In 2009, Ph.D. student Mark Kozubal was studying the acidic hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, with support from NASA. He was searching for the types of organisms that might be able to thrive in an environment outside of Earth. Kozubal spotted a microbe, which was soon dubbed MK-7, as it was the seventh organism he found. 

A sample of it was taken, with permission, from the park. Using a fermentation process, that microbe produces an animal-free protein packed with the nine essential amino acids.

The protein, Fusarium strain flavolapis, or “Fy” for short, is the basis for a new food brand called Nature’s Fynd that is hitting the market soon and has the potential to shake up the multibillion-dollar traditional meat and dairy industries with minimal impact on the environment.

The industries are already in flux as meatless startups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods gain momentum and steal market share from old-school food marketers, which have responded by creating their own environmentally friendly brands. As result, the space has gotten more competitive, prompting new marketing investments as the brands battle to win over consumers concerned about their health, animals and the environment.

Nature’s Fynd is still in its infancy and has yet to spend money on marketing. But the brand has lured major investors and interest from former executives at big food companies known for prioritizing advertising. That includes Karuna Rawal, who joined the company in 2019 as chief marketing officer, and its first marketing hire, after getting a call from a recruiter. 

“We’re like microbe farmers, basically,” she says. 

Rawal worked on products including Jif peanut butter and Folgers coffee during her tenure at Procter & Gamble and on brands including Sunny Delight and Sara Lee as a consultant. At Leo Burnett, she was a lead strategist on the P&G’s Always “Like a Girl” campaign and led the agency’s shopper marketing arm, Arc Worldwide.

After working for and with large companies, the potential to create a brand and tinker with product strategy from scratch excited her. While interviewing for the position, she was also speaking with companies in the more established consumer packaged goods arena, where people were trying to overcome category declines. “There was a lot of going against the current to try to figure out how to make things work,” says Rawal.

The startup, she decided, offered the opportunity to go into a category with a tailwind rather than headwinds. The lifelong vegetarian did taste tests before she signed on. “I said ‘I’m not going to take this job if I don’t get to try the product,’” she recalls. 

Another person who has sampled Nature’s Fynd’s products is board member Tony Vernon, the former Kraft Foods Group CEO, who invested his own funds in the company.

“A lot of companies talk about mission. This is really mission,” says Vernon, who has spent his career prioritizing marketing messages that resonated with consumers at Johnson & Johnson, where he worked on brands including Tylenol and Splenda, and later at Kraft, where he led the North America business and then the entire company upon its split from Mondelēz International.

“The thing that food companies struggled with is how do you get into health and wellness without jeopardizing the amazing brands that you have that might not have those values,” says Vernon.

He foresees Nature’s Fynd disrupting an existing food industry that has great brands, he says, “but is using up scarce resources.” 

The company claims it uses 99 percent less land and 87 percent less water than traditional beef production and emits 99 percent fewer greenhouse gases. 

“If they can do something better than how animals can do it, then let’s bring it on,” says Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, which represents brands in the fast-growing category. U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods rose 11.4 percent to $5 billion in 2019, according to the association’s data, and the rate of growth has only increased since then.

‘We don’t need sun, rain or soil’

Nature’s Fynd has big backers including two strategic investors from the food industry: ingredients manufacturer ADM and French dairy giant Danone. Additional investors read like a who’s who of environmental activism and deep pockets: Generation Investment Management, whose chairman is Al Gore; and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, whose funders include Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson and Bill Gates. 

Products featuring Fy, which itself is low in fat and has no cholesterol, might launch under the Nature’s Fynd brand name as soon as 2021. Before any products hit stores, Nature’s Fynd is starting to market itself as “a food company for optimists.” The company has not yet hired a creative shop, though it has worked on projects with agencies on design, PR and its website.

Marketing dollars have poured into the plant-based sector, with Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—each backed by a lineup of celebrity endorsers and investors—standing out among meatless brands. The category overall has gained more space in grocery stores and people’s kitchens during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nature’s Fynd was originally called Sustainable Bioproducts before taking on the new name in March. The name change coincided with two major announcements: an $80 million round of Series B funding and the opening of a new manufacturing facility in Chicago, in a building that used to be a bustling hog processing facility during the city’s stockyards heyday.

All Nature’s Fynd’s microbe needs to do is feed off of a simple sugar. The way Rawal explains it, the process is much like when sugar is added to help yeast grow when making bread. And that fermentation happens indoors, on trays, with minimal resources.

“We don’t need sun, rain or soil to grow Fy,” Rawal says, contrasting it with other food sources like cattle—which need grass to eat and space to roam before various forms hit dinner plates—or soybeans and peas, which require farmland before they find their ways into vegan products. “It’s also not a very picky eater,” she adds.

A food made from a microbe draws big-name backers in bid to be next industry disruptor

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