Eight years ago, when recent college grads Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi were introduced by their mutual acquaintance Isha Datar, they had each been considering the same idea: Could they use technology to make alternative dairy products that tasted like the real thing? (Pandya, who had recently switched to a vegan diet, was inspired after eating a bagel with a particularly bad plant-based cream cheese.)
The three cofounders ended up launching a startup now called Perfect Day, which has raised more than $1 billion to date. The company was the first to use precision fermentation to make dairy protein—identical to the protein made by a cow—without animals, a key step to helping products like alternative cheese melt in the right way and have a characteristically cheesy texture. But it’s now also helped spawn a small industry of other startups working on similar products, all with the aim to help reduce the environmental and ethical challenges of the current food system.
The startup makes animal-free ingredients for other food companies, and a line of its own products, from ice cream to cream cheese to protein powder. By programming microbes with the DNA to produce dairy protein instead of raising cows on a farm, the environmental footprint of the ingredient shrinks: In a lifecycle assessment last year, the company calculated that its animal-free whey protein reduced energy consumption by up to 60%, cut emissions by as much as 97%, and reduced water use by up to 99% compared to whey that comes from dairy. The animal-free whey protein is the general excellence winner of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards.
In 2021, the startup sold its first million pints of its ice cream, a brand called Brave Robot, through its consumer brands entity The Urgent Company. “We calculated that even just that achievement had saved the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from driving a million miles,” Pandya says. “That’s just the first year of the first product of the first business unit of Perfect Day.” If the company could replace as much as 5% of the dairy protein consumed in the U.S., he says, it would eliminate roughly the same emissions as 140,000 round-trip cross-country flights.
Part of the challenge now is scaling up—the ingredients are cost-effective to make at a large scale, but building new plants for production is both costly and time-consuming. “We’re talking about a three-plus-year timeline, and probably $300 million dollars that has to be sunk into a project that won’t even start for three years,” Pandya says. “It’s pretty difficult for companies that are still venture-backed to be able to finance infrastructure projects like that.”
It helps that other startups are now working on similar products, from Remilk to New Culture to Change Foods. “There’s a whole industry coming up behind us, leveraging similar technologies where this kind of infrastructure will turn out to be not just purpose-built for Perfect Day, but can actually lead to an industry-wide, category-wide adoption of the kinds of technologies,” he says.
The company is now working deliberately to help the industry grow, with a new “enterprise biology” service for other startups. “We’re essentially offering our scale-up and straight engineering services to other companies in hopes of closing that gap, quite frankly, between us and companies coming up behind us,” Pandya says. “Because we don’t really view it as competition. This rising tide really is needed to lift all the boats. Especially as we think about plant building, and getting into the market, getting consumers to understand what we’re doing, it’ll only help us to have more companies that are closer in stage to us.”