Paulig’s venture arm PINC has invested in Dutch plant-based cheese start-up Willicroft in a €2m pre-series A investment round alongside Rockstart and other co-investors Döhler and Feast Ventures.
The global vegan cheese market was valued at $2.43 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 12.6% from 2022 to 2030, according to Grand View Research. But while the category is certainly expanding, it is also competitive and fragmented with a large number of smaller brands competing for shelf space. So, what made Willicroft stand out from the pack to the investment team at PINC?
“We think there is a gap in the plant-based cheese market where consumer expectations are not yet fully met. Willicroft stands out with their delicious product range and their overall take on sustainability,” venture head Marika King told FoodNavigator. .
“In plant-based cheese it’s challenging to find a decent flavour profile, but Willicroft has a whole range of different type of cheeses that are all very tasty. They are also the first European plant-based cheese company to have been B Corp certified and one of the first to base their production on beans and pulses. They collaborate with farmers to support more sustainable cultivation and are very focused on sustainability in their whole production chain, from sourcing to packaging.”
Combining taste and sustainability
A focus on superior product performance combined with sustainability is a good fit for privately-owned Paulig, which ‘actively seeks’ food and beverage innovations that support the health of people and planet. "Paulig wants to build a new, sustainable food culture that enables the wellbeing of the planet, and this investment supports that goal," King explained.
Willicroft’s plant-based cheese is made by combining ‘age-old techniques’ with ‘planet-friendly’ ingredients like beans and pulses. King suggested that the use of beans and pulses represents a fresh take in the plant-based cheese sector, offering unique functional and nutritional benefits.
“Willicroft bases their products on beans and pulses when plant-based cheese products have traditionally been either fat- or nut-based. Their cheese has more protein and fibre than other alternatives available," we were told. “Willicroft is by far the tastiest plant-based cheese range we have come across. It has a more nutritious and sustainable ingredient list than most alternatives available today."
Co-founder Brad Vanstone comes from a dairy background, his grandparents moved to Devon and built a successful dairy business to ‘help feed the nation’ after World War II. But ‘even the happiest cows’ still have a negative environmental impact, he believes. The start-up is the third plant-based cheese company in Europe to complete a life cycle assessment of their product and the results showed that, comparted to cheese based on nuts, beans and pulses are ‘more sustainable’, King added.
“Our new bean-based range produces up to five times less CO2 than the dairy alternatives it's replacing,” the Co-founder and CEO detailed.
Willicroft also collaborates with farmers to provide more sustainable, locally produced ingredients, such as white beans.
This relationship with its suppliers was an important point for fellow investor Rockstart. Mark Durno, Managing Partner of AgriFood at the global early stage investor, suggested Willicroft is 'taking plant-based dairy alternatives to the next level' in its approach to supply chain.
“Alongside making delicious products, they are helping farmers to transition to sustainable production by enabling a local supply chain without the need for monocropping or highly processed ingredients. They have spent the last years understanding their consumers and their footprint, and the next phase will be to put those learnings to scale," he noted.
Eyeing European expansion
Another advantage Willicroft enjoys is its broad product portfolio, which includes a range of different cheese ranges from soft spreads to hard cheese.
“Willicroft offers a broad range of different plant-based cheeses, from which already products like Greek white, Italian aged and cheese sauce are available - and more is in the making. Their products are by far the most delicious we have come across both when it comes to taste and mouthfeel, including aftertaste,” King told us.
"They have especially paid attention to taste and mouthfeel, alongside sustainable, scalable production."
With this funding, the company will expand into new markets like the Nordics, the UK and Germany.
“With this new raise locked in we'll be bringing our delicious, beautifully branded range of plant-based cheese to three new markets: the UK, Germany and the Nordics, bringing in senior talent and continuing on our quest to become the world's first net positive plant-based cheese company. Our new investor group can help open up a number of new markets whilst also fast-tracking our products' continued evolution,” Vanston revealed.