Co-founder of Swiss startup Planted Foods, Pascal Bieri, explains what makes a start-up successful and whether “Planted” stands a chance against the Goliaths of the food industry.
Four natural ingredients are all it takes to make chicken. You have read correctly. Maybe not a traditional chicken, or, as Pascal Bieri would call it, not a “dead animal”, but a Planted chicken.
The Zurich-based start-up Planted Foods produces meat substitutes from pea proteins, pea fibers, canola oil and water. Its appearance, consistency and taste reveal nothing about its non-meat origins. Their success story is testimony to the fact that their product is healthy, tasty and affordable: the start-up currently produces up to 500 kilograms of meat per day and employs over 20 people. Planted Foods was founded in 2019 by Pascal Bieri, Christoph Jenny and food engineers Lukas Böni and Eric Stirnemann. They concluded their first round of financing in 2019, raising seven million Swiss francs. Their investors include big names such as vegetarian food entrepreneur Rolf Hiltl, entrepreneur Stephan Schmidheiny, Denner heir Philippe Gaydoul and the ETH Zurich Foundation. Now even Coop, one of Switzerland's largest supermarket chains, is stocking its shelves with Planted chicken.
How are four young entrepreneurs in their early thirties managing to hold their own against giants such as Nestlé? And how much ideology is behind the business? Are they all die-hard vegans? Co-founder Pascal Bieri talked to us about his company, his philosophy and his motivation.
Mr. Bieri, let’s start at the beginning: as a Co-founder, what was the motivation behind Planted Chicken?
Our goal from the beginning was to produce “meat” directly from plants. We had been tinkering with the technology behind that for a long time. When we realized that it’s possible to produce a healthy, high-protein, tasty and sustainable product without additives, the logical next step for us was to bring that product to the market and to people. Seeing people enjoy our plant-based chicken is always a great experience.
So, your motivation was more practical than ideological.
We're certainly not the hardcore vegans who shout: “don't eat animals anymore!” Our message is: There is an alternative to your chicken dish that is healthier, tastier and also more sustainable. In other words, we can now cook delicious dishes that previously contained a dead animal. So yes, ideology is certainly part of the motivation, but we’re not aggressive about it. We simply want to offer people the opportunity to try something new and replace the meat in the food they eat.
So, you’re more pragmatic than ideological. Having said that, do you think that as an entrepreneur, you have to have a vision to get your own start-up up and running?
It’s certainly possible without having one, but it’s difficult. Without a vision, your energy runs out quickly. What we notice, for example, is that our people really pull together because we have a clear vision and are working together to achieve change. If you can kindle that kind of fire and people are intrinsically motivated, everything becomes easier. As a team, if you see purpose in your work, you’re much more willing to go the famous extra mile – which you have to do at a start-up. Especially nowadays, we all want a job that has more meaning to it than just earning a living. That's why start-up jobs are often so attractive for young people looking for meaning. At companies that say very specifically what they want to change in society.
Speaking of intrinsic motivation: in your experience, what else does it take to be successful as an entrepreneur?
Staying consistently true to yourself is certainly important. So is openly admitting when mistakes have been made. I would recommend trying to address problems as fact-based and soberly as possible without forgetting your own values. For example: if you realize you have to bend one of your core values to get your project going, then it’s probably the wrong thing to do. If, on the other hand, you realize that an initiative, when viewed objectively, is not producing the desired results, then admit that you made the wrong decision and take a different approach.
The big names in the meat-alternative business are currently Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Nestlé. Do small start-ups stand a chance in such company?
They do. Big companies usually offer soy-based products that in our opinion, miss the mark: although they often taste like animal meat, they are full of additives and flavoring. If we can build our vision and values together with our community and put that out there, then as a start-up, we definitely stand a chance against a large corporate. I’m currently seeing that with our Coop launch.
How do you mean that exactly?
Our Planted chicken just hit the shelves at Coop nationwide. As part of the launch, we are driving around Switzerland in a food truck and distributing Planted chicken tacos for free. This gives us a chance to talk to people and to get rid of any stigma they might have attached to food tech and our plant-based meat. We have a story to tell and stand by our vision and values. I believe that as a large corporate, you approach the market in a completely different way, you come across differently and are often too far removed from people. As a start-up, we can and must take full advantage of these kinds of opportunities.
We’ve talked about the advantages that start-ups have. What has been your biggest challenge so far at Planted?
Or your biggest challenges?
There have been a number. I think the biggest challenge is always pooling the team, the energy and the strengths and steering them in the desired direction. Everyone is super motivated, but they all run in different directions. You have to focus that energy and set priorities. It’s extremely important to get the reasons behind the next step across. Another major challenge – in the traditional sense – is scale. We started out with just a few kilos per hour and day, but now we are able to supply a relatively large market. This requires technological and production steps to be adapted, new processes, and often different ways of thinking, and of course a larger supply chain to support the whole thing. These are very practical, operational issues, but they also go with the territory.
Pascal Bieri was a speaker at the last Alumni Event of the LGT Next Generation Academy (NGA). The NGA offers young entrepreneurs and investors the opportunity to consolidate their knowledge of finance and asset management. The NGA is also a platform for international exchange and presents inspiring lectures and workshops on the topics of entrepreneurship and innovation.