Eight years ago, Adam Lowry and Neil Renninger were sitting in a bar, discussing the conference they had just attended, when both admitted they were jealous of each other's careers. Lowry wanted the patented technology from Renninger's renewable energy company, Amyris, so he could extend into different product lines. Meanwhile, Renninger longed for Lowry's direct access to consumers through Method, his sustainable home-cleaning-products company.
"We just sort of shrugged our shoulders and said, 'The grass is greener on the other side of the fence,' and that was it," Lowry says. "Roll the tape forward eight years, and that conversation ended up becoming the founding vision of Ripple."
Lowry and Renninger, both 43, are the co-founders of Ripple Foods, a Berkeley, California-based startup that makes dairy-free milk, half-and-half, and yogurt from, of all things, pea protein.
Renninger, who holds a PhD in biochemical engineering, began tinkering with the idea of plant-based alternative dairy products in late 2014. Ripple was born the following year. While some options were already on the market (think: soy and almond milk), Renninger wanted to create something that tasted good and had as much protein as traditional milk.
Renninger chose to work with pea protein because it's the most abundant and accessible plant protein that isn't soy, which Lowry says has a lot of consumer baggage. Ripple's milk has eight grams of protein per one-cup serving, compared with the same amount in regular milk, one gram in almond milk, and zero grams in coconut milk. The founders tout pea-based products as the creamiest and best-tasting, too. Most other plant-based foods, Lowry says, "taste really planty--not because of the protein, but because of all the other junk that comes for the ride."
But don't mistake Ripple for being solely the pea milk company. "We are plant-agnostic," Lowry says. "It's novel that we are the first to make milk out of peas, but we could make it out of any plant source that contains protein."
Lowry declined to give specific figures, but said the company's revenue was in the tens of millions of dollars last year. Ripple's milk landed on the shelves of Whole Foods in 2016 and by last summer its sales at the organic grocer had grown 300 percent. The company also sells at Kroger, Target, and other regional chains. It has 70 employees and recently closed a Series C round that included investments from Google Ventures and Goldman Sachs, bringing its total funding to $108.6 million.
Both Lowry and Renninger have startup backgrounds. In 2000, Lowry and his friend Eric Ryan founded Method, which grew into a $100 million business. Three years later, Renninger co-founded Amyris, which made products using renewably sourced carbon from plants (for example, the company converted plant sugars into an effective and inexpensive anti-malaria drug). In 2014, two years after leaving Amyris, Renninger began developing the technology for the pea-based milk. He called Lowry, who left Method the following year to work at Ripple.
Plant-based foods rich in protein have been gaining popularity recently, thanks to trends like the paleo and ketogenic diets, which encourage people to add more protein to their meals. Additionally, technology has made it easier to create nutritious and delicious options. Startups have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to take a bite out of the alternative-protein market, which was valued at $4.2 billion in 2016 and is expected to grow 6.8 percent between 2017 and 2022, according to Research and Markets.
While there's demand for these products, Lowry says the biggest challenge is bringing down the cost of production so the company can scale quickly. Right now, it's expensive to make Ripple products because the company doesn't use synthetic biology--instead, it uses a combination of temperature, pressure, and heat to purify the pea protein. As a result, its products typically cost more than conventional dairy-based ones.
Another barrier to entry for startups in this industry is availability of supply, as relatively little U.S. cropland is dedicated to new and emerging protein sources, says Dries Zender, the principal of brand growth solutions for the consumer insights firm Spins. What's more, alternative protein companies still need wider consumer acceptance to survive.
"I don't think the future of food is exclusively plant-based, but I believe that we're in the midst of seeing a mainstream adoption," Lowry says. "I think humanity is going to realize that a big hunk of animal protein in the middle of the plate is probably not the best for us from a health standpoint."