Origin Story Interview W/ Christopher McClure, Loki Foods

Origin Story Interview W/ Christopher McClure, Loki Foods

Brighter Future

 / 

Jan 10, 2024

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #PlantBased #FoodInnovation #VeganLife #HealthyChoices #SustainableLiving #ClimateAction

Brighter Future

We spoke with Chris McClure, whose company, Loki Foods, makes a vegan white fish alternative.

Thank you so much for joining us, Christopher. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your startup business?

I'm Christopher McClure, but most people call me Chris. I've lived in Iceland since 2010, although I'm originally from the US. I've been following a plant-based or vegan diet for 17 years. I prefer to say "plant-based" because "vegan" can be a contentious term.

My background is primarily in biotech, medtech, and health tech. Both my master's and PhD degrees are in public health epidemiology. After I completed my academic career, I quickly transitioned to the private sector. My most direct entry point was in the biotech and health tech industries.

After a few years of working in these industries and moving back and forth between Iceland and the US, a particular idea began to take shape in my mind. We are in the world's seafood capital, yet we're only beginning to produce alternative seafood. I believe it's crucial to do this seriously, considering the pressing challenges we face concerning the ocean, climate, environment, and our health.

When I met my co-founder, we incorporated as quickly as possible and started prototyping what we consider to be the future direction of alternative protein, including seafood. Although we focus on seafood, given our location, our company's vision extends way beyond that.

For those unfamiliar with how you create your seafood, can you give us insight into how this technology works?

We value conventionality in the most crucial areas, like scaling up. It's all about understanding how ingredients interact to mimic conventional seafood like whitefish, specifically cod or haddock.

Firstly, we consider the main reasons why people consume fish. At its essence, it can be argued that fish carries nutritious qualities. If we eliminate the microplastics, carcinogens, and heavy metals, what remains is a low-sodium, low-carbohydrate source of protein, high in omegas (though not in filet cuts) and iodine. We can achieve these nutritional values with plants even better. Fish get their omegas from algae, which of course is the definition of plant-based.

When we focus on why people consume alternative seafood, the reasons boil down to taste, texture, nutrition, and environmental concerns. With these points in mind, our development aims to include plant proteins that mimic the texture, taste, and overall experience of consuming whitefish while replicating its nutritional components— high omegas, high iodine, high protein, and low sodium.

This understanding is vital to evolve the alternative protein space and satisfy consumers. Looking at existing options, it's clear we have a lot of work to do. We've focused on hitting nutritional benchmarks while delivering the unique experience of consuming whitefish— flaky but moist, capable of being eaten enjoyably without breading or frying, even though what we have is versatile enough for these options.

You mentioned in your introduction that you've been vegan or plant-based for 17 years. When did you make that change in relation to your career?

It was during my studies in public health and epidemiology.

What prompted you to shift to a plant-based diet?

I became a vegetarian as a teenager. As a child, I always ate around meat because I didn't have the palate for it. Eventually, I started to understand the source material of what I was consuming. As I gained more access to information in my teenage years, I realised that I could sustain myself— even optimise myself— on plants and grains without sacrificing another creature's life.

My switch to a fully plant-based diet was just a progression from vegetarianism. The planet's billions of animals suffer, and we turn a blind eye to it. Meanwhile, the earth itself seems to be demanding change, which is going to happen whether or not we heed the call.

My decision to go plant-based came early, even before my focus in public health and epidemiology, which was more related to mental and social behavioural health than environmental or personal dietary health. Over time, it all combined around what I consider existential problems connected to personal decisions.

A handful of corporations are vastly accelerating our climate problem. These conglomerates in every corner of the energy industry— whether it's food, finance, or tech— resist change by creating friction, such as not allowing us to call oat milk "milk" or plant-based alternatives "fish". They profit off the current system and put up resistance to change. Still, when consumers push back, they can remove these barriers, stop fighting with the money behind lobbying, acquire the top-class companies pushing for change, and then profit off this new status quo.

This logical progression of my interests in psychology and public health, and recognising the pervasiveness of our climate and environmental problems, was a natural progression. So when I started this company, even though I hadn't discussed it much with many people, and even though I was never a seafood consumer, most of my friends said, "Finally, you did it." Starting this company was the epitome of mission-driven entrepreneurship for me. I wouldn't be doing this if the potential for market success was lower.

That’s pretty powerful. Why did you choose to focus on fish first rather than other meat or plant-based alternatives?

The primary reason is rooted in the severity and scale of the problems associated with oceans and marine life compared to the scarcity of viable solutions or alternatives. The available options do not match the magnitude of these problems.

While we have Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and countless others focusing on alternatives to chicken, beef, and dairy— all great— the severity of the problems facing our oceans and the scarcity of alternatives is striking. If anyone is still holding out because these alternatives don't exactly match their preferences, I see that as an issue for companies to work on, but it's also a generational problem. Dietary preferences are deeply rooted in feelings rather than logic and are often based on local availability during upbringing. My co-founder, Bjorn, for instance, is Icelandic and consumed cod five or six days a week as a child. He knows what people are looking for in a whitefish; things like freshness.

Choosing to start with seafood may not be the most glamorous topic, but it's the one with the most pressing problem. Around 90% of fish species are on the brink of extinction or already extinct. A study done by a group in Australia found that no single country in the world can claim high sustainability in their fishery practices. All of them received no more than a C grade, which is simply disgusting.

Also, 70% to 80% of the plastic in the ocean has nothing to do with straws or plastic bags— it's fishing nets. So, the problem calls for innovative solutions. In Iceland, where we produce 1% to 2% of the world's seafood, which constitutes 30% of our GDP, we have centuries of expertise in seafood. If we can't harness that expertise to develop pleasant-tasting, sustainable alternatives, the global position isn't promising.

But, again, we’re more than alternative seafood. We’re more than simply alternative protein. We’re shapeshifting the food system.

That’s very interesting. How did you meet your co-founder?

I was turning over every stone I could find in Iceland to collaborate with someone who had grown up in a seafood culture. Iceland offered expertise in many academic areas, especially seafood and food sciences. I believed I could find someone there, though I wasn't confident I would find the right person.

I met with the tech transfer office at the University of Iceland during my search. I explained what we were working on, and they issued an open call to various departments, particularly the food science department. Only one person responded, who turned out to be my co-founder.

Meeting him was like encountering a long-lost brother. We hit the ground running pretty quickly, developing four or five different prototypes of various types of seafood within just a couple of months, including our flagship product, the whitefish. It's a simple story that feels like it was meant to be.

Is Loki Foods your first business venture?

No, I had a previous unsuccessful startup experience, and also have been the first team members on startups within life sciences and tech for many years. Some years ago, I launched a med tech company called Medilync. We aimed to develop an all-in-one solution to automatically monitor insulin after it had been injected from pens into diabetic patients. We gained some traction, but building a biotech company is challenging. It requires substantial money and immense patience, so ultimately, it didn't work out.

That’s unfortunate, but understandable. Given your experience creating businesses, how big of a leap was it for you to create a food business? What were your thoughts on starting another company?

I've launched businesses and have been part of startups, such as the first few employees and partaking in fundraising for several. I knew I had the potential to do it again, and there was something inside me that felt the need to create another business. However, when I started this company, I didn't know what it would be or fully understand its magnitude. No one can honestly or confidently answer such questions when starting a new venture.

In my case, I knew it had to make sense at a deep, instinctual level considering the effort it would demand. One of my close friends in the industry, who encouraged me to start this, advised me that the number one rule is to survive, which, while there are many other rules, this a good rule.

This process involves a lot and requires leaning on others for help. I knew this venture would be taxing and demand more than I anticipated. So, from early on, I tried not to have too many expectations, especially for the first six to twelve months. I made it a point to rely on others who could shoulder their portion of the company's responsibilities.

My previous experiences across different sectors, including biotech, consumer goods, SaaS, and FinTech, taught me how to manage this process in a healthier way for myself, my family, and my close friends. This, in turn, fostered a healthier, more relaxed, yet high-tempo startup culture.

Even though I knew I would start this venture, I resisted it initially because I didn't feel quite ready. However, after a few months of contemplation and deciding to accept some funding and find a co-founder, I knew it was time.

Do you think you could tell me about the name Loki Foods? I understand there's a compelling story behind that.

Thanks to popular culture, particularly superhero films, the name Loki has become mainstream. But his portrayal in these media tends to be rather simplified. Interestingly, the name Loki in several languages translates to 'lock' signifying either 'closure' or 'the act of locking', similar to a web or a fishing net.

If you’ll join me in some mythology, Loki was the shapeshifting god. He could assume many forms, and his character was essentially to challenge the status quo, the system that favoured only a handful. His goal was to figure out the best way to transform or transmute it. As a result, Loki played a pivotal role in triggering Ragnarok, an event often understood as 'the end of the world'.

But Ragnarok isn't as grim as it sounds. Rather, it represents the end of a system that catered only to a select few, creating a new one that would benefit more people. So, while on the surface, Loki might just appear to be a mischievous trickster, an outcast who didn't want to conform, he was, in fact, the agent of change that the world needed. That's the spirit that we aim to embody with Loki Foods. Shapeshifting the food system in our process of shapeshifting the planet we call home

Very impressive! Thank you for sharing that. What do you find most fulfilling about your work?

It's incredible to wake up each day with a range of tasks to tackle, be it legal matters or marketing and branding strategies. But what truly matters is remembering why we are doing this in the first place. That perspective makes every challenge worth it for me and our small team.

We engage daily in conversations about the pressing issues facing our world, discussing potential solutions, even those beyond our own immediate efforts. Simultaneously, we are creating solutions to create a new iteration in food.

We're not trying to compete with plants, grains, or vegetables, though we will challenge how they’re produced and affect local communities, of course. Our mission is different. We aim to challenge the widely held belief that animal-based proteins and dairy are paramount. Unless someone is in a special circumstance, such as recovering from a broken bone, you don't need as much protein as what's commonly promoted. Your body performs better in the long run with a balanced nutrient composition.

We're confronting this misconception that consuming high amounts of animal-based food, which is also environmentally, financially, and karmically demanding, is necessary for optimal health. We believe in promoting a diet that reduces this burden, benefiting the individual and contributing to a healthier planet.

So, no matter the pressure or difficulty, I am reminded daily of our mission's importance. I feel incredibly privileged to be a voice for the world we will step into. It's just a matter of how long it's going to take.

What have been the biggest challenges since you started Loki Foods?

Starting a food tech company focusing on climate through food has certainly been a considerable challenge, especially amid economic turmoil. We've navigated these uncertainties fairly well.

A common critique we encounter is dismissing our work as a passing "fad," which is disheartening. However, a significant challenge, and perhaps somewhat unexpected, has been dealing with people supposedly focused on climate issues but failing to recognise food's significant role in our environmental problems.

Furthermore, even among those who do understand the connection between food and climate change, there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to acknowledging that animals are not just raw materials for us to exploit. Our planetary and environmental issues will persist until we check this worldview.

This disconnection becomes painfully apparent when attending conferences or gatherings that should be fostering camaraderie around shared environmental goals. Instead, it can feel like I've walked into a conservative barbecue rather than a climate conference like COP 27 in Egypt or a gathering of food tech companies dedicated to plant-based solutions. This inconsistency in understanding and commitment has been one of our biggest challenges.

How do you maintain your mental health and stay grounded when faced with challenges like this?

The approach is multifaceted. Suppose you're starting a company or undertaking any substantial project. In that case, having a strong wisdom tradition or spiritual practice or at least engaging in substantial amounts of yoga or meditation is essential. These practices are a bare minimum requirement. If you're considering backing or investing in a founder who doesn't follow such practices, I would recommend reconsidering, as the journey ahead may not progress smoothly. I realise this viewpoint might not be very popular. You want the people you support to remain human, not a machine aiming to perform at all costs.

Regarding disagreements or contentious conversations, such as my stance on not slaughtering young animals for food— a perspective that might not be popular but is factually accurate— I've learned to manage the high-energy encounters that arise. I try to embrace the energy, relax, and harness it like a shot of espresso, to boost my focus and alertness.

Being clear about my purpose, and knowing that others share my vision, helps me stay grounded. That's why having a supportive community is crucial, as you can't achieve mastery without others working towards the same objective.

Looking back on your career, including Loki Foods, did you make significant mistakes with your first company that have influenced your current approach?

Of course! But “mistakes” are the playgrounds where we get the gift of learning and growing. That’s awesome. One prominent issue was relying too heavily on myself and thinking too big. Instead, I should have recognised the importance of acknowledging my limitations and seeking assistance. It's crucial to be mindful and recognise that others around me, including those close to the project, may possess the knowledge I lack. Therefore, I have learned the importance of being willing to ask for help and saying, "Could you help me with this?" This approach does not demonstrate weakness to investors or advisors. Rather, it shows a willingness to collaborate and seek guidance. For example, when dealing with complex matters like understanding the diverse export laws of various European countries, expecting myself to have all the answers is unrealistic. Admitting this fact upfront is essential.

Entrepreneurship is a diverse field, and stepping into this role doesn't require sacrificing your sense of self, personal life, social support, or overall well-being. It also means being honest when you don't know something. You should never compromise on these aspects. This realisation has been a significant lesson for me, and I'm still learning but making progress.

Another challenge I face, particularly relevant to what we're doing, is the need for speed. We want to move quickly to maintain momentum as a strong brand. However, it's important to strike a balance. While maintaining focus is crucial, exerting energy in the right areas is equally important for moving forward. This may involve reducing the number of meetings per week from twenty to five and utilising messaging or emails for non-essential matters. It's crucial to understand that while you aim for speed, you mustn't rush. Releasing something prematurely can have detrimental effects.

An advisor once shared an insightful analogy: it's forgiving to iterate on a SaaS-based platform that isn't perfect, but no one will forgive a product for not tasting good. We can all relate to that. With this in mind, it's vital to recognise the need for speed while prioritising quality, alignment with goals, teamwork, and personal well-being, maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends and not giving them up for work. Ultimately, it's about finding that balance.

Additionally, it's crucial to instil these principles throughout the entire company culture. One of my team members recently needed a day off for personal reasons. Despite maintaining momentum, I understood the significance of supporting him as a human being. Pressuring him to continue working would have only resulted in an unproductive and energetically drained team member devoid of any care and compassion.

Have you ever experienced a time in your past, unrelated to your career but within your life, where you took a completely different path than planned?

That happens all the time. It's a great question. I never thought I would go to university, as I didn't even know how to go about it. Coming from a poor family, it wasn't considered the norm. However, my mum was determined to give me the opportunity. So, my decision to pursue a bachelor's degree was quite sudden. I completed my bachelor's in just two years, which was unexpected and poorly planned.

After finishing, I found myself wondering what to do next. I applied to various graduate programs in public health but also started applying to insurance companies because I needed money and wasn't sure about my direction. Out of the blue, I received an acceptance letter from Yale, which was completely unexpected. Suddenly, I had six months of free time.

During my master's studies, I had the opportunity to come to Iceland to research the 2008 economic crisis. There, I met my children's mother almost instantly. This was another unexpected development in my life. I still had a year left in my program at Yale, so I went back and forth between Iceland and the United States, experiencing a lot of unpredictability. Then, I completed my Ph.D. surprisingly quickly, running out of grant money due to the accelerated pace. This forced me to start working professionally without a clear plan. I found a job as a consultant in healthcare, working for a boutique healthcare consulting firm that serves major institutions like Kaiser Permanente, Mayo Clinic, and Johns Hopkins.

After two years, I was recruited by a health tech company, which led me to move back to Iceland. From there, I transitioned into the FinTech industry, where my life has been characterised by constant change and adaptation. I often compare my life to flowing water or mercury, always shifting and morphing as needed. Through all these shifts and transitions, I've learned a great deal, and it now seems logical and obvious how each step has led me to where I am today.

Did you experience any significant "Aha!" moments or epiphanies that have shaped the way you approach certain things in business or life?

I've had countless "Aha!" moments. Sometimes they were gentle awakenings, while other times, they felt like breaking bones, but they have all been valuable.

One of these moments occurred when I realised the importance of my personal choices and their impact. Being vegan on two continents and constantly travelling made me content with my decisions. I could easily eat dhal or curry daily without requiring alternative protein sources. But I understood that we needed to improve the options available to influence more people. Initially, I resisted this idea, thinking we already had sufficient options. But I also recognised the need to personally drive significant change. This realisation struck me around the time I was starting Loki Foods.

Although I was deeply committed and aligned with my work, I didn't fully grasp the weight and significance of what we were creating. Loki Foods began to offer alternative seafood that didn't compromise on taste, texture, nutrition, or price. We established it in the seafood capital of the world, operating under the name Loki Foods and relying on 100% renewable energy. Looking back, it seems obvious, but at the time, I couldn't anticipate our small venture's impact on the industry. This realisation has gradually unfolded, and it wasn't until recently, around summer, that it truly sunk in.

Where would you say you get a lot of your inspiration from?

It's everything. The muse of creation and ideas can be found virtually everywhere. When it comes to what we're doing with Loki Foods, we're trying to reinvent how food is made and the earth and its inhabitants are treated during the way. Our goal is to lessen the burden on the planet and allow it to regenerate itself naturally. Achieving this requires recognising the truth and paying attention to the signs in everything we do.

That means listening to team members raised outside of the mainstream and getting their input on what alternative protein truly means. It also involves seeking the perspective of artist friends who may lack commercial experience but can offer valuable insights on how our packaging should look. When you think you've exhausted all possible sources of inspiration, you're essentially depriving yourself of creative insights. The possibilities are infinite.

But knowing when to ground yourself and return to a more focused state is also important. Depending on your personality, you may need to trust your instincts or rely on logical reasoning.

What future do you envision and aim to create with Loki foods?

Our vision is to revolutionise the food industry by eliminating animals from the supply chain and making food natural and healthy again— bringing consciousness from Earth back into our stomachs and hearts. This means replacing everything from eggs used in vaccines to collagen in cosmetics to even the most obscure food colourings and whole-cut fillets, and it also means removing toxins from our foods that we have normalised.

From a perspective of mass consumption, if you have a farm or live in a local community with a farming system in place, you likely have a better approach to sourcing meat or dairy from your cattle or animals. It certainly won't be as extreme and unsustainable as conventional animal farming, where killing all your cattle would leave you with nothing in a year.

The world we aspire to create is one where we truly respect all life to the fullest extent we consciously can, recognising that they, like us, deserve reverence. This respect means acknowledging that we can lead healthier lives and nurture a healthier planet by abstaining from consuming animal products. This gradual shift will lead to a future where products are derived from plant-based fermentation or cultivated sources. While there may still be a market and a place for domesticated animals, it won't involve the inhumane practices of animal farming.

Currently, we observe the emergence of fish farming, although it's not a new concept. Many in the industry hailed it as a breakthrough, akin to the invention of industrialised chicken coops or pig farms. But when you get down to it, the numbers and ethics behind fish farming don't make sense.

Our goal is to transcend such flawed practices. This is the world we are striving towards.

It's important to note, though, that our focus as a food-producing company may evolve in the next five years. As we have played a significant role in causing problems for our planet, we need to adapt to its evolving needs and work towards regenerative solutions. While we will continue producing products like white “fish”, plant-based “chicken” and other fun vegan protein creations, there is also a time now when we need to prioritise soil health as one of the most pressing issue at hand.

Thank you for sharing this with us. I’d like to try a little experiment now. Imagine you're having a conversation with your children, grandchildren, and even their children, decades in the future. What would you like them to learn from your journey?

The journey is about truly understanding yourself, regardless of the roles you take on in life. Whether you become an entrepreneur, a parent, a coworker, or simply a friend offering a shoulder to cry on, knowing yourself well enough is crucial.

This self-awareness enables you to effectively support and help the people around you in any capacity you choose. Unfortunately, this is something that isn't often emphasised in Western society. We're often encouraged to sprint through life at an exhausting pace, only to find ourselves teetering on the edge of burnout within a few months because we haven't taken the time to discover who we truly are.

We've been misguided in how we treat ourselves, leading to unhealthy practices. Therefore, the most significant lesson I would like my children to learn, regardless of their chosen paths in life, is the importance of self-understanding.

By understanding themselves and their relationship with the world, their reality, and the people around them, they can pursue their passions, love what they do, and maintain a healthy balance. That, I believe, is the most crucial lesson to impart.

That’s well-said and well-considered. Would you be able to share any advice for young entrepreneurs in the climate space or those considering starting a business in that field?

Climate is an integral part of everything we do. We are deeply connected to the environment, and every decision we make impacts it. So even if you have a seemingly unconventional idea that you feel may not have a place, there is always room for innovation. For example, I have friends using AI and satellite data to predict vegetation and animal life changes. Their company is focused on the climate and operates within the space sector, specifically in privacy. Despite being in a different industry, they started with a strong climate and environmental focus.

I would advise you not to underestimate your idea's potential, no matter how small it may seem. But it’s also important to ensure that your idea addresses a genuine problem rather than creating something just for the sake of it. We have witnessed a lot of wasteful and unnecessary ventures in the tech, software, and biotech spaces. Sometimes, through exploration and creation, we realise that certain projects should not have been pursued in the first place. These experiences serve as valuable lessons, so they are not truly wasted.

I suggest not to shy away from pursuing an idea simply because others aren't doing it. In all honesty, our current approaches are not effectively tackling the climate crisis. For instance, Iceland has achieved 100% renewable energy, yet it remains one of the few European countries that has experienced increased carbon emissions in recent years. Clearly, something isn't working as intended.

So keep pushing forward and persevering. I once heard a founder say that being a climate entrepreneur at this moment feels almost unfair. However challenging it may be, stay the course. It's still early, and it's crucial to continue developing and refining your idea to address actual problems most effectively.

If there were one lasting message that could reach anyone in the world, what would it be?

Be optimistic and continue to maintain optimism. If there were ever an underlying reason to embrace nihilism or pessimism, considering that it represents a 51% worldview, we wouldn't have made it to this point.

Despite all the global conflicts throughout centuries of human evolution, we are still here. Even in the face of massive climate change, we have survived it before, and we are still here. We thus have no substantial evidence to support long-term pessimism for either our species or life. I would choose optimism as the prevailing message. When you approach life with optimism, appreciation and joy for whatever you do will naturally and easily follow— at least to some extent.

Thank you so much for such an interesting conversation, Christopher. You seem to have a very firm handle on yourself and your product. From us at Brighter Future, we wish you nothing but the greatest success with it.

If you’d like to learn more about Loki Foods and their vegan whitefish, check out www.lokifoods.com.

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