Oliver Zahn began his professional career studying the stars. The founder of Climax Foods, a startup that’s using data science to replace animal proteins with plant-based substitutes, spent years at the University of California at Berkeley with his eyes fixed firmly toward the heavens before taking up with Pat Brown and Impossible Foods as the company’s leading data scientist.
That experience focused Zahn on more terrestrial concerns and undoubtedly led the founder down the path to launching Climax Foods.
Now with $7.5 million in financing from investors including At One Ventures, founded by the GoogleX co-founder Tom Chi, along with Manta Ray Ventures, S2G Ventures, Valor Siren Ventures, Prelude Ventures, ARTIS Ventures, Index Ventures, Luminous Ventures, Canaccord Genuity Group, Carrot Capital and Global Founders Capital, Zahn is ready to take on the future of food.
The pitch to investors is similar to the one that Josh Tetrick made at Just Food (the company formerly known as Hampton Creek). It’s elegant in its simplicity — scan the natural world for proteins that have the same or better characteristics than those that are currently made by animals and make products with them.
By looking at what makes animal products so delicious, the company will find their plant-based analogs and start producing.
As with most things that depend on data science, the taxonomy is the key. So Climax Foods is building machine learning algorithms that will process and cross-reference molecular structures to find the best fit. It’s starting with cheese.
While replacing the humble wheel of cheese may not seem like a worthy adversary for an astrophysicist, companies have already raised hundreds of millions to defeat the big dairy industry.
“We are at a pivotal time where industrialization enabled explosive population growth and consumption of animal products. Today, more than 90% of all mammalian animals and more than 70% of all birds on the planet exist for the sole purpose of metabolizing plants and being turned into food,” said Zahn in a statement. “This industry is complex and wasteful, creating as much climate change as all modes of transportation combined, and using more than a third of the earth’s water and usable land. By speeding up food science innovation, Climax Foods is able to convert plants into equally craveable foods without the environmental impact.”
Joining Zahn on this quest to conquer the cheese industrial complex and its milk-made monstrousness are a few seasoned industry veterans, including co-founder Caroline Love, the company’s chief operating officer and former sales and operations executive from JUST foods; and Pavel Aronov, a Stanford-educated chemist who previously worked at the chemicals giant Thermo Fisher.
“Climax Foods is tackling the same opportunity to change the market and the food system, but they are doing it with an entirely novel technological approach. They are using data science to produce a new category of foods that will not merely compete with, but out-compete, animal products in terms of taste, nutritional density, and price,” said Sanjeev Krishnan, one of the largest investors in the plant protein space and chief investment officer of S2G Ventures. “The machine intelligence approach Climax Foods is pioneering is critical for harnessing the vast number of ways raw ingredients and natural processes can be used to create the ultimate digital recipes.”
Krishnan would know. He’s an investor in Beyond Meat, the most successful public offering of a plant-based protein replacement company.