Episode 17
Dairy industry veterans bet that the future is cow-free
Dennis and JT Cohlmia have been a part of the dairy industry for over 40 years. Their new venture, Strive Nutrition, is a pivot in a new direction that removes the cow from the equation. Strive Nutrition uses precision fermentation to create a bio-identical, animal-free whey protein isolate and cow-free milk. While vegan-friendly, this is not another rendition of plant-based milk. Instead, they partnered with Perfect Day and use fermented microflora (instead of cows) to create dairy products (and non-dairy oat and almond milks) supplemented with their animal-free whey protein.

There are lots of positive environmental upsides to creating dairy using precision fermentation. And plenty of nutritional benefits too. Because there are no animals used in the process, the supply chain is not reliant on a farm location and weather; factories can be hyperlocal. There are no methane emissions. And up to 96% less water is used.

Dennis and JT believe this new category of "animal-free dairy" is a crucial part of curbing the environmental impact that factory dairy farming has on the environment. Ready to knock on doors and work through their retirement to make it happen, they believe this is the future of milk.

Enjoy!
Transcript
Wendy: Hello everybody and welcome to the evolve.ag podcast. Today. I am thrilled to have on the show, Dennis and JT Cohlmia out of Wichita, Kansas. They are the co-founders of the alternative milk startup Strive Nutrition. Thanks so much for being here with me today.

I'm excited to talk about the new state of dairy and all the interesting types of milk that are coming to the market, especially the kind that you're working on. Which is made through precision fermentation, but before we dive into that, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your relationship and your background in the dairy industry?

Strive Nutrition: Go ahead, Denny. JT and I have been together almost 50 years. We're originally from Wichita, Kansas, and we after we got married, we moved around, moved from San Francisco, New York, and then we came back and I started a business here withi n aseptic processing and packaging of low acid foods, primarily of dairy. And we were the second people in America to have Tetra pack. We starting out by doing aseptic milk and milk byproducts. We did that for 35 years and built quite a business together where we had plants in the US, Mexico and China.

We sold that business in 2016 and now we have had the opportunity to get back into a new business with strive nutrition and here we are today.

Wendy: That's wonderful. Wow you guys have a long history together too, so congratulations.That's amazing.

What made you decide to pivot from regular dairy into precision fermentation dairy?

Strive Nutrition: Your turn. We bought, as Denny said, this brand named Strive and we were starting out to just make a

dairy

based protein drink. And we started looking at it and thinking like, how are we going to stand out? Like, we're just going to be another, another protein drink.

And, Denny, really did a lot of research and found out about Perfect Day protein. We went out to visit the people at Perfect Day and really found out about what they're doing and why they are doing it. I personally just was so wowed by their determination to really have an impact on climate change.

And I was like, Yeah, there's something we can do. And it's also an amazing whey protein. That's kind of like the impetus of why we decided to do an animal free, new kind of fermentation product-- because we tasted it and we really understood, like, it is just exactly like whey protein isolate.

There's a lot we can do with that. Yeah. And because we also looked at dairy-based proteins, but we also were looking at plant-based. As an, as a second phase.

And when we met Perfect Day and as Janet has stated very aptly when we met them and we, did some tests with their product. We just looked at each other and said, there's no reason to do a dairy or a plant-based protein. We're going to go right, right into the future with, animal free dairy products, whey protein isolate, and produce a line of products around this.

And, um, it was kind of a light bulb moment. We're heading right into the unknown because these are all new products and Perfect Day is the first company to make a commercially viable, dairy protein that, meets the FDA GRAS specifications. And we felt that it was be a giant step that we could take for ourselves and for the, for the good of the planet.

Wendy: That's super impressive. And I can just tell how passionate you two are about this topic. So I can't wait to hear more about it. Can you share a little bit about what exactly is precision fermentation and how it creates dairy or dairy free dairy? If you will.

Strive Nutrition: You know, fermentation has been around for, centuries. I mean, w what can I say? Yogurt is a fermented product. Cheese is a fermented product, and there are different types of fermentation. We used to make yogurt in one of our plants. And, and so you would inoculate the entire tank with the right bacteria and it would grow and ferment, and then you would use the entire tank of yogurt to produce products or fill into cups. And with precision fermentation,

we're not going to use the entire massive product, the biomass of the product. We're going to take the DNA of a specific component of milk if you will. In this case, it's whey protein isolate, and we're going to get that DNA from, from the internet. You can get the code right from the internet.

You don't have to take it from the cow or a cow hair or directly from the cow. Then we're going to get micro flora, which can be fungus or yeast that something that a medium to grow the protein in, and we're going to culture that micro flora. At the same time in this large tank, we're going to make a, if you will, a broth or biomass, and we're going to feed that cultured micro flora with sugar in this case, using corn .

And in this large tank, we're going to have that vat in the tank under the right temperature, pressure and time long enough to grow that culture into the whey protein. Now that protein will be within that entire biomass. So what we're going to do then is separate that protein using a centrifuge. And then we're going to concentrate it and filter it, using the same types of filtration systems that you would use for concentrated milk --ultrafiltration-- and then we're going to process it, dry it and turn it into a whey protein isolate powder.

And in this case, they actually can get it up to 95% concentration of protein. So the rest of that biomass will be separated and will go through system to clean it and ensure that anything that can be reused or it goes back in a clean form. That's really the secret to precision fermentation.

Wendy: Got it. So this is unlike cellular agriculture, where you're taking cells from an animal and putting that into a cell culturing machine, and you're feeding it and things like that. This is actually taking some kind of fungus.

Strive Nutrition: Well, we call it micro flora, which is another word for a fungus or a yeast, but mostly it'll be a fungus.

Wendy: is almost like a S a smaller version of cellular agriculture, but you're not using any animals. You're just using some kind of plant-based plant or a fungus or yeast, some of.

Okay. Cool. Just wanted to make sure I understood the difference because I always thought they were really similar.

cellular agriculture and precision fermentation, but it sounds like here there's absolutely no animals involved. You guys are just using micro flora that you can find out in nature. I

would imagine.

Strive Nutrition: And, and they're culturing that micro flora and that's the growth mechanism we use to grow the whey protein

Wendy: Got it. Got it. That's fascinating. Super fascinating. And it must use a lot less energy and space than these cellular agriculture projects.

Strive Nutrition: I don't know enough about cellular agriculture but probably it is a more economic way to produce a very specific protein or component you want to produce. That's why they call it precision fermentation. Cellular agriculture is where you're growing it

like you're growing it in a Petri dish or using different medium to grow that. And it becomes solid, piece of meat, if you will.

Wendy: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. What are the benefits of precision fermentation dairy compared to just say like conventional dairy that you would get at the grocery store.

Strive Nutrition: We've been involved in conventional dairy for many years and you've got you go from the dairy farm all the way to the package and, and that it's a very old business and, and they have a process for doing that, but

it's not totally efficient because

you're

have issues at the farm level with, bacteria or, or, or disease. And you have to ensure the cows are, are taken care of and fed and you, then you have to milk the cow, keep everything cold, test it again and then transport it by truck to the, to the processing plant.

And then the processing plant has to go through another series of testing to make sure that the products are the right quality and then process it into a final product. So there's a lot of things that can happen within

that

the dairy chain, and you are getting a fluid milk.

I used to be one that used to say, well, it's not transporting water. You're transporting. milk. But in today's world where we'd like to put together products that are really specific for the nutrition that people need. With precision fermentation, we can target that product, make that component,

and then within anywhere in the world, you can set up a factory to ferment to do that process. And you can produce that component, that in this case has, has a whey protein isolate that's 95% complete protein with great quality and has zero lactose. From the beginning, because it's produced that way, and you can then take that product and use it in a variety of other beverages, foods, and a variety of products.

Wendy: So that was my next question actually was what about people with allergies to lactose or to casein? Is this something they can consume? But it sounds like it's lactose-free at this point. Does it contain any other elements of dairy where people might have an allergy to it or is it, is it pretty allergy free?

Strive Nutrition: So we eliminate the issue of a lactose intolerance but then certainly we have to claim milk allergens, because you know, that's still a gray area, whether the allergens are in casein or in the whey, but for what it's worth, we make that claim to ensure that anybody that has a milk allergy, uh, like you would for eggs, soy nuts and a variety of other things that are allergens.

So we, we definitely have that on the package.

Wendy: And from a categorization standpoint, would you put this under the umbrella of vegan or plant-based?

Strive Nutrition: It is a vegan product. We do like to call it, like many people are saying, 'vegan friendly'. There's so many flexitarians now that the claim of 'vegan-friendly' is actually better than just straight vegan.

When we met the people at Perfect Day. I was asking kind of what you were asking. Is it considered vegan, because we happen to be Orthodox Christians and we have a 40 day fast before our Easter. And we're not supposed to, if you're a good Orthodox Christian, eat any eggs or dairy of any kind.

So would that be okay to consume. Because I kind of thought what you thought it was maybe out of a, like the hair of a cow, but.

He said, "no, it, it would be absolutely under that". Um, that umbrella. They've had a lot of other, um, religious groups or vegans have the same kinds of question.

Wendy: That's wonderful. Yeah, because you just, you know, there's so many details in different religions and there's so many different. Options coming out, you know, that it's, it's hard to keep these types of things straight. So it's wonderful to hear that. Yeah. There's no animals harmed in the process. No animals at all.

Really

Strive Nutrition: We feel like we're making a new category called animal free. Something like beyond burger or, the impossible burger, it's a new category. And in our case, it's animal free dairy, which we feel like you've got plant-based, you have the dairy category.

Well, we're the animal free dairy category and there's, there's a lot of products that can be made within that category.

Wendy: That makes sense. Definitely from a marketing perspective as well.

What are the environmental benefits to precision fermentation dairy-- when you compare it to

Conventional

dairy?

Strive Nutrition: We're running out of room in the world to have enough dairy cows to feed everyone. And, it just takes so much land and it takes so much water to have cattle. And the methane is a big piece of the environmental problems that we're having causing climate change. Something like 8% of the emissions in the United States come from dairy cows. And a cow is really a big fermentor

anyway. You're feeding it grains, and it's taking those grains and they're turning it into protein or into different components, making a milk. And that process is really only 4% efficient in producing a final product. And as JT said, the , land use, animal husbandry.

And a lot of these dairy farms are what you'd call, concentrated animal feeding operations. Cows really are, are, a machine, whether they're putting out milk in there, they're milking them three times a day and so we can eliminate a lot of that

with precision fermentation and even cell culture in dairy.

Wendy: That makes sense. Have you found any downsides to this?

Strive Nutrition: Only downside. I feel like we are up against is awareness and getting the consumer to understand and not think it's a Petri dish.

You know,

Some fabricated product, I think it's just going to take some education. For people to understand what it is-- it's new.

And fermentation is a natural process of, it's not a weird science. And that's the point we have to get across to them.

Wendy: Why do you think precision fermentation dairy is the future?

Strive Nutrition: After being involved in the dairy industry for over 40 years in the U S Mexico. I've seen how and I've been involved in how it operates from farm to the package. And it is not the most efficient system. You're constantly worried about microbes.

You're constantly worried about keeping things cold or hormones or disease and consistency. So when you look at that and you think about even food security in the world where we're up against even shortage of grains, and you have to make a decision, whether they're going to feed livestock or people,

it makes the most sense to be able to keep advancing the technology of precision fermentation to make, to go beyond just making whey protein isolate into other components of dairy, or even eventually the entire milk and to where you can dial it in and make volumes and make it very efficient.

And make it anywhere you want in the world. You'll be able to produce this where people need nutrition and there's not enough land to continue for everyone to be drinking milk. In, in the world, it takes so much less resources.

And the concerns about methane coming out of the cows and, you know, in America, there are 9 million-- little less than 9 million dairy cows at this point in time. And it takes a lot of resources and they're responsible for something like eight or 9% of all the emissions that come for the United States and that, and if you take that around the world and, and honestly, there's a lot more, you can do with fermentation, to make the right products in the right place for the people to have the right nutrition.

Wendy: That's great. Well, I can't wait to see what else you guys end up doing. It's going to be really exciting to follow Strive. What have been some of the challenges that you all have faced?

Strive Nutrition: Packaging can be a challenge. We've gone through a couple of different alternatives and packaging because we started wanting to put it in a plastic bottle and then we decided

that's kind of going backwards. And, we just decided the Tetra pack was the best alternative for us just to start the business with, we've always thought about having multiple formats of packaging, but like Janet said, there's been a lot of, a lot of capacity constraints. You know, people have been eating more and people want aseptic products and there's not enough capacity there.

So we always wish we still had our own plant-- our own processing plant. But so we're having this co-packed and it's been a challenge getting enough capacity out of different people to, to really get it off the ground. So there's been some delays. I have a kind of a saying that how things start is usually how they end. And we wanted to make sure that the products were right. We did a lot of pilot plant work. We did a lot of focused tastings. And we wanted to do some shelf life tests because I've seen people bring in their products.

They didn't do enough time with shelf life testing. It fell apart there in the marketplace and they've got to pull it all back. And so we wanted to make sure that when we hit the ground, when we launched that the products are right, that they are consistent because in the food business, consistency is everything.

So we wanted a "wow" product. We wanted it to be consistent and we want it to be sustainable. So, yes, and we want to make sure that we're really set up for the longterm to be able to deliver. Because if we get a big order, we want to be able to take the order and keep the customers happy. We're very excited to be back on that side of the business.

Wendy: Do you see any hurdles when it comes to consumer adoption?

I mean, there's so many products out there right now. How will they differentiate yours from the rest? Do you think.

Strive Nutrition: We're going to have to definitely Do a lot of education with consumer awareness of what it is. A lot of people say, what are you talking about? But we feel like it is getting to be a crowded field. There's a lot of new products coming in, but if you look at plant-based and alternative milk products, it's a category that's growing, and there's a lot of people who are dairy drinkers that want to come over to that.

The number one concern to consumers is climate change. They're looking at it and they're saying, how can I be better at this? And if they love the taste of milk and they want dairy protein, they want complete protein. Then, then they have a hard time sometimes coming over to an almond milk.

So we feel like that's a big differentiation we can give in the marketplace. I also think a new category is the animal free category of like say, beyond meat and impossible burger. Not that we're doing the same thing, but it sort of falls into the same category. It's not a veggie burger.

It's not oat milk. It's it really is a, an alternative animal free milk. That, that seems like that's done pretty well and people are pretty open to an alternative meat tasting really like meat or a milk that really tastes like milk.

And quite honestly, I tasted a lot of milks in my day. And what is the flavor of it? It's almost an essence everybody has their own, idea of the taste of milk there. Everybody does milk a little bit differently. And every region has a different flavor to the milk.

So we feel like we have produced a product that will, wow people. They'll say this tastes like the real thing and they'll want to come back for more. It's delicious. It's refreshing. And it delivers the nutrition that we want to the customer. So that's our feeling is we're just going to have to get them to try it and, and get out there.

And. Yeah, I'd go door to door. If we have to knock on doors and getting people to believe in what we believe, and it is, a matter of believing in it. We took on this vision because, as we said to the guys at Perfect Day,, we believe in what they're doing. And, people who know me from our background in this industry think

I'm absolutely out of my mind but they cannot deny the fact that we're not living in the rear view mirror.

We're looking-- our eyes are to the horizon and we're focused on the next 10 years, the next decade, when things have to change. I mean, if you read the IPCC report from the United Nations regarding climate change, this world better change in the next eight years, we better do some drastic things to make things better or, or we're facing some real disasters.

So that's, that's another part of really why we believe in what we're doing.

Wendy: Yeah, I do not disagree.

I'm curious what you think about the future of dairy? What is it going to look like in five, 10 years from now?

Strive Nutrition: It's not going to go away and there's some great, I mean, I've been to some wonderful organic dairies and organic farms there are some terrific companies out there making some great products and I hope that the dairy industry looks more to how they can be better for the planet and better for

the environment with how they treat their cows, what they do to produce the milk, how it's processed. And you're seeing more and more of them-- more and more of these organic companies, especially doing grass fed, and really working to make great products. The dairy industry's not going to go away. I think you're going to have more innovations like Fairlife has done. Look what I mean for God's shakes. It's a billion dollar brand. And they're now and

they've not gotten out plants everywhere. And of course they're owned by Coca-Cola, so I think that the dairy industry's going to do very well. I don't think you're ever really going to replace higher end artisan products that I think are important. But, uh, but I can see things changing dramatically, where the cost of operating the cost of grain, the cost of large dairy, becomes more difficult.

And, especially if they're starting to get regulations regarding emissions regarding how they treat the water, et cetera. So I do think that it's going to continue to decline, but I think it's, it's going to have to evolve into something that's a little bit better quality.

Wendy: Yeah, Sounds great

What, is there anything else you'd like to share?

Strive Nutrition: We're really doing this because of our kids and our grandkids, and we just want a better world for them. We're in a position to be able to do this. We have the knowledge and we had the brand and we found Perfect Day and we just feel like this is like, we can't not do this harmonic conversion kind of.

We just felt like, wow. Okay. And so I guess we're also trying to figure out the next 30 years of our life, as we go into our, past our senior citizens age, But, um, yeah.

And something we can do together and it's really, it's at times it's a little trying, because it's hard to sometimes separate home from business. It's been good.

I think we'll make it our 50th wedding anniversary. Yeah, maybe that's so as Janet said, we believe, and we feel like this is something very important to do.

Wendy: Yeah,

Strive Nutrition: And we were very pleased to be working with our friends at Perfect Day. There they're nice young men.

They're brilliant. They're building a nice team there. Were well aligned with them and, we're thrilled to have the opportunity. And we're kind of the senior citizens of the group. So we feel pretty good about that.

Wendy: Great. I'm sure you guys have lots of knowledge to pass on to them given all of your years in the dairy industry. And now you're pivoting into this and sharing everything that you've learned. So

Strive Nutrition: Thanks,

Wendy: What a beautiful story.

Strive Nutrition: thank you Well,

Wendy: thank you too.

Strive Nutrition: We hope it ends well-haha.

Wendy: Oh, I'm sure it will. I will. Well, thank you two so much for being on the podcast.

How can people find your milks?

Strive Nutrition: We'll be in the marketplace and we'll start with e-commerce. We'll be totally set up for e-commerce and actually something like a larger percentage of the beverages are being sold by e-commerce now. So we're going to have a large presence with a very broad e-commerce network.

And then we're going to start calling, knocking on doors and calling on natural food markets and even some of the larger grocery chains and just, and make them understand. Cause even the retail chain. Are very concerned about the sustainability of their business, out of the products that are putting into the marketplace.

So we feel like that's a real advantage we have that we can , bring to them. And again, , it doesn't matter how great the products are if they don't taste great. They're not going anywhere. And we really feel like we have great tasting products. So that's, that's where we're going to be in.

Wendy: Wonderful. And can we follow you on Instagram or is there a website to go to-- what's the best way to keep an eye on everything you all are offering?

Strive Nutrition: Website is www.striveforbetter.com There's the strive for greatness, but every day, every human strives to be a little better. So we felt like that was the best moniker for us.

Wendy: I love that. That's wonderful. All right. Well, thank you two so much for being on the podcast. It was such a pleasure. Hearing both of you and hearing your perspectives and best of luck with strive. And I can't wait to keep an eye on everything that's happening. So

Strive Nutrition: Thank you. Thank you, Wendy. Thank you very much. Thank you. God bless you. Thanks.