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FPP Chicago Speaker Interview: Adam Yee, CTO, SOBO

February 23, 2024

Billing himself as a “food science professional who loves food science so much, he did a podcast called My Food Job Rocks! for five years”, we couldn’t have asked for a better moderator for our panel discussion on Startups in action: life in the trenches than Adam Yee (no pressure, Adam!)

Yee admits he’s learned many lessons during his own time in the trenches. “I’m a second-time founder and the second time is a lot easier than the first because there are rules, there are methods, and there are expectations when you do a startup,” he begins. “The biggest lesson is that, in all seriousness, no one really knows anything. Even if they have domain expertise, a gray-haired CEO will have a hard time navigating a fresh startup; and a CTO with a PhD will have a hard time understanding market dynamics.”

So, aside from coming to terms with your lack of knowledge and rapidly becoming a jack-of-all-trades, what else can startup founders do to smooth their path through commercialization? “Partner up with someone who can do a better job than you in certain things,” Yee advises. “I’ve always partnered with fundraisers as my business partner because I truly enjoy making great products. A founder partnership shows that you are able to delegate the work, and convince someone to literally put their security at risk, to make a dream a reality. A good partnership is really a 1+1=3 situation.”

Now reaping the fruits of his successful partnerships, Yee can begin looking ahead to future food trends and how to help shape them. “We at SOBO Foods are betting on context. Specifically, delicious ethnic food that happens to be plant-based. We believe, as Asian Americans, that the burgers, sausages and nuggets are not what we personally crave and that there are others like us who want more diverse options in plant-based,” he explains. “Although we might not be aiming for the highest total addressable market, like the 20 different brands of plant-based chicken nuggets out there, we believe that there are other communities that want experiences that remind them of their own unique childhood.”

Yee offers a compelling sales pitch without even mentioning that dumplings are one of the most addictive food products in existence, regardless of whether you ate them as a child or only discovered them later in life! But how does Yee ensure that SOBO Foods’ dumplings match up to their incredibly moreish traditional counterparts, which tend to feature the likes of minced pork, chicken, or prawns? He openly states that he eats meat once a week: “I say it’s for research but I will tell you, meat is really tasty and we as an industry are nowhere close to getting to parity and taste.

“A lot of companies self-hallucinate about how their product is equal or superior to their animal counterparts,” he continues. “At SOBO Foods, we are making products that require a lot of herbs and spices, which helps complement the flavor aspect. With our pork dumpling, we use a lot of chives. Our kimchi mushroom uses tons of gochujang and our potato curry uses a mild curry blend to enhance the flavor. There are a few tools from big companies that have helped us. Specifically, the flavor industry and a good flavor applications specialist is highly underrated when it comes to formulating plant-based foods but it’s an interdependent industry and the technology is not there yet.”

When we poll on flavors, the alternative meat products win by a large margin and the vegetable products are least desirable, which means that people are still yearning for a plant-based product that tastes like meat

Yee also cites the importance of real-world testing and feedback. “We can’t afford large-scale sensory tests,” he says frankly. “Instead, we mainly use sound questioning, basic hedonic scales and we host a 50-person tasting party where we introduce new products and have everyone rank and write comments on a paper sheet. Every time we have done this, we have gotten a clear direction on what needs to be improved, and what to launch going forward.” Blending old-school taste tests with modern technology, Yee adds that, “Our intern also uses ChatGPT to aggregate key findings for our sensory tests, which I find neat.”

Digging into data is something Yee excels at, and he’s finding it useful in separating actual consumer demand from what the media suggests today’s consumers are prioritizing. Responding to the trend for ‘cleaner’, less processed products, he explains that, “We use a lot of vegetables in our products. Our alternative pork is packed with about 50% unprocessed vegetables and our other two products are pretty much all vegetable.

“But what we find funny is that the headlines do not reflect our data,” he adds. “When we poll on flavors, the alternative meat products win by a large margin and the vegetable products are least desirable, which means that people are still yearning for a plant-based product that tastes like meat. Doubling down on that, our most popular product in terms of sales by far is our pork and chive product, which is an alternative meat.”

In terms of how the alternative protein market will evolve in the next decade, Yee predicts that it’s not the industry itself that will determine how things pan out. “The more destructive our planet gets, the faster people will switch – most likely because the animal industry has extremely fragile infrastructure rather than people caring about the environment,” he believes. “This is something out of our control and I do not think consumers are willing to make a shift unless they are pressured to. This may be a ‘hot take’, but I do not think the alternative proteins industry has the funding or market size alone to rapidly change the market.”

On the issue of funding, Yee comments that, “Unfortunately, what your pedigree is, how you look and where you come from, is where most of the funding goes. I’m proud to say the panel in the session I’m moderating is young and really diverse, and I love highlighting those stories.”

Adam will be moderating a panel discussion at The Future of Protein Production Chicago called, ‘Startups in Action: Life in the Trenches’, which takes place at McCormick Place on 24/25 April 2024. Book your tickets today to come and hear a further 75 speakers, 30 presentations, eight panel discussions and network with +400 other attendees. Click here

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch with us, please email info@futureofproteinproduction.com

About the Speaker

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