When I arrived in Cambridge, I was a fresh-faced Plant Science PhD graduate eager to make some big scientific discoveries, excited to do things that no one had ever done before. At that time I had no solid idea in mind about starting a business, but I write today as a plant-based Food Start-up Founder and CEO, having done just that.
Part of the story in moving from those innocuous beginnings to where I am today was taking part in the Ignite programme at CJBS. By the time I joined the programme I had been in Cambridge for four years and had shifted my focus from academia toward commerce. But I had joined Ignite still with the idea of using the plant science background to do something brand new – just this time in a new domain. While Plant Science isn’t the obvious route into a new venture, that innocuousness really is the foundation of why we at Supplant have managed to do something different. Innocuous beginnings breed the type of unexpected outcomes that are the crux of building innovative solutions to the world’s problems, which is the heart of what the Ignite programme seeks to do.
Today the company I lead – Supplant – is a team of passionate scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators using cutting edge science to solve major problems affecting our food system. Our core offering is what we call Sugars from Fiber, targeted to replace cane sugar across our food system. We make Sugars from Fiber by extracting the low-calorie sugars found in the most abundant source of sugars in nature: plant fiber.
In a space replete with unnatural approaches to address the sugar problem, we’re doing something special in a number of ways. By using dietary fiber as a raw material we’re not only entirely plant-based, but we’re also using the only macronutrient that almost all westerners don’t eat enough of (almost everyone gets enough of the others!). But there’s another angle to what we’re doing that’s completely new. The part of the problem that’s remained seriously recalcitrant to previous attempts is sugar reduction in food as opposed to drinks – especially mainstream food products. You can see evidence for this ‘food : drink’ divide across the media, e.g. here, here and here. Because our ingredient comprises sugars, we can make cookies, cakes and candies that look and feel like they’re supposed to. But because they’re sugars from fiber, they can do so without the negative health effects that cane sugar has.
So having joined the Ignite course to learn about innovating and doing things no one had ever done before, how would I reflect on how we managed to do something different to other people in the food industry? After all, it’s not like we discovered a problem no one else had seen!
It’s a hard question to answer – there’s no counterfactual to look to, and you can’t directly ask why everyone else missed what you got. That being said, there are a few things to point toward to answer it. The easiest one (the one I tend to give when people ask the question) hinges on siloed thinking. I heard, from people in the food industry, the problem of reducing sugar in food as opposed to drinks. And I even heard from them what a solution to that might look like – they just didn’t know how to make it.
My realisation was that actually people do know how to make that, and not only do they know how to make it, but the science is robust and scalable and well-understood. And the only reason that the food industry hadn’t discovered it was because they don’t know this area of plant science, and the only reason that plant scientists aren’t resolving the world of tooth decay is because they don’t understand the nuances of the problems that the food industry is facing. So the answer was just in putting two-and-two together: a well-understood and deeply felt problem in the food industry on one hand and a well-understood and robust science on the other.
Connecting disparate areas of knowledge is a common theme among entrepreneurial success stories, including in many of my fellow students on the Ignite course. My recommendation to students on, and wanting to join, the Ignite programme would be to look at the intersection of your interests for opportunities. And if you’re interested in what we’re doing at Supplant we’re recruiting for passionate people to join us right now, so do reach out.