By Glen Martin | Oct 27, 2020
Vegan pet food
As a founding member of IndieBio, a bleeding-edge California biotech accelerator, Bethencourt spent many years helping technology startups bring their products to market -- and profitability.
But after a while, the 41-year-old biochemist got a little tired of playing the counselor and advocate roles. "I'd spent a lot of energy supporting biotech entrepreneurs, but I also had entrepreneurial ambitions of my own," Bethencourt says. "I wanted my own business."
But in what space? Bethencourt instinctively followed his passions. The Bay Area resident was a devoted dog "parent," vegan, animal rights advocate, and environmentalist. Conflating all his interests, he hit on the idea on meat-free pet food as the ideal business.
"I did a lot of research, and I came away with two big concerns," says Bethencourt. "The first was food safety."
He found that euthanasia drugs were often detected in meat destined for pet foods, largely originating from horses that had been put down due to injury. "The meat is heated to kill bacteria and viruses, but the treatment doesn't affect the small molecules that comprise the drugs," he says. "That results in a huge number of recalls each year, and poses a real health threat to pets."
The second issue was sustainability. Bethencourt notes that between 25 to 30 percent of the meat produced in the United States ends up in pet kibble. "That boggled my mind," he says. "Factory farm pollution is a huge problem in this country, and pet food is essentially responsible for about one-third of it. It was clear to me that we need to find alternatives."
So in 2017, Bethencourt, fellow IndieBio co-founder Ron Shigeta and veterinarian Ernie Ward established Wild Earth: a company dedicated to the production of high protein -- but meatless -- pet food. The partners raised some working capital from a couple of investors, established a headquarters in a Berkley, California, industrial and commercial sector, and created a proprietary formula for doggie snacks based on koji, a cultivated fungus that is used to produce sake, soy sauce, and miso.
The snacks met all canine dietary requirements and sold well, but they were hardly adequate to sustain an ambitious pet food enterprise. Bethencourt -- a talented biohacker himself -- pulled out all the stops, consulting with veterinarians, veterinary nutritionists, biochemists, and food processing experts to develop a bespoke, vegan dog kibble. After switching the feedstock from koji to yeast, Wild Earth ultimately arrived at a pelletized product that hit all the necessary nutritional parameters. The company also sells canine health supplements and has expanded its line of koji snacks to three flavors: peanut butter, banana-cinnamon, and strawberry beet.
Wild Earth's products are manufactured at contract processing facilities in the Midwest; Bethencourt demurs in providing more details than that. "We've had multiple companies -- several of them quite large -- query us about our manufacturing facilities," Bethencourt says, "and we realized that they could derive a lot of information about our formulas and how the products are made simply by knowing the specific facilities where they're produced."
In other words, the pet food business is dog-eat-dog. And to remain competitive, Bethencourt concluded his company needed to scale aggressively -- and that meant more capital. So he pitched the popular TV show, Shark Tank, and was accepted as a participant. Top Shark Mark Cuban bit, kicking in $550,000 to Wild Earth
"The money was critical, but Mark's contacts and marketing acumen have been just as valuable," says Bethencourt. "He's really committed to sustainable food production, and we consult with him regularly."
Cuban's cash infusion has allowed Wild Earth to scale 1,000 percent over the last year, with the company now producing six million pounds of dog food annually. Given Wild Earth's complex production processes and ideal customer profile -- dog owners of means who are deeply concerned about personal, pet and planetary health -- it's not surprising that the products sell near the top of the dog food price pyramid.
"We're definitely in the premium category, but we're by no means the most expensive," says Bethencourt. "We're probably in the middle of the high end. Blue Buffalo [a premium meat-based kibble], for example, sells for about $45 a bag, and we charge $63 for a bag of comparable weight."
Wild Earth recently expanded from the Bay Area with a satellite operation in Durham, North Carolina, where the high-technology resources of the state's Research Triangle afford enhanced access to talent and connections.
"We're on track to scale to about $100 million in revenue within two years," Bethencourt says, "and that should allow us to sell at a lower price point. We're pretty happy with where we are. I left IndieBio because I had the itch to build something -- and so far, so good."
Challenges: It's all about scaling, Bethencourt says: "Whether you're talking about working capital, production, getting the right people -- you're always strategizing to get to the next level."
Opportunities: New products for felines. Cats have higher protein requirements than dogs -- basically, they need to eat meat. And Bethencourt is determined to give it to them. He just wants to ensure that no animals are harmed in the process. "We're investing in cell-based meat," he says, referring to the cultured meat products grown in laboratories from chicken and bovine cell lines. "Companies like Memphis Meats are producing product for human consumption, and we're planning to apply that technology to pet food."
Bethencourt says he hopes to debut a Wild Earth product with cell-based meat by 2022. "It's a huge opportunity that will allow us to give pets -- especially cats, which require meat in their diet -- the food they need and want without the environmental impacts of factory farming or industrial fishing."
Needs: Capital is an omnipresent need, but so is a qualified workforce. "That's the main reason we set up shop in the North Carolina Research Triangle," says Bethencourt. "Now, between the Bay Area and Raleigh-Durham, we have access to the two biggest technological talent hubs in the country."