Origin Story Interview W/ Christoph Pitter, ProteinDistillery

Origin Story Interview W/ Christoph Pitter, ProteinDistillery

Brighter Future

 / 

Nov 8, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #alternativeproteins #veganproteins #proteindistillery #foodinnovation #PlantBased #CleanEating #SustainableFood #EthicalEating #FoodTech #FoodInnovation

Brighter Future

We’re here with Christoph Pitter, of ProteinDistillery. His company produces vegan alternatives to meat, dairy, and egg using extremely high-quality yeast-derived protein, and sells them to other businesses for use in their own products.

Thank you so much for being here, Christoph. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your business?

Hello, my name is Christoph, and I co-founded ProteinDistillery. ProteinDistillery creates vegan proteins targeting the same functionalities as animal protein. My background is in biotechnology and I’ve worked in the US and in a big pharmaceutical company in Germany to purify proteins for pharmaceuticals.

I found that I had a passion for research and development but disliked repetitive tasks. Anyone in the field knows that until you have your PhD and a small team, you have a lot of repetitive tasks to do in the area of R&D. So I pursued a master's in business and engineering and worked in China and a startup in Germany for a while.

Later, I took some time off with my girlfriend to self-refurbish an old Toyota Hiace camper van and drove from Esslingen/Stuttgart, where our company ProteinDistillery is based today, to India. This trip was a pivotal moment for our company because, during it, I had a lot of time to read and think deeply about issues that concerned me. Looking back, I'm glad I took the time off because now I'm much busier with a young son and less flexible.

During this trip, I decided to remove animal products from my diet as much as possible. Being from a small village in Baden-Württemberg, I love climbing and used to drink a whey protein shake after each climb to grow my vessels and aid in fast recovery. However, during the trip, I realised I wanted an alternative to this whey protein.

So I tried several alternative plant-based proteins, such as soy and pea protein, but they all had an awful aftertaste and left a sandy feeling in my mouth. Despite spending a lot of money, I couldn't find a better solution. My biotechnological background showed me that plant proteins are not as easily converted to muscle mass as animal-based proteins. Thus, you have to consume more, which can lead to liver problems in the long run.

Then it dawned on me that nobody used a better method to produce plant-based proteins. So I decided to use our oldest cultural technology, fermentation, to produce the proteins we need to achieve products which are authentically vegan with nonetheless very high-quality protein.

I started with creating a protein shake to replace my whey protein shake but then realised that the issue of alternative protein wasn't just confined to protein shakes. It also extended to alternative food, such as meat, cheese, and eggs. That's when our company, ProteinDistillery, was born.

If we want to create change, we need to replace animal products as closely as possible and reasonably priced so that more and more people can skip animal products. Our solution is to deliver food companies a vegan protein with the same functionalities and flavor components as animal protein. This way, they can build meat alternatives without nasty additives that are vegan and tasty.

Our company delivers these proteins with the same functionalities and taste as animal protein in a B2B context.

If you had to pitch that to someone, how would you introduce ProteinDistillery in one sentence?

Using an innovative process, we upcycle brewer's yeast into clean protein ingredients with properties rivaling those of egg protein, helping food companies create authentic vegan alternatives to animal products.

When you travelled with your girlfriend, what prompted you to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet or at least reduce meat consumption?

I was introduced to the philosophy of Peter Singer, a Canadian philosopher who became famous in the 70s for his book "Animal Liberation." After reading some of his work, I agreed with his arguments and decided I did not want to harm any conscious being. While I am not a vegan, I avoid harming animals whenever possible. Consuming small mussels is fine for me because they are not conscious and that it is not harming the bigger environment, but I know this is my personal opinion.

Singer had many compelling arguments, and I also follow the work of other new scientists from the US, such as Sam Harris. However, I love the taste of meat and cheese, so it has been difficult to completely eliminate these foods from my diet. I believe in balance and that extremes are not the solution. During the week, I try to stick to a mostly vegan diet for moral reasons.

Most people are not motivated by moral concerns alone. To reach a wider audience, we must offer good products that taste the same or better than meat and are priced the same or cheaper. This is the best way to encourage more people to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.

When did it become clear that things were so interconnected, and how did you respond to this realisation?

It was apparent to me initially, but it was not my primary motivator. My personal driver was not simply that it's good for the climate: I do it because it's morally right. So my decision tree was focused on the moral perspective, and always keeping the environmental perspective in mind. I appreciate the idea and vision behind the work we do at ProteinDistillery, where we can combine all three aspects: the climate, moral, and health perspectives. These are the three primary reasons that drive me. First, my focus was more on the moral and health perspectives, and now the climate is also becoming my top priority as we work to find a good solution.

When was the first time you felt like you would be an entrepreneur or start your own business?

I come from a family that immigrated to Germany, and my brother and I were the first in our family to attend university. No one in my family had ever started a company, so entrepreneurship was not something I was born with. However, I saw an issue that I wanted to address, and I wanted to work on a bigger problem than the ones I had encountered before. This problem had the potential to make a real impact, which was important to me personally.

I pitched the idea to my co-founder, Michael, whom I contacted while I was on a trip to India for a few months. Michael told me someone else was already working on the idea, but I convinced him to join forces with me, and we partnered with our old university. Biotechnology requires expensive equipment, so we applied for government funding in Germany. However, our idea was deemed too crazy, and we were not funded initially.

This setback was discouraging, but we kept working on the idea on the weekends and evenings while I worked for a startup in Stuttgart during the day to earn some money. Finally, we applied for funding again after ten months and received some funding. At the start, we were mostly engineering-driven, but we later realised that we also needed driven business executives. This realisation was the first time I felt more like an entrepreneur, as I started to understand the complexity of scaling up and developing a hardware-intensive solution in biotechnology.

You came from a background where that wasn't a thing, perhaps within your family. When you went to India, you had this idea and told your friend about it. You jumped into it without knowing any entrepreneurial skills. But you developed it initially, focusing on it and diving into the project.

It was great that we gradually got to know others who offered us advice. Over time, I received guidance to stay put and not give up. Initially, we lacked connections in the startup industry and didn't know anyone who had started a company. Step by step, we expanded our network and gained valuable mentors who had founded several companies. This was extremely beneficial because it gave us someone to share their experiences and mistakes. While making mistakes is inevitable, having a mentor could help avoid certain costly ones. This was crucial in engineering, which we were heavily invested in, and business. We’re four co-founders, by the way.

How did you meet all together?

Well, I knew Michael from studying biotechnology together. He was my first co-founder, and we were always good friends. We often worked in teams of two in biotech labs, doing cell culture and fermentation together.

After a while, we realised we knew nothing about food science as we had only worked in the pharmaceutical industry. We thought that biotechnology and food technology would merge in the future, so we needed more experience in the food field.

That's when we met Tomas Kurz, a professor of food technology at Berlin who had 20 years of experience in the industry, including as head of manufacturing for a big food company. He had studied brewing technology in Munich, which was a funny connection to the distillery we later started. He was a great guy with a lot of experience in food technology that we were missing. He also shared our vision and wanted to start something in the food tech space. He had started a side business with proteins from nettles, which is interesting. He quit his job and moved his whole family close to Esslingen to join our team.

Our team had two 100% focused engineers at that point, so we needed more business and marketing expertise. That's when I met Sven Brummerloh, who became our founding advisor. He's a serial entrepreneur with much experience in the food tech industry. He understood technology well but was also 100% a business guy. He helped us set up the right building blocks for our company and understood the importance of timing. Through Sven’s network, I met Marco Ries, our fourth co-founder, with a strong business background. With this team, we had the right mix of engineering and business expertise to start building our company.

We all got to know each other well through many drinks and discussions about our shared values. We believe that shared values are important for making decisions that reflect our personal values and building a company culture. We recently hired our first staff and are still at the beginning of a long journey to build a great and big company.

What do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of your work?

I find it fulfilling when I try something new, and despite failing the first time, I persist and eventually succeed with the help of my co-founders. My co-founders encourage me to keep trying and support my aims even when I fail. This sense of togetherness and trust is what makes my work fulfilling, especially when facing challenges on the journey to success. Even when I am overwhelmed with personal responsibilities, such as caring for my newborn child or navigating a funding round, I can rely on my co-founders to have my back and help me persevere. Ultimately, having trustworthy colleagues within the organisation makes my work fulfilling.

Did you ever change direction in your career or life, or even with ProteinDistillery, and head in a completely different direction than originally planned?

Yes, many times with ProteinDistillery. Initially, we had a different name, and our first idea was a B2C company because we thought, "Hey, let's do it ourselves to cut out the middlemen, save some money, and use our natural proteins." However, we didn't initially use the brewing industry knowledge to create a natural protein. We came from a pharmaceutical background where they  produced proteins with genetically modified organisms for tens of years. Today, we call it precision fermentation in the area of food technology.

Over time, we realised precision fermentation was costly and difficult, especially in Germany, where consumers want something natural to connect with. It was also hard to sell the story to investors. So we changed our focus and started producing natural proteins from yeast.

There are over 2,000 breweries in Germany, and they all have waste yeast thrown away or used for animal feed. Yeast is a protein bomb, 50% being protein, and yeast proteins are highly nutritious. With the process we developed, we can create all these natural proteins with a natural process, which is essential to many consumers. Furthermore, we can customise the end product depending on what function our customers seek. For example, we can create a different protein for a meat alternative than a cheese alternative because they have different taste requirements.

We learned a lot during this journey, especially since I had no prior knowledge of the food industry. We also learned that it was important to produce the proteins ourselves since there was no company with the hardware to produce them. We wanted to create impact, so we decided to work with market leaders to create the second generation of their product without nasty additives, which is more authentic and cheaper. We can help with co-development and focus on what we're good at, creating great proteins and helping our customers create great, clean-label end products.

Have you ever experienced a big “Aha!” moment that shaped you as an entrepreneur?

I've had many of these moments where I realised there were many variables to consider, and I needed to interconnect them to find the right path. However, it wasn't just one big “Aha!” moment that shaped me but a journey. As entrepreneurs, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and many people have already created a lot of knowledge. Sometimes I come across a new piece of knowledge and can add it to what we have created in our company. There have been times when I thought, "Oh, I didn't understand that before," and I had to clear up my understanding. Even today, I don't know everything, and there are still moments when I click and gain new knowledge or someone helps me understand information better. This helps me realise that our path should go in a different direction.

This process of gaining new knowledge will never stop, and it's important for me as an entrepreneur to keep trying. If I ever think I know everything, I am being arrogant and fooling myself. Richard Feynman once said, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool." I want to live by this spirit and keep it going in our company and among our founder team.

Did you make any significant mistakes from which you gained some lessons?

Yes, I did. I faced several challenges that taught me important lessons.

One of them was related to my ego. When my co-founder Michael and I started our company, it was just the two of us, and we owned 100% of the company. We had spent years working in a lab to develop our product.

However, as our business grew, we needed to hire more people with engineering and business knowledge. But, of course, these new hires also required a share of the company to motivate them to work hard.

It was a big lesson to let go of my ego because I had to decide what was more important to me: having a small percentage of a large company like Shell or owning a single gas station in a small town. Ultimately, owning a small percentage of a larger company was more attractive because of the potential impact we could make.

Although owning a gas station could help the people in my hometown, owning a share in a larger company like Shell could help many more people. So it was an essential lesson for me to put the company's interests first and remove my ego as much as possible.

However, it is still important to remember that everyone has an ego, and it is difficult to completely eliminate it. Nevertheless, staying true to our values and vision is crucial as we continue to move forward and attract more investors and employees to our team.

We must carefully consider the investors we choose to join our team and ensure they share our goals. I anticipate facing several challenges ahead of us, and we may make mistakes. Despite having advisors who helped me understand the issues, I still made mistakes because knowing something does not always mean understanding it fully.

You mentioned that you're a business owner and you have a child, so things can get hectic, especially when building a startup. How do you personally take care of your health, including your mental health and general mindset?

I love doing sports like running, training for trail marathons, and hiking in the mountains. It's been my priority, especially now with my very young child. My wife is great and takes care of many things, which is important because I don't have as much time anymore. I prioritise my passions: health, family, and friends. I balance my time between those three things, including exercise and sports. Currently, it's becoming more difficult to fit everything in, but I aim to incorporate more health and exercise into my routine.

I do stretching, running, and climbing at least two to three times a week. I usually run in the morning before starting work and sometimes go climbing with friends in the evening. I also meditate. When I finished high school, I backpacked through India and attended a silent retreat for ten days. It was my first experience with meditation, and it was hard but important for me. I have been practising meditation for ten years, which has become integral to my routine. I practice "attention meditation," which helps me to have a clear mind. It's not just for focus during work but also overall mental health.

Every day, I meditate in the morning and evening for at least 10 minutes. It's a huge difference, even if it's just for 10 minutes. No matter how busy you are, finding time to focus on your breath or what you feel in your body is possible. I want to continue exploring meditation and maybe attend a retreat when I have more time.

Earlier, you mentioned that you were inspired by prominent vegan leaders who advocated reducing meat consumption for ethical and compassionate reasons. Did you draw similar inspiration from books, movies, speeches, or people you have met regarding the business aspect of your work?

Yes, if we want to create real change, we can create laws that compel people to act, but for me, the essence of business lies in providing people with a better solution that benefits the environment and other conscious beings. To achieve this, we need to create a profitable system that incentivises organisations to find ways to create products or services that promote positive change. It's not enough to give an organisation or individual money; they must be driven to make a difference. This requires a business-driven approach that earns money and creates change.

The idea we have with incentives is that we attract great people to work for our companies, not just because of the money we pay them, but also because they can work on more significant problems. Additionally, we must provide them with a good income to support their families. Incentives must be right, and our product must align with our mission. We cannot move forward if we constantly feel the need to compromise. We need to work on improving our incentive system if we want to bring about positive change, and we have the potential to lead the way in creating the right incentives for alternative food products that are cheaper, healthier, and better for the planet. The right incentives will also create a positive perspective, which is essential for driving change. Often, we are held back by poor incentives, so we need to focus on creating the right ones.

I haven't had a specific moment of inspiration that led me down this path. Instead, I have read extensively on this topic and have always sought to learn more about it.

You mentioned sacrificing and compromising. What personal compromises did you make to get where you are today?

It depends on the different areas where we compromise; one for me was my diet. Although I love cheese and meat, I don't eat meat and only eat cheese from cows in Switzerland because that's the only way to use the Alpine region. I'm unsure what the right answer is, but I believe in considering the net positive life score and what makes a life worth living. I've also had to consider my family's diet and how it affects my child's brain development.

Another compromise I've had to make is with my finances. I used to travel a lot with little money, but starting a company required me to eat a lot of pasta and work without any salary for 10 to 12 months. Even with government funding, our salary was very basic. It was also a low salary for my other co-founders, who had older children to support. It was a challenge for my family to support me, but we made it work.

Lastly, I've learned to value my time more as I've become more successful. I've had to focus on surrounding myself with people who give me strength and support rather than those who drain my energy. I hope to give them the same support in return.

What kind of future are you hoping to help create with ProteinDistillery?

The first step is to create the next generation of alternative protein products in the Western world. We need to create change here and have people on board. However, in the long run, we need to find a solution for the next three billion people who will mostly be established in Africa. The best correlation we have for GDP growth is that people consume more animal products when GDP grows. We have seen this in China, Japan, and Western Germany after World War II. People consume more and more animal products until we reach a limit of around 100 kilograms of meat products per person.

If we can create this alternative product, we can create a future for African people to grow their GDP and have a better life. They have the right to a more balanced diet and not just barley. The first step is consuming less barley and more meat, where the barley goes to animal feed. We want to show that it's possible to create a pathway where other people can see an example of how to do it. We have found a solution regarding technology that can be much cheaper to help other countries.

We plan to create plants in Europe and America, and the next step is to expand to South America and Africa. We want to produce the food that people need locally so that they have work, can see the change, and help them adapt to the cultural change of this new food. We want to educate people that fermentation, which humans have used for thousands of years to create cheese, beer, and bread, is important and connected to their culture.

What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur who is just starting or a person who is considering starting a business in the current market?

Let's begin by focusing on building the right team. Creating a core team with whom you can envision working closely together for the next five to ten years is essential. Look for people who share the same values and whom you can trust. Also, try to remove your ego from the project because if you spend two years building a company and then claim 80% of it for yourself, you may limit the growth potential of your business. Instead, aim to make the pie bigger, as more substantial growth will benefit everyone involved.

Another important aspect to consider is direction. When starting, it's not critical to know everything about the industry. However, you should choose a field you are passionate about and know about, as this will make it easier to stay focused and learn more about the specific challenges that come with that area of business. If your first idea or company fails, don't be discouraged, but stay in the field and learn from the experience. Over time, you can combine fields, but it's best to have a strong foundation of specific knowledge before branching out.

Finally, taking your time and not moving too quickly from one project to the next is essential. It takes at least five years to understand a specific field, and changing too often may limit your growth potential. While it's important to keep learning and growing, jumping around too much may make it challenging to gain the necessary knowledge and expertise to be successful.

If there were one lasting message that could reach everyone on this planet, what would it be?

People often underestimate the role luck plays in our lives. Personally, I was fortunate to be born into a family in Western Europe that could support me. However, many fail to recognise how lucky we are and attribute our success solely to hard work. While hard work is important, we cannot overlook the role that factors outside our control, such as our DNA, play in our lives. In addition, our attitudes, problem-solving abilities, and work ethic are also influenced by luck.

If everyone could understand how important luck is, we could become more compassionate towards those less fortunate. Rather than focusing solely on ourselves, we could start sharing the luck we experience with others. Ultimately, we are all conscious beings who can help one another.

That’s a very expansive, open-hearted way to end this. Thank you so much for spending a little time with us and talking about what you’re trying to do. We wish you nothing but the best in the future development of your vegan proteins.

To read more about ProteinDistillery, check out www.proteindistillery.com.

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