Formerly Senior Brand Manager for plant-based brands at Danone and the the force behind major recent launches at Silk and So Delicious, Irina Gerry has recently joined the management team at U.S.-Australian food tech Change Foods, which uses microbial precision fermentation technology to develop animal-free dairy alternatives. The young startup recently closed an oversubscribed US$875,000 pre-seed round, news broken by Green Queen last month and is the first company of its kind with a base of operations in Asia-Pacific. Gerry is now on the frontlines of the alternative protein industry, working to bring consumers new sustainable, safe and cruelty-free substitutes as she takes on the Chief Marketing Officer position at Change Foods. We had a chat with Gerry, who told us her story and shared why she’s decided to take on her new position in this exciting space.
GQ: What made you leave Danone and go for a startup?
IG: I had a great experience working on leading plant-based brands like Silk and So Delicious at Danone. This is where I learned food marketing fundamentals. Over the past several years, I’ve had an amazing experience, learning from great mentors and leading major initiatives. I’ve launched new products, led new marketing campaigns, and developed a deep understanding of consumer needs and motivations. This is where I found my purpose and my passion. To drive broad-scale adoption of plant-based lifestyle, by giving people delicious and accessible options.
Working at a large food company provided tremendous resources to drive this mission. Companies like Danone play a very important part in driving the sustainable future revolution. They can use their scale and distribution networks to democratize the trends and bring plant-based foods to every grocery store in the country.
Startup companies, like Change Foods, provide the initial catalyst that sets new trends in motion. They are the spark that starts the fire.
However, these companies do not operate in a vacuum. Startup companies, like Change Foods, provide the initial catalyst that sets new trends in motion. They are the spark that starts the fire.
While plant-based sector has firmly established itself on our plates and in our business, over the past year it became clear, that a new wave of sustainable food revolution was coming fast. Cell-based and fermentation-based technology is coming on the scene, and its potential to change the world is tremendous.
I read mind-blowing and hopeful reports from RethinkX and GFI, outlining these new technologies and how they can allow us to pave a way forward, toward a sustainable future.
It is predicted that we will see more change in the next 10 years than we’ve seen in the last 10,000. The authors of a 2019 report from RethinkX predict that the US dairy and cattle industry will collapse by 2030, as microscopic microbial protein factories disrupt the food system as we know it. We are at the cusp of the Second Domestication of plants and animals.
GQ: What attracted you to Change Foods?
IG: A silver lining of the pandemic, is that it opened our aperture on digital communication. All of a sudden, the whole world was on Zoom, just a click away. I started meeting remarkable, inspiring people through LinkedIn. People on a mission. My people.
A few weeks ago, I met Dave Bucca, CEO of Change Foods. We immediately connected based on shared mission to change how we feed the world. I jumped at the chance to build a new food company. The one led by purpose in everything we do. To build a new pillar of alternative proteins that can feed the world, using only use a fraction of earth’s resources. I jumped at the chance to join all of you, who are building this new food system. One that is thriving, sustainable and kind.
I jumped at the chance to build a new food company. The one led by purpose in everything we do. To build a new pillar of alternative proteins that can feed the world, using only use a fraction of earth’s resources.
GQ: As a marketing veteran, what do you think is key when building and communicating about a brand?
IG: Many younger consumers today, especially Gen Y and Gen Z, care deeply about sustainability. They expect the food they buy to come from companies that do it right and stand for something beyond the product. They want to support companies that do good in the world and are creating the products responsibly and sustainably. Everything matters – the ingredients, the packaging, the supplier choices and company mission. They expect to see the companies walk the talk, and not just present nice slogans in advertising. It is a true shift in expectation that is creating a powerful momentum behind new food companies.
GQ: Big food versus a startup: where do you see the biggest possible impact?
IG: The short answer is both. You need startups to discover, test and initiate new trends. They are most nimble and most able to address nascent trends. They can hone in on developing niche spaces and help build them into new categories. Big food brings scale. They are best at democratizing the trends that are already underway. They have the power to produce and distribute products at scale that startups cannot dream of. For example, the last two launches I led at Danone will both deliver over $10M in sales in just their first year. This wouldn’t happen even at the most successful startup.
GQ: What are some of the biggest challenges facing alt dairy today?
IG: Taste is still the biggest barrier for most consumers, especially when it comes to categories outside of beverages, such as yogurt and cheese. Next up would be price and availability. While plant-based beverages have become widely available, other categories are harder to find and price premiums tend to be quite high. This tends to slow down mass adoption of these trends. Last, I would say is nutritional equivalency to traditional dairy products. Consumers have been told for years that dairy proteins and calcium are key nutrients they should seek to get and may still believe they must consume dairy milk or yogurt to these nutrients.
Lead image courtesy of Irina Gerry.