Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi try to keep a vegan diet but, in their own words, "it's so hard and pizza is so delicious."
Rather than give up on their beliefs about keeping a diet that is kind to animals and the planet, the pair launched a startup—called Perfect Day Foods—to create an alternative: real cow's milk, without the cow.
"The only cows we've interacted with have been to pet them," Pandya, 24, told me over the phone. "There's been no animal involvement whatsoever. The reason we've been able to do that is because the field of dairy science have studied so much over the last few decades, that the entire genetic sequence of the animal is studied already."
Pandya and Gandhi enlisted a third party company to 3D print a DNA sequence that corresponds to the proteins found in milk. That DNA, combined with a standard Department of Agriculture species of yeast, creates the basis for their cow-free cow's milk, which they've dubbed Buttercup.
"Once we have Buttercup, it's just yeast farming, and this takes place in a brewery just like the way beer is made," Pandya explained.
That allows them to brew real, full fat cow's milk without ever touching a bovine. But while the milk itself was a major achievement, the pair's startup is really aiming to create all the wonderful things that come from milk: yogurt, cheese, and ice cream.
"It's pretty easy to find something to pour over your cereal or into your coffee. Those products exist," Pandya told me. "I remember the exact moment the idea came to me: I had a terrible vegan bagel, and that cream cheese—which is a generous phrase for it—was so drippy and runny and watery. I could picture in my mind that there's a network of proteins missing from this cream cheese. If only we could make those proteins, everything else would be easy."
Perfect Day started back in 2014 and went through the first class of IndieBio, a startup accelerator that focuses on biotechnology. Since then, the company has raised $4 million and assembled a 13-member team that includes Ravi Jhala, a food scientist who spent most of his career designing dairy products the old-fashioned way at Chobani and Sargenta. Most importantly, it's started experimenting with different dairy products made using Buttercup to figure out which product to launch first.
Pandya told me it's still top secret for now, but they are planning to announce which product will be released first later this year, with the food actually available for purchase by the end of 2017. It's too early to say where you'll be able to buy the products, but Perfect Day is hoping to release more info soon.
Since brewing real milk without a cow hasn't really been done before, Perfect Day has been consulting with the Food and Drug Administration to make sure everything is safe and meets the agency's standards, but Pandya said it hasn't been too difficult, because the milk is so similar to the kind that comes from a cow.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the startup has also been working closely with the dairy industry—the co-founders are quick to emphasize they don't want to replace traditional milk, just provide another option—which has been supportive, according to 25-year-old Gandhi.
"We heard from people that the dairy industry would hate us and try to crush us, but it's been surprisingly welcoming," he said. "They see the trend, they see milk consumption going down, and they're open to partnering up with us. It's refreshing how open the industry is to innovation."