SPRINGDALE, ARK — Representing his company SuperGround, Santtu Vekkeli joined 10 other sustainability-focused startups at the second annual Tyson Foods Demo Day. Mr. Vekkeli applied for the international competition on a whim, not knowing how far he would go.
After narrowing down applicants across 15 different countries, Tyson selected the Helsinki, Finland-based startup, SuperGround, as one of the 11 entrepreneurs to pitch their concepts to judges at its headquarters in Springdale, Ark., on July 11.
Mr. Vekkeli traveled halfway across the world not only for a chance to work with one of the top US-based meat companies, but also for the possibility of taking his culture-changing concept worldwide.
The day of the event was intense, Mr. Vekkeli said, with a rigorous schedule that included back-to-back socializing and networking, demonstrations and interviews.
The competitors weren’t the only ones who came prepared. Tyson executives did their homework, too. They came into the sessions with direct and poignant questions for the startups.
SuperGround had a strategy walking into those meetings — to keep things simple. But it turns out that keeping things simple isn’t so easy.
“It’s always hard to keep things simple when you’ve been working every day for many years on something, and then you try to compress it into 10 minutes,” Mr. Vekkeli said.
Nonetheless, the strategy paid off. Tyson named SuperGround one of the top four companies that would receive a mentorship opportunity from Tyson and a chance at future collaborations with the processor.
The very next day, SuperGround got that opportunity.
“I’ve been working in the food system in the US for quite some time, and I’ve been consulting from Finland for projects that have happened in the US,” Mr. Vekkeli noted. “But this was very nice, like looking from another direction, from the point of view of Tyson.
“They were showing and telling us so much — such interesting data — that I’m very glad to have been selected. They were very open and extremely interested in learning and extremely interested in sharing with us, which was great because sometimes companies are very secretive about everything. But it’s hard to learn if you don’t tell anything.”
Down To the bone
What set SuperGround apart from the other competitors was how its technology directly impacts traditional meat processing.
“In food startups, there are a lot of different companies, and very few of them are actually working in the traditional meat industry,” Mr. Vekkeli explained. “And if they’re working in the traditional meat industry, they usually have some sort of software that is making something easier. Or then they quite often have medicine or some sort of animal health thing — super high tech. Traditional meat industry processing technology is actually super rare for a startup, and I have to say that makes us unique.”
SuperGround uses multifaceted machinery to convert hard tissues like poultry bones into a smooth, nutritional paste that can be incorporated into traditional foods such as chicken, fish or sausage.
“It’s kind of a paste with a lot of collagen, so it’s easy to kind of glue it to almost any other recipe,” Mr. Vekkeli said.
Hard tissues carry roughly the same nutritional value as muscle itself. Bone has about 15% protein, while muscle has 15-20%. By adding the paste to proteins, the nutritional value remains steady.
Not only does the paste have the same nutritional benefits as muscles, but it also packs rich, meaty flavor.
“The good thing here is that when we produce the paste out of it, basically it has a taste profile of a bone broth,” Mr. Vekkeli said. “It is technically a bone broth.”
He continued, “We’re using hard tissues such as bones. We make them soft, and more or less the same actually happens when you’re making a bone broth. You are removing the protein from the bone, the outside of the bone structure, and the bone itself, with only the calcium phosphates, is actually pretty soft. So, when you have the soft bone, it’s pretty easy to grind the bone and make a super smooth structure, and then that paste has a taste profile of meat broth.”
Aistila, a subfunction of the University of Turku in Turku, Finland, put SuperGround’s paste to the test. The university conducted a blind taste test with 101 people to see how consumers reacted to different quantities of the product in chicken nuggets and meatballs.
The study revealed that the nuggets with the highest amount of bone paste were preferred significantly more than the nuggets without it. Those with the paste were thought to be tastier, saltier and meatier.
“This is my favorite thing,” Mr. Vekkeli said, referring to consumers’ perception of meatier nuggets, “because technically there was less meat because you have less fillet and more bone paste. But it was tasting meatier because chicken breast fillet doesn’t really have any taste.”
Sustainability forward and backward
On top of adding flavor, SuperGround’s technology offers meat processors a solution to cutting down food waste and improving their environmental footprint.
In calculating life cycle assessments, SuperGround has found that it is more efficient to eat the bones than to use them later in the food chain in fertilizers or feed. Mr. Vekkeli explained how nutrition is lost as the bones move down the chain. Moreover, the process requires a number of steps, such as rendering, transportation, feed production — steps that can be saved with the incorporation of bones in the food itself.
“We can save up to 40% of the resources environmentally wise,” he said, noting the benefits of SuperGround technology. “We get more food, and we get it more efficiently.”
With SuperGround’s technology, 20% more food is available.
“If we just eat the bones of poultry, we get basically 20% more food from exactly the same amount of input,” Mr. Vekkeli noted. “So, we can farm 20% less, or we can eat 20% more.”
Although SuperGround’s innovative technology has the potential to significantly alter the meat and poultry industries, Mr. Vekkeli said that it’s not a new idea. In fact, cooking bones down was not uncommon in Eastern Europe a few decades ago when food shortages were prevalent. In this way, Mr. Vekkeli describes his concept as “a step back to the old times.”
“There was a time, not a long time ago, when our parents were young, when we didn’t have an attitude that we only eat the actual white muscle,” he said. “It was an attitude that we eat everything we can because we didn’t have that much excess food.”
This historical, sustainable practice of utilizing all parts of the animal, including bones, is what inspired Mr. Vekkeli to create SuperGround’s technology.
While traditionally cooking bones takes approximately five hours, SuperGround has configured a way to break down the hard tissues in a matter of minutes. By speeding up the process and transferring it to a commercial scale, Mr. Vekkeli hopes to normalize the eating of bones again.
In describing his vision for the future of SuperGround, he noted that his end goal is for the concept to become boring.
“I see that after a few years — maybe three to four years — the general opinion in the industry changes that it’s a good idea to process the bones because it’s cost efficient and good for the environment and nutrition,” he said. “And then, in like 20 years from now, it’s so obvious that it’s boring. So really, my target is to make this thing boring.”
Mr. Vekkeli believes that in the grand scheme of time, the attitude of only eating muscles from animals is just a phase — or at least he’s optimistic it is.
“I personally see that the phase where we want to eat only the big muscles of birds and the big muscles of fish has started and is going to end,” he said. “I see that the future where we are only eating certain muscles of animals is quite sad in a way because then we don’t actually use all the resources we have.”
One of the biggest hurdles for SuperGround to take flight is the perception in the industry that consuming bones is harmful.
“I think in the poultry industry — just like in the fish industry — when you go to the industry on your first job, everybody is teaching you to be afraid of bones because they are a biting hazard,” Mr. Vekkeli said. “So, you don’t really think about bone as anything else than the thing you want to get rid of.”
Despite processors’ resistance to incorporate hard tissues into their food products, SuperGround has convinced a couple companies based in Finland to rethink the resourcefulness of bones. These pilot companies plan to bring SuperGround’s nutritional paste to market by utilizing it in new protein product offerings.
“The first products will be in stores very soon here, and it will help it move a lot faster for the next one because they can look how did the first one do, and they can just copy the concept of the products and marketing and PR and everything,” Mr. Vekkeli said. “I would say that now when we get the experience from the first bigger customers, then it’s going to be easier.”
Mr. Vekkeli hinted that, while the first two pilot companies are based in Finland, SuperGround is in the process of bringing its technology to a third pilot company internationally.
The difficulty in sales by a food tech startup is finding the first customers to take a risk on a brand-new concept.
“The thing is that everybody wants to be the second,” Mr. Vekkeli noted, “because they want somebody to test and be the prototype and learn by doing. And then they just use all that information to make their own investment.”
Once the first pilot companies release products with the bone paste, Mr. Vekkeli anticipates a surge in customers and investors. Many companies are waiting to see how consumers take to the concept before taking a financial leap of their own. But Mr. Vekkeli estimates that 30 companies or so are lined up to take the jump once results from the pilot run are available.
SuperGround has piqued the interest of professionals in the meat industry due to its promise of immediate, significant impact on the environment.
“You have to change what you can change, which is making the existing system more efficient because you have to make the change immediately,” Mr. Vekkeli said. “If you wait for people to change their diet, you have to wait for 50 years. But if you want to change the environmental effect, you need to make the change right now.”
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