Inspired by his health struggles, Marc St-Onge applied his entrepreneurial spirit to improving the lives of people and the planet. Smallfood Inc. has engineered a protein system while preserving environmental and social benefits. A partnership with the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, is transforming the economy by creating a standardized ESG reporting model.
Nicole Astra: Welcome to Talking Plant Protein. My guest today is doing very big things by thinking smaller. Please welcome the Founder and CEO of Smallfood, Marc St Ong. Welcome to the show. Marc St-Ong: Thanks, Nicole. Great to be here. Nicole Astra: Let's get started straight away with telling me what clean technology means to Smallfood. Marc St-Ong: In a more general sense, there's a lot of cleaning up to do in this world. We're trying to use a very unique production system to produce one of the most polluting things in the world, which is protein. And so clean I think, we would say anything that is comparative to the incumbent production systems, has a significant reduction in emissions. But for us, we think the holistic story around protein goes much, much broader. I don't think clean technology is necessarily always the best way to specifically describe what type of company is Smallfood. Nicole Astra: What type of company would you say it I? Marc St-Ong: Within agriculture we need to respect the fact that protein is one of the major drivers of climate change, but it's also doing something else. Agriculture, even beyond just animal-based agriculture, even our industrial production of row crops, it's depleting the top soil. So erosion is a major issue that people don't even realize. It's forcing us to create so much land transformation in the world. And so we're disrupting all the planetary systems that will enable humans to work or live in balance with the resources that we have. And so we have to reinvent our agricultural systems. And so just focusing just on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it's really not enough. It's certainly what we tend to say when we talk about clean technologies, but we need to regenerate the earth. We need to figure out how do we produce significantly increased amounts of protein for a growing population. But at the same time, we need to start reducing the amount of natural resources that we're using, because those are in short supply. At the same time we have to regenerate the earth. Nicole Astra: You weren't always in the food and health space. What sparked that crossover in your career? Marc St-Ong: Things happened in my life where I entered a phase where I didn't have my health. And it was a very, very difficult time in my life. It propelled me in a whole new journey, reshaped my whole perspective, my lens on life. And also as an entrepreneur, which I've been since I was quite little. Really what I want to do, healing became the central theme as an entrepreneur. How can I create commercial platforms that can help people heal, improve their overall health and wellbeing? How can we improve the health of the planet and all the inhabitants? Nicole Astra: One of your proteins is named Liquid Gold. Tell us about that. Marc St-Ong: Well, so this is a bit of the origin story of Smallfood. When I look at food I think how is it sustaining the health of people who are going to consume it. It's great that so many companies, investors, researchers are really coming together almost in ... Working in more of a collaborative sense to build this machine of transformation. I do fear sometimes that we don't always think in terms of, are we presenting something new but sacrificing something else. And sometimes in the protein space or a lot of these alternative food products, I don't believe the emphasis has always been on optimizing nutrition at the same time as optimizing the need for utilizing less resources, less emissions. And that's where we really started with this idea that we need a sustainable protein, but we also need to find, discover something, and the focus was always microbes, that is going to have an optimized nutritional composition. That we really feel like we're nourishing the planet in terms of doing the right thing and transforming protein systems. But we're also nourishing the bodies of the people who are going to ingest these products. Nicole Astra: How have you secured funding so far? Marc St-Ong: I'd estimate that the total funds into the project to date is close to around 25 million. There was a huge amount of investment and time that went into doing the bioprospecting, doing all the characterization of the microorganisms. Because we weren't setting out to just say, "Oh, let's find a microalgae," it was really microbes broadly speaking. What we found is, okay, the perfect microbe to produce the perfect protein happened to be coming from the ocean. It was end up being a microalgae, or more scientifically correct a [inaudible 00:05:44]. And then from that point, we've taken on several rounds of investment to move the commercial platform as well as the technology forward. And we're currently right now in the midst of raising a round to fully commercialize the technology platform. Nicole Astra: I want to talk sustainability. You and I have talked about this in the past, and I want to know how Smallfood is closing the loop on what I like to call circular sustainability. Because when we think linear, it often leaves industries, communities, people behind. And I know that's something that you have a unique perspective on. Marc St-Ong: Yeah, I think that that holistic business model is that philosophical underpinning at Smallfood. And that there's a typical way that you can do fermentation, which is going to come with so many benefits. We know that microbes are the most energy efficient biological production systems on the planet, so that's a really, really good thing. We can do more with using less resources. But nevertheless, when you look at what we do and where the opportunities to improve upon that, this is where start to get into circular supply chains. How can you benefit not just the planet, but people too. We've been working with the University of Waterloo in Canada on developing a comprehensive ESG reporting indicators for SMEs, because nothing really exists today. There's the large corporations are being forced into doing annual reporting, and we're seeing the harmonization of like SASB, GRI, these large reporting frameworks for the companies, but that doesn't distill down to the SMEs. And I think because the importance of SMEs in this transformative economy, that there needs to be a reporting standard so that these SMEs are reporting on not just the environmental benefits or governance, but also the social benefits. And so by having this, a standardized reporting model, measurement model, for these SMEs, everyone starts reporting on the same things. And so that it's really comparison of apples to apples. And it forces companies to strategically start thinking, "Wow, it's like, I didn't really think about our operations in this way," but now it's shaping the strategic decision process. And it's something that we are proud to kind of get on board with and working with these academic researchers at U Waterloo. And hopefully we're going to roll this out in our company, as well as a few other like-minded companies that we found to really shape this into something that, hopefully one day down the road, it becomes an adopted standard across all businesses, all SMEs at least. Nicole Astra: And friends of the show, TARA Bio, are your partners in XPrize. Tell us what you presented to them in order to become a semi-finalist? Marc St-Ong: TERA Bio is a really another exciting, alternative protein company, also based in Canada. And so it was really, I guess, the Canadian connection that helped us to come together. And this was through another mutual industry colleague. And we both hold a context of collaboration, we believe that is the path to acceleration and we need as much acceleration as possible in this protein, this agricultural transition that's happening right now. Now the platform to really highlight that became Xprice. And Xprize, of course, the novel proteins or proteins of tomorrow competition is inviting all types of food technology companies to produce a non-animal ... a chicken breast or fish filet. One of the most important things is the environmental and social benefits, and the accessibility of the final product that is going to be output from that. This is where circular thinking, holistic design really, I think, helped to highlight that what we're doing is quite unique and is absolutely a model for the future. There's still a long ways to go, but within the large number of global teams that entered we were selected as one of the semifinalists to move on to the next phase. And so it's really, really getting us to really dive right in and really show a practical model around how you can upcycle ingredients. How we need to retrain our thinking about what's a waste products, versus where we can extract value added. And create really the most energy and carbon efficient protein system really on the planet. Nicole Astra: Well, we wish you all the best at XPrize, and we welcome you back onto Talking Plant Protein when you win and feed the next billion. Marc St-Ong: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me. Nicole Astra: Thanks, Marc.