NotCo, which recently formed a JV with Kraft Heinz to develop a range of co-branded products (starting with ‘NotCheese’) said its aim is to enable “other CPG brands, ingredient suppliers and technology providers to leverage Giuseppe for their own innovation purposes and exponentially accelerate the transformation of the plant-based industry.”
NotCo – which has raised $420m since it was founded in 2015 - introduced plant-based products to multiple countries in Latin America before entering the US market in 2020 with plant-based NotMilk. It has since introduced NotBurger and NotChicken to the US, and teamed up with Kraft Heinz to launch NotCheese.
It will continue to operate its branded business, NotCo Food, offering products including NotMilk, NotBurger, and NotChicken through retail and food service businesses nationwide, but says it has become clear that its technology could have a broader impact.
“These [new] partnerships will help diversify and accelerate our impact while scaling the accessibility of truly delicious plant-based options to further propel the industry forward. We’re opening our technology to all CPG brands, ingredient suppliers and technology providers who can be a part of the transformation of the industry."
Artificial intelligence and plant-based formulation: Meet Giuseppe
Giuseppe – the name given to NotCo’s artificial intelligence platform – is integral to NotCo's product development process, claimed CEO Matias Muchnick in a recent call with FoodNavigator-USA.
“We try to understand in a very profound way what animal products are; not just the molecular information, the composition of the protein, but every dimension of the product, the spectral information, the physiochemical composition, the sensory information."
And Giuseppe is then tasked with recreating this experience with plants, crawling through vast datasets (from internet recipes to USDA’s National Agricultural Library, to databases storing FTIR, gas chromatography, texturometer, physiochemical/viscosity/pH info) to make connections that “are not logical for humans.”
'We're already partnering with a big flavor house where they are adopting our system in their R&D processes to improve, accelerate and enable new discoveries'
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA earlier this year, NotCo co-founder and CTO Karim Pichara added: "Gathering data on flavors is not new, but we're the first company that created an unstructured data set that allowed the training of an AI algorithm specifically designed for modeling flavor compounds at the molecular level, especially the volatile compounds, and how we describe flavors according to the words we assign for the names of the flavor notes.
“So there’s a mapping between the molecular world and word descriptions for flavor notes to understand how to cross that with all the potential ingredients, essences and oils we also have in our database.
“We're already partnering with a big flavor house where they are adopting our system in their R&D processes to improve, accelerate and enable new discoveries."
He added: “In the case of the NotChicken burger, we’re using peach and corn, and those ingredients came out of this new part of Giuseppe.”
AI: All of these things could be done by humans, but they take years to make small improvements, we’re doing this in weeks'
But Giuseppe is not just good at spewing out unexpected ingredients in NotCo products - such as pineapple and cabbage in NotMilk (which Giuseppe identified as a combination that would generate lactones, aroma compounds found in dairy products) cocoa powder in NotBurger, and peach in NotChicken), stressed Pichara.
“Everything is part of a formula, the process and the ratios, as well as the ingredients. You change the ratios and you can create a huge improvement in the final formula. The AI is teaching us things and we are improving over tim
One area NotCo is working on is protein structure prediction, he said: “Understanding protein structure in the food world is very important. Many of the functional properties in animal products come out of the structure of the protein, so the only way to come up with plant-based products that have the same behavior is to understand the 3D structure of proteins and understand how the structure changes over time as the protein is being denatured with the different processes.
“So we’re actively working on using AI to understand what happens with these desired proteins over time in different formulas under different processing conditions, to see how we can achieve the same behavior and functional properties with only plant-based sources. So [the dairy protein] casein is obviously one of the proteins we’re looking at [matching with plant-based alternatives].”
‘What matters to retailers is are you going to drive profitability or not? Are you bringing real innovation to the market and can you drive growth?’
But with slowing sales in some plant-based categories in the US as some less engaged shoppers have dipped out of the set in a period of surging inflation, does the world need another plant-based chicken/milk/burger?
The answer is yes - but only if they’re better than what’s already on the market - says Muchnick, who argued in a recent interview that the meat alternatives category is “saturated with me-too products from companies that don’t own any IP."
The fact that NotCo products are gaining traction in other meat-centric markets such as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile (where Burger King now offers NotChicken and NotBurger) has also opened doors in the US, said Muchnick, while NotCo has also “proven itself” in the US market with NotMilk [already in 10,000 stores since launching in 2020] and NotBurger [now in several hundred US locations including Sprouts and Whole Foods since launching in early summer 2022].
“NotChicken has been validated in other markets, which gives people confidence, but retailers are also aware that NotBurger and NotMilk are performing incredibly well here in the US. What matters to them is are you going to drive profitability or not? Are you bringing real innovation to the market and can you drive growth?”
‘As Pat Brown has said, plant-based burgers are not Twinkies’
That said, “Macroeconomic pressure is having a detrimental impact” on the category given that plant-based alternatives are generally more expensive than their animal-based counterparts, said Muchnick, who echoed comments made by Impossible Foods CEO Peter McGuinness about the need for better messaging around the benefits of plant-based foods.
“The plant-based industry has been bad at communicating the upsides” about sustainability and nutrition, he added, including NotCo in his critique.
“The animal industry has been very successful at putting out propaganda that plant-based is overly processed. But as [Impossible Foods founder] Pat Brown has said, plant-based burgers are not Twinkies.”
* The $70m round was led by Princeville Capital, and includes existing backers Bezos Expeditions, Tiger Global, L Catterton, Kaszek Ventures, Future Positive and The Craftory. Aside from Princeville Capital, new investors to the Series D1 round include Marcos Galperin, founder and CEO of MercadoLibre.