based ingredients that have anti-nutritional factors. Even if on paper it looks like they can deliver that nutrition, it's not always as bio-available as meat, so dogs and cats don't necessarily process it in the same way.'
On top of that, pet parents see meat as the heart of a healthy diet, and it connotes quality. That idea of it being essential for pet's health, and that claim being grounded in an element of truth, meant that Rich and his team wanted to create something that didn't just meet the nutritional requirements, but was culturally satisfying too.
Since the majority of people who have pets are not vegan though, what are the drivers that may encourage them to trust lab-grown meat over their favourite animal-products?
1. Vegans are an audience of individuals, who are looking for cruelty-free choices to feed their pets.
2. There is a growing interest amongst the general public to make more consumer decisions that are sustainable, and in line with their values. There is a growing awareness on how pet foods are sourced and made, questions of what a byproduct meal is - and all of this accumulating to lead to a push for high quality, cruelty-free products.
Rich: 'Since we are harvesting our proteins in such a controlled setting, we can open that door and show them exactly how they were harvested and what's in it more precisely, so there's that transparency and traceability that I think the general public would appreciate.'
To start, the startup is focussing on cultivating chicken.
Rich: 'Chicken is the most consumed meat in the world, for both people and pets.'
Because of its abundance in products, and its popularity, it's a protein that they could gain quite a bit of traction with.
Rich: 'We could have just sequenced the chicken genome which is already understood, and worked with that.'
Instead they wanted to invite people into the process to make it more tangible - starting with the 'mother of their meat', Inga the hen from Kansas.
Rich: 'We took a biopsy from Inga, one of the hens that was on that farm, a gentle prick to collect some blood.'
Rich: 'We then basically sequenced the genome so that we could isolate the genes that express muscle or meat protein. And then what we did with that DNA was we inserted it into a microbe.'
Rich stopped to ensure us that he was oversimplifying the process.
Rich: 'We insert the DNA into the yeast, and then feed the microbe a simple nutrient broth of sugars, vitamins and minerals in a fermentation tank and as that yeast grows, the chicken protein that's inside of it also grows until it reaches a certain density. Then we harvest it from the fermenter, gently dry it down - and you have a concentrated protein that includes the chicken and a little bit of the yeast that it grew in.'
This can be considered an acellular approach, which is quite different to the processes being explored by companies looking to re-create meat for human consumption. The choice behind it?
1. Structural component - since the product is going to be tailored for pets, there isn't a need to create something that's structured exactly like a chicken breast, or resembles animal products consumed by humans
2. Unit economic standpoint - by using an acellular approach, there is no need to address some of the technological challenges that multicellular meat cultivation is facing.
While it sounds extremely cool and exciting (and it most definitely is!) one of the things that I've always worried about is how we're going to make this scaleable. How are we going to ensure that every home is able to feed their pets cultivated chicken?
Rich: 'It is a challenge for us, just like any company in the space.'
Rich: 'But it is relatively easier for us in our approach in that we're using a protocol that is well-known.'
And that means there are less challenges when it comes to central components of the protocol such as media and nutrient broth that is being fed to the yeast, with other companies having to spend more time, energy and research on creating and developing new serums.
A lot of interesting work that's being done, with Bond planning to one day have cultivated salmon, turkey, and even beef.
And on challenges in the personal side?
Rich: 'It's a lot of the cliches.'
Rich: 'When you decide to take a leap and you really believe in an idea like this with conviction, and it's you and just a small team - I think you and I, and anyone else who does this, tends to just go all in with your own personal resources to try and make it happen.'
And then there's the fundraising, and getting the idea out to the world - more importantly having them believe in it too.
It seems that despite the ups and the downs, Bond have come a long way in the few years they have been started up. If you'd like to support the business by purchasing one of their existing products (a protein treat bar), then you can follow them Instagram / Facebook @bondpetfoods, or head to their website https://www.bondpets.com/.
We hope you enjoyed this week's episode with Rich Kelleman. If there's someone you want to see featured on our show then make sure to reach out by email email@example.com or DM us @veganstartuppod on socials. Otherwise, have a great day everyone, and don't forget... to #biteforwhatsright!