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Russia goes vegetarian: Leiden alumni launched a startup to grow meat that tastes like meat


Alumni in Russia

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We wanted to create a product that imitates meat perfectly

Three young entrepreneurs are trying to get Russia and Europe eat vegetable meat - and succeedBy the end of 2010s, the richest regions of the world, namely Europe and North America, had significantly grown in need of vegetarian goods. In 2018, specialists estimated the value of the vegetarian food market saying that it had reached $12,69 bln. By 2025, it is predicted to rise up to more than $24 bln. Not only vegetarians invest their money in buying such food, but also those who believe it is healthy to reduce the amount of animal meat they consume.

One of the most promising startups who deal with vegetarian food across the globe is a company called Greenwise, established in Russia by Leiden Universiteit alumni. They invented a method that makes vegetable protein taste like animal protein and set up their own business in the town of Maloyaroslavets in the Moscow region. Now they're planning to expand production to Europe.

All three entrepreneurs - Georgy Zhelezny, Yulia Marsel and Artem Ponomarev - are younger than thirty. Having succeeded in producing plant protein, they will introduce new products like vegetarian jerky and new types of "meat" in 2020, planning to gain profit amounted to at least 60 mln roubles. The "meat" they invented is a ready-to-cook food that needs to be lied soaking in water and then cooked. Jerky can be eaten straight away or also cooked. The protein's taste would depend on how it is cooked and which species are used. Nonetheless, the protein is 100% vegetarian and consists of 35 to 58 percent of plant protein. Also, they made it "chewable" and juicy. "Chewability" is a second popular characteristic of veg meat that people pay attention to after its taste. This is something that, as the entrepreneurs believe, would allow them to become one of the most popular veg meat producers around the globe. Its texture strongly reminds of animal meat.

From the Netherlands to Maroyaroslavets

The location for the factory is not randomly chosen - there, in the town of Maroyaroslavets, is located another factory called Partner-M, which belongs to Artem's father, Vasily Ponomarev. It manufactures soy meat and products made of wheat protein. This factory provides raw materials to major meat producers that add plant protein to their meat products, therefore reducing expenses. Greenwise work with Partner-M, attracting Partner-M's employees to also work for Greenwise using "suppliers credit". 

Both Artem and Yulia studied in the Netherlands in 2016/17 academic year and obtained their Master's degrees in Law and Digital Technologies. There in Leiden, they realised that the wanted to set up a business, although not related to jurisprudence. Since the Netherlands has been focused on "green" products and recycle waste, the students got inspired and decided to bring their experience back to their home country.

Creating something new and cool

In 2018, the biggest producer of vegetarian meat - American Beyond Meat - invested $9.6 mln in investments, while it took only 200 thousand roubles for the management of Greenwise to develop a successful prototype. This is how much 1 ton of raw materials cost, which was fully spent on experiments. They spent more than a year to develop plant meat, having started in 2017. Greenwise uses domestic raw materials only, and the process is fully "green".

The technology of producing meat involves several people. First, they take plant powder to have it heated and then extruded, which changes its structure and becomes fibrous, just like real meat. Then, the next machine minces the 'meat' into pieces. Next, another machine dries the product, therefore producing jerky, which, organoleptically, really reminds of jerked beef.

Another product, so-called raw meat, looks and feels like real meat and, after being grilled, tastes like a medium steak.

In Russia, it is only Greenwise who produces such a unique product. 2018 and 2019 was perfect timing to start their business, as the year before vegetarian meat wasn't as popular and the year after the market was already flooded with competitors.

One factory to punish them all

In order to get to the stores' shelves, all products need to be properly certified. It was a struggle in the beginning, as the legal system didn't know how to categorise the food that Greenwise was producing as if it didn't exist. In the end, they decided to be certified as tinned meat, thinking that it has the most strict rules of certification. If tinned meat survives through the certification, the company will be on the safe side.

Another challenge was to convince the distributors that the customers would like vegetable meat. At first, no one, even specialised veg(etari)an shops and restaurants, wanted to discuss their possible partnership, as they were new and not yet sold anywhere else.

Even their own employees considered working for them as a punishment. Those who were hired by Artem's father to work there, being transferred from Partner-M to Greenwise for extra payment, thought that "the boss's kid was fooling around". The reaction was partly influenced by very strict rules at Greenwise - hats, shoe covers, bathrobes, masks were obligatory to follow sanitary rules, which was complicated to maintain due to unexpected issues. Also, at that time the factory didn't have the proper equipment for packaging, and the entrepreneurs were afraid to hire someone else for manual packaging, as they couldn't be sure that these people would fully maintain the cleanliness during the process. That is why they packed their products themselves.

Since bigger chains weren't willing to sell Greenwise products, Artem and Georgy chose small corner shops to do business with, visited them personally with huge bags full of Greenwise products, persuaded to give it a try. In the end, around ten corner shops agreed to offer their customers that novelty.

A lunch in Frankfurt

In spring 2018, Artem Ponomarev and Yulia Marsel attended a fair of vegetarian food Vegan Life Live in Manchester, UK. It took them only four days to sell all the products they had brought from Russia. Customers liked both the food and the story that lies behind its production. A lot of people asked why they chose food over military goods, weapons, hacker services - all the stereotypical stuff associated with the Russians. The entrepreneurs were inspired by how they were met in the European market. Customers included not only vegan and vegetarian people but also meat-eaters who liked jerky vegan meat as appetizers.

In the following autumn in Frankfurt, they attended another fair called Health Ingredients Europe, although this time they were only customers, although they did bring a bag with Greenwise food. Incidentally, they met one of the heads of ProVeg International, Albrecht Wolfmeyer, who also leads the ProVeg Incubator that supports startups producing vegetarian food.

The entrepreneurs approached Wolfmeyer during lunch. He listened to their story silently, and, when they offered him to try a bite, put Greenwise meat right into his salad. Then he asked them to tell more about what they do. Wolfmeyer liked their skills, the idea that lied behind the project, and the production capacity. On the next day. Albrecht invited the team to present their startup, and Greenwise got support from the incubator, which found the project very promising.

Thanks to the collaboration with ProVeg, the company became very popular among the industry, and it also got them to be invited to the New Food Conference in Berlin which was also attended 200 most influential people of their industry. Also, they formed a partnership with a chain of healthy food in Saint-Petersburg called Greenbox. It was then when global acknowledgment, as well as rumour mill, attracted new partners, including those chains that had previously refused to talk.

Profits started to grow exponentially. Despite their success in Russia, Greenwise sees itself as an international company that already exports its food to Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus. One of the entrepreneurs has left to live in Germany so that the company could expand its market and include Germany in it. They hope that after some time their Russian branch would work for domestic production only and they would be able to set up manufacturing in other countries.

The article is based on Meduza's materials

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