Meeting a stranger at a bar in Ireland can go a number of different ways. In the case of Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, coming together in Cork over a pint would lead to the creation of the world's first dairy milk made without cows.
Isha Datar, CEO of cellular agriculture research institute New Harvest, knew both budding young scientists, and knew both were interested in making milk without cows.
"In April 2014, Isha put us in touch and said, 'Hey, you guys are the only two people who have ever had this idea as far as I can tell—you should know each other,'" said Pandya. At the time, Pandya was working in Boston on next-generation tetanus and diphtheria vaccines. Gandhi was in New York working on tissue engineering.
One year ago today, New Harvest introduced two complete strangers, Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, with a chance to create a better #dairy industry by creating #milk without animals, in culture. This is a photo of the first day that Ryan, Perumal, and Isha met in person in Cork, #Ireland. 5 days later they had $30k to get started; 5 months later they had $2 million. And now, 1 year later, they are moving into a new lab in San Francisco as they have outgrown their first one! Happy first birthday, @muufri! We can't wait to see where you'll be another year from now! ??? #foodtech #startups #futureoffood
A photo posted by New Harvest (@newharvestorg) on Apr 15, 2015 at 9:05am PDT
"The three of us found out about this startup accelerator; it was accepting applications for three more days," Pandya said of IndieBio. "We stayed up all night working on these applications. We got in, and so we were in Ireland for three months in 2014."
In Ireland, Muufri was born. It was a man-made, vegan dairy milk.
Ryan and Perumal of @Muufri, making #sustainable #animal-free #dairy #milk at their first lab at #SynbioAxlr8r in #Cork, #Ireland A photo posted by New Harvest (@newharvestorg) on Feb 24, 2015 at 7:02pm PST
"Our products are made from real milk proteins combined with plant-based (lactose-free) sugar, healthy plant fats, vitamins, and minerals," the website read. "They have the same taste and texture as cow's milk, but pack in more nutrition with no food safety or contamination concerns."
By the end of that summer, the team had secured a $2 million investment. They were set on launching the company in Berkeley, California, but they were not set on the name of their company.
A photo posted by Ryan Pandya (@ryanpandya) on May 29, 2014 at 9:58am PDT
"We were kind of going for this Häagen-Dazs kind of Central European vague thing—and it was vague. It was kind of punny because it is free of moo," Pandya said. "We started feeling like that name was really anchoring us to what we aren't—we are defining ourselves by our lack of moo.
"That felt like the wrong framing. We want to focus instead on the positive, what we're actually trying to build instead of what we're trying to move away from," he said.
"And it was annoying to spell over the phone."
After compiling thousands of name ideas on an Excel spreadsheet, the team still hadn't found something that fit until coming across a study done at the University of Leicester in 2001 on dairy cows.
"If you play calming music to dairy cows, they produce more milk," Gandhi said of the study's conclusion. "Then they asked the question, 'Which song produces the most milk?' And one of the top contenders was 'Perfect Day' by Lou Reed.
"It just sort of clicked in our brains: That's a super-cool story, let's go and make a perfect day of our own."
They changed the name to Perfect Day and continued working on their perfect new milk.
The latest prototypes of Muufri's animal-free milk, made with milk proteins made in yeast!! You saw it here first!! A photo posted by New Harvest (@newharvestorg) on Dec 31, 2015 at 2:43pm PST
Gandhi and Pandya hit the ground running right out of the gate. The team could, because unlike developing meat without animals using tissue engineering, creating milk without cows could be done using technology that already existed.
"We wanted to see if we could apply that same type of thinking—taking medical technology and using it to make better, safer food," Pandya said.
"The way we're doing that is the same way that proteins are made for a million other things today. The way proteins are made for medicine and multivitamins and laundry detergent—even proteins to help clean up stains and stuff—it's all made the same way. Even rennet for vegetarian cheese is made this way.
"But what struck us was no one was using this incredibly mature technology to make milk proteins and make kinder, greener dairy products. So that's what we decided to do."
Our process is a lot like craft brewing. We use fermentation to make a special dairy yeast, who we lovingly call "Buttercup," to create the very same milk proteins (casein & whey) in cow's milk...all without a single cow! #?Free
A photo posted by Perfect Day (@perfectdayfoods) on Aug 31, 2016 at 4:26pm PDT
Perfect Day milk starts with yeast.
"That yeast we've nicknamed 'Buttercup' because it's sort of acting like our cow," Pandya said. "Basically it's possible because we've used genetic engineering to make a yeast that we got from the USDA which essentially did nothing—it was just kind of boring, very studied, very characterized little yeast. It just ate sugar and made more of itself living the good life."
"We took that USDA yeast and we transformed it into Buttercup, and the way we do that is we use 3-D-printed DNA," he said. "The data comes from cows, though we didn't actually have to interact with any cows—totally animal-free, even from the beginning."
@Perumal_Gandhi's first taste of Muufri 0.1 (just casein in water). Verdict: "needs improvement" @liaonet #muufri A photo posted by Ryan Pandya (@ryanpandya) on May 29, 2014 at 3:13am PDT
With its new DNA "blueprint," the yeast ferments sugar and creates real milk proteins in a process similar to craft brewing that the company calls "yeast farming."
"Then we add a special mix of plant-based sugars, fats, and minerals to make a totally new kind of dairy milk without chemicals, hormones, lactose, or other nonsense," the website explains.
The final product is filtered and purified of all yeast, making it a non-GMO food, something the Perfect Day team is determined to clarify to potentially wary customers.
"We're using genetic engineering to make yeast, right? But the product is non-GMO," Gandhi said, "and that's the nuance we're really hoping to be able to communicate clearly to people, because the protein that we're making is not an organism, it's not a GMO, and it's the same exact thing found in cow's milk.
"Everything else is already non-GMO plant stuff. It's something that you should feel comfortable eating because you've had all of the components before in different ways. We're just kind of making a new mixture that you haven't seen before."
Unlike a lot of food companies, Perfect Day is perfectly comfortable showing the public how the sausage is made. Its website offers up an incredibly detailed FAQ page in an attempt to be what Gandhi called "radically transparent."
"A non-food company doing cool science gets to talk about their cool science," Pandya said. "I think that should be the case here, too."
Perumal Gandhi with an early prototype of cow-free milk. What began as the New Harvest Dairy Project is now Muufri, the company making cow-free milk in South San Francisco. #biotech #startup #milk #futureoffood
A photo posted by New Harvest (@newharvestorg) on Sep 22, 2015 at 12:25pm PDT
Since the company's inception in Ireland, it has raised $4 million and grown to 12 people including key staff member Ravi Jhala, Perfect Day's head of food development. Jhala was responsible for taking Perfect Day to the next level in terms of flavor and mouthfeel, a task that brought together art and science.
"He was one of the innovation managers at Chobani, and within his second week of joining us, the samples he made were just way better than anything we had in the past two years," Gandhi said. "He just knew what was missing from our product, what to reduce, what to add. It was a little bit of both craft and science. He's absolutely killed it.
"He's the lead on making everything from cheese, to yogurt, to ice cream. That's something rare to find. He's been in the dairy industry for about 16 years now, and he's worked across the board."
This background is ideal for Jhala's new role at Perfect Day, considering the company's aim is to launch its first product by the end of 2017, a product that will not be straight milk.
"We are just shy of being able to announce what our first product will be," Pandya said. "We don't think it's going to be milk though. I think for a lot of people, they have that non-dairy milk that they're happy with, but they go right back over to the dairy case for the cheese, yogurt, and ice cream."
Perfect Day will create animal-free dairy products to fill that gap, catering to a range of different customers, from those who can't digest lactose to those who want to avoid contributing to negative effects of factory farming.
According to the UN's Environment Programme, animal agriculture production "accounts for a staggering 70 percent of the global freshwater consumption, 38 percent of the total land use, and 14 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions." Eliminating cows from the milk equation seems like a pretty great idea.
The company's next moves will focus on scaling up and reducing costs to bring Perfect Day products to food companies and grocery stores at competitive prices.
"We're thinking it'll be on par with organic-tier dairy products," Pandya said, "and eventually, it's such a more efficient use of resources that we can make the same thing for actually less money, and it'll be more affordable for people."
"There are so many different reasons that people are looking for those better options that make the world a kinder, greener place," Gandhi said, "and they're excited for us to get out there as soon as possible."
While that vision may sound a lot like a line taken out of HBO's tech industry parody Silicon Valley, Perfect Day really might help make the world a kinder, greener place.