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FPP Chicago Speaker Interview: Luiza Villela, Founder, unClassic Foods

April 15, 2024

Inspired by her college education and early career in the alt-proteins industry, Luiza Villela founded a company selling delicious mushroom nuggets and steak tips. Here, she shares the lessons she’s learned along the way

As soon as she heard about alternative meats, Luiza Villela was hooked on the concept. “When I was at college, a friend of mine showed me a poster about UC Berkeley’s Alternative Meats Lab, so I attended the class, even without being formally enrolled in it,” she recalls. “Then I got a job at the lab while in college, and from there I managed to get a part-time job with Eclipse Foods. After that, I worked for Beyond Meat in Los Angeles for a couple of years, moved back to San Francisco, got a part-time job and started unClassic Foods.”

The contrast between being an employee and a founder is notable, and Villela advises that a thick skin is essential for founders. “Inertia is a powerful force, and it is very easy to die at zero. So, make sure you are confident enough in your product that you are okay being rejected. The most likely answer is ‘No, thank you’ both in selling and in raising, so get used to rejection. Don’t let it weigh you down enough to inhibit progress.”

What advice would Villela offer to those about to begin their own startup journey in the alternative proteins sector? “Be product obsessed,” is top of her list. Villela emphasizes that, “Most people are going to be neutral towards you and your dreams; you are the only powerful force driving this vision forward in the beginning, so get used to the feeling.” She also says to be aware that progress is not linear. “Things may not seem like they are happening for months on end, then in a week, it seems like you’ve made the progress of a lifetime.”

Inertia is a powerful force, and it is very easy to die at zero. So, make sure you are confident enough in your product that you are okay being rejected

And progress in alt proteins in the coming years will be firmly shaped by one key point, believes Villela. “Health is always the message: as a plant-based industry, it is the only consumer-facing angle we have. Not relying on animals is a ‘nice to have’ in the protein industry, but most people find it easy enough to dissociate themselves from animal cruelty in eating meat. And the environment is way too abstract for people to go to grocery stores thinking about it – no one buys food thinking of climate change.”

Health is an interesting angle, particularly as earlier generations of alt-protein products have faced considerable criticism for not being so healthy. How does Villela believe that companies such as hers can counter this narrative? “Make it so undeniable that it is healthy; no processing, whole foods, as close to origin as possible,” she advises. “Let there be no semblance of doubt, because if there is, people will keep finding reasons to keep eating meat.”

Of course, health is not the only decision-making factor for consumers: any alt-protein product must be able to compete with its traditional counterparts in terms of taste and texture. Villela describes this situation as “an asymmetric war”. Explaining further, she adds, “This benchmark to traditional animal protein is positioned to doom us from the onset. I suggest we try to innovate, not necessarily to ‘copy’, even though it’s tempting and it seems so obvious/useful.”

For her own innovation, Villela is using feedback from consumer panels conducted in restaurant settings to improve the sensory experience of unClassic’s products. Villela also reports deriving immense value from attending events and conferences outside of the natural foods/vegan bubble. “It’s important to meet new people and get their perspective on food regardless of their background or beliefs – it’s always useful to learn what people think about what they eat. True consumer intent is very hard to measure and understand.”

Luiza will be appearing on a panel discussion at The Future of Protein Production Chicago called, ‘Startups in Action: Life in the Trenches' and pitching unClassic Foods in our Startup Symposium. The conference takes place at McCormick Place on 24/25 April 2024. Book your tickets today to come and hear a further +85 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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