As a teenager in Munich, Oliver Zahn made the difficult choice to go vegetarian after learning about the horrors of animal agriculture. But the way he sees it, others won’t simply do the same.
That is, he says, unless the alternatives are nearly identical in flavour, texture, aroma and, crucially, price. Those are the selling points of Climax Foods, his Berkeley-based startup that has raised around US$26mil (RM112.20mil) to market plant-based substitutes for foods that are among the most difficult to mimic, such as aged cheeses.
The former head of data science at Google and lead data scientist at Impossible Foods said his expertise gives his startup an edge over other plant-based creations. It was a leap of faith for the founder, who wasn’t sure if he could run his own business until he realised his home kitchen lab creations could have real potential on the market.
“What does an animal do?” Zahn said. “Fundamentally, a cow just eats a bunch of plants and converts them into milk and meat. I was thinking, is there another way to achieve that, to make foods directly from plants? It didn’t strike me as some weird Franken-food – humans have always tinkered with what they eat.”
Here’s how it works: The company collects reams of data from rare plants found all over the world and feeds the information to machine-learning models that predict exactly how the foods would hold up against the real thing.
Then, the company’s labs in Berkeley, California, synthesise the foods that Zahn said have been mesmerising early testers. The initial lineup is comprised entirely of cheeses: brie, blue, feta and chévre.
Zahn’s long-term vision is to bring the foods to market at prices that compete with real meat and dairy products. And after raising enough capital to scale its business model, Climax Foods is readying to sell its inventions to restaurants.
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why start by offering food to high-end restaurants instead of putting foods in people’s refrigerators right away?
A: We wanted to launch a little bit like Tesla and start with what we call “moonshot” categories of foods, things that are impossible to create. People have made milk or ground beef before, but a cheese like a blue or a brie that tastes exactly like real cheese is a lot harder. That blows people’s minds. Having a car that performs like a Corolla – I actually love Corollas! – is not as exciting as having a super-fancy sports car.
In the case of food, what is considered to be a more sophisticated, complicated product than a high-end cheese? The idea is we can make that while sourcing the ingredients organically and locally. And we can offer it at the same price as dairy, and it tastes the same, it’s a good way to show off how powerful this technology is.
And then, at scale, we will be selling to big dairy manufacturers that have heard of us because they know what we’re capable of doing. It will be better for people’s health and the environment, but it will taste the same.
We also can’t produce as much right away, so partnering with high-end chefs and producing these gourmet cheeses is a way to do it.
Q: How did you go about collecting data from …….