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Revolutionizing Sweetness: Alan Perlstein's Pioneering Journey in Cell-Cultured Chocolate

In the latest episode of the Plant Based On Fire podcast, we had the pleasure of diving into the fascinating world of cell-cultured foods with Alan Perlstein, CEO of California Cultured. Alan's journey into the realm of sustainable food technology began nearly two decades ago, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become a revolution in how we produce and consume chocolate and coffee.

Starting his career in a modest lab in Long Island, Alan was drawn to the pioneering field of cell-cultured food due to its potential to reduce environmental impact significantly. His first venture, Oobli, made waves by introducing protein-sweetened foods, addressing both health and sustainability concerns. However, it was the tension between the booming demand for chocolate and the ethical and environmental issues plaguing its production that spurred him to launch California Cultured.

California Cultured is not just another food tech company; it’s a beacon of innovation in a struggling industry. The company's unique plant cell culturing process aims to disrupt traditional agricultural practices that contribute to deforestation and labor abuses. By growing cocoa and coffee cells directly in bioreactors, California Cultured sidesteps the numerous issues related to traditional farming, from pesticide use to child labor, offering a guilt-free indulgence to consumers worldwide.

Alan shared with us the intricate process of coaxing cocoa beans into multiplying in controlled environments, eliminating the need for vast tracts of land and significantly reducing the carbon footprint associated with traditional chocolate production. This method not only preserves the rich flavors we cherish in chocolate but also ensures a sustainable future for the beloved treat.

For entrepreneurs and enthusiasts in the plant-based industry, Alan’s journey offers invaluable insights. From the challenges of pioneering new technologies to the triumphs of seeing sustainable products reach the market, his story is a testament to the impact innovative thinking can have on our food systems.

Keep an eye out for California Cultured's products, which promise to deliver all the joy of chocolate without the environmental toll. Join us in supporting a venture that's set to change the industry and savor the future of food, one ethical bite at a time.


>Episode’s Transcript

Please understand that a transcription service provided the transcript below. It undoubtedly contains errors that invariably take place in voice transcriptions.

Bryan (00:01.518)

Hello everybody, and welcome to Plant Based on Fire, where we talk about plant-based businesses and their inspiring stories to thrive in our industry. I'm your host Bryan and joining us today is Alan Perlstein. He is the CEO of California Cultured, a company that mass produces chocolate and coffee with a unique plant cell culturing process. And I can't wait to learn more. Welcome to the show, Alan.

Alan (00:31.604)

Hi, Bryan. Thank you for inviting me on.

Bryan (00:35.886)

It is awesome. I forget what I saw. I saw some article on, you know, and I am a total chocoholic. And so I saw some article about, you know, the destruction of chocolate and everything else. And I'm just like, gosh, there has to be some, some smart, awesome vegan type entrepreneurs out there that are trying to change this, this paradigm. And I Googled you and I think you and one other company kind of popped up on the radar. And so then we got connected on LinkedIn and stuff. And now here you are on the show and I've got so many questions for you. But like, before we dive into that, like let's start at the beginning, like tell us a little bit about what you, what initially drew you to the sort of field of cell cultured food and stuff. I think this was what, almost 20 years ago now?

Alan (01:21.268)

Yeah, I started my career basically from my undergrad studies. I was looking for a really great organic chemistry class. I found one in Baserow, Long Island. Ironically, at this time, I was also looking for a lab position. I love science. I love technology. And I know I wanted to do something by pushing, made some science forward and I saw a posting on the wall looking for some students helping with something called the MPPS project, which is the Muscle Protein Production System project, which was a R &D project made by a small group of scientists that were looking to grow cell -cultured meat in space. And that was… a significant and very exciting thing that I happen to sort of just come upon.

Bryan (02:27.246)

Very cool. And so I think what, and how do you pronounce the name of the company? It's, is it OOBLY? Is that how you say it?

Alan (02:36.616)

Yeah, that was my previous company so after sort of working at this Sort of project for a while. I was very excited about the the different technologies that we were developing and unfortunately Any investor that we talked to at the time thought we were completely nuts for suggesting self -cultured meat And after a little

Bryan (03:00.558)


Alan (03:07.316)

pharmaceutical research. From there, I was sort of inspired by sort of thinking if you could have like better food products, better technologies, you could impact people's health, you could impact the planet, you could impact quite a bit. So I was inspired at that time to start a company originally called Miraculix. This was in 2014 in New York.

I was working on a new type of sweetener that was a lot more healthier and not only that, more sustainable to even produce. These were sort of the really ancient proteins that only grew in tropical areas in Africa and in Asia. And for a long time, companies wanted to produce them, but they couldn't figure out how to source them or how to formulate them.

So I spent about a good two years basically bootstrapping while building some of this technology. I figured out how to turn the plant a lettuce to produce these really interesting sweet proteins. I got some venture capital. I moved the company to California, eventually went through some name changes to Joywell and then Oublie. And very recently,

The company has launched the first protein sweetened beverages and chocolates in the world. And this was sort of a very big journey as well as a very big goal that I wanted to do, to bring what I think are going to be the next generation of better for you and better for the planet sweeteners. And going through this journey and building this previous technology,

Bryan (04:44.334)

Mm -hmm.

Bryan (04:57.518)


Alan (05:03.092)

I also encountered some other issues such as chocolates not only disappearing, but unfortunately it's just been causing significant havoc just from its supply chain and production for such a long time. For those who don't know, chocolate is only grown in tropical areas. It's unfortunately tied very closely to mass deforestation.

Specifically, multiple countries have been hit by this, such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Brazil had massive deforestation, specifically related to coffee, and many other Asian countries have also been significantly affected with mass deforestation. And unfortunately, this is also tied with child slavery, forced labor, pollution.

and the excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers. So it was very environmentally destructive and we basically were seeing that these crops were failing very fast and the only way that the chocolate companies can keep the price lower was to try to get more farms to come online. But unfortunately there's been

Bryan (06:08.694)

Mm -hmm.

Alan (06:28.774)

so much disruption due to climate change, disease, and some disease -causing insects, it has devastated the crop and led to not only skyrocketing prices, but also your favorite candy bars as President Biden's is shrinking and your cookies are shrinking because the prices of all these ingredients are rising and getting more and more difficult to produce.

Bryan (06:36.686)


Alan (06:57.236)

So we were basically looking at this nascent technology that existed for a very long time. And that was sort of the beginnings of this company.

Bryan (07:09.486)

That is amazing. And it's it's a do you still have the other company as well? Or it's just to switch this name to California culture.

Alan (07:15.476)

I, yeah, oh no, the other company's still ongoing. They're launching products under the OOBLY brand, a really amazing ultra low sugar, but super tasty iced tea and chocolates. And that sort of, that education in the chocolate sector sort of highlighted the supply chain issues. And that's sort of what brought it to light for me.

Bryan (07:32.206)


Bryan (07:44.174)

And it's so funny because I just watched with my kids the want the new Wonka movie a couple of weeks back that finally came out on streaming. And, you know, just so cool to see his sort of coming story to life on how he created all these different kinds of chocolates. And I feel like you're now the Wonka of the of this culture chocolate market. So I'm not going to I'm going to ask you some silly questions because I don't think I'm a chocolate expert. But what I feel like I've seen.

Alan (08:06.676)


Bryan (08:12.238)

You know, I've seen it in ketchup and, and, you know, whatever else other products that are out there is that as some of the ingredients get more expensive, they also dilute, right? Like most of the candy bars have switched from like chocolate to, you know, chocolate, chocolate, Likour or chocolate, you know, it's just these sugar chocolates or whatever that have just, you know, one 10th, the amount of chocolate in them. So they can still keep them big candy bars, but it's not really chocolate anymore. Right? I mean, you see that dilution happening.

So, yeah, thank you so much for showcasing, you know, that, that, and unpacking for us the, the, the problems that are rampant in the chocolate and like, so chocolate is in my opinion, one of my favorite vegan products out there. And it's so good to know that the end of chocolate isn't, doesn't have to happen. It can live on through, through companies like what you guys are doing. So what was sort of the unique plant cell,

process. You've touched on that a little bit, but like California cultured has really unpacked this and how is it like, I mean, it is in essence, just chocolate just manufactured in a much more sustainable way. Right. Can you unpack that for us a little bit?

Alan (09:14.386)


Alan (09:27.156)

Yeah, in essence what we're doing is every cell of a plant has the potential to grow into a brand new plant. But if you can basically control lots of different elements of their environment, of the nutrients that they get, you're able to basically convince them or trick the cells to grow into a different tissue.

So what we've managed to do is we started with a single cocoa bean and we basically tricked it over tens of thousands of generations to basically grow and divide without the need of roots or leaves or bark or any of that. And we're able to do that incredibly fast. So we have a tank which we grow these cells in called a bioreactor or fermenter. It's

they basically, we basically feed them sugar water and different plant hormones. And many of these plant hormones are found in coconuts and rice and tomatoes, but we extract it and within the right ratios, these are basically instructions telling the cocoa cell of how to grow. So what we basically do is feed the instructions to these cells in very large fermentor tanks. If you're

If you want to think about like a winery or a brewery and from there we're able to get the little baby cocoa cells to divide and grow. And from there within a couple of days, just starting with a small inoculation, maybe like a couple of liters, after a couple of days the whole tank is basically full of these little baby cocoa cells. And after we take and then.

Bryan (10:58.924)


Alan (11:22.932)

take these cocoa cells and then we put them through another fermentation process with different cocoa specific yeast and microbes which are found in nature and from there we're able to basically get a the right smelling tasting cocoa and from there we're able to put it into these cocoa grinders and other processes.

that the cocoa industry basically uses or many chocolatiers use. So our product is basically something that could be put into many different industrial or even small artisanal processes that we're working with some chocolatiers to develop further.

Bryan (12:10.734)

That is awesome. That's such a, such a great way to walk us through that process. Cause I, I've been on the tour of the breweries and some of the wine places. So I know exactly what you're talking about on that front. So talk to us like, how does California culture's technology address some of those key sustainability and ethical issues that are, you know, as you mentioned, plaguing the chocolate and coffee industries.

Alan (12:36.18)

Yeah, so what we're doing is shifting a large amount of the production, which usually takes many, many years. Basically going from a small little sapling to a full grown tree takes somewhere between three to seven years. People don't even know if it's a really productive tree for like eight to 10 years. And then even the lifetime of them are maybe 20 to 30 years and they would have to get replanted.

quite often and they also have to get a significant amount of pesticides and fertilizers to get the tree up to that production point and beyond. We're saving significant amounts of time, of labor costs, of environmental costs, and even during the pods being grown, the diseases are so rampant in places like Brazil, they literally have to wrap up every single cocoa pod.

with sort of a plastic bag to prevent some of these insects from attacking them. And they're also basically spreading really toxic pesticides all over these areas. So they're very carbon intensive to produce as well as they also poison the area and poison many of the people basically dispensing these chemicals, which for the most part are kids. So there are some significant...

growing issues and then even harvesting there is significant amount of waste. Every single time it changes hands, there's waste basically happening from pods being underdeveloped through the quality of the beans themselves being rejected at different parts of the way. And then even the fuel for transporting it from bike to car to...

boat to truck and goes through about eight to ten different vehicles before it even gets to a consumer's hand. So we're trying to chop up the significant amount of inputs as well as the energy for the transportation and the production. So putting everything together, we see it's a massive energy savings as well as a real better efficiency.

Bryan (15:02.446)

Yeah, that is awesome. And we are trying to help all the plant based entrepreneurs out there with some of those tips and tricks on how do they get started? There's so many different ways that we can all be involved to change the world. And I commend you on your efforts. This has to be years and years of homework to get to this point of commercialization and stuff. What was the biggest challenge that you faced in commercializing this innovative technology?

Alan (15:22.74)


Alan (15:29.076)

Yeah, we were very lucky to sort of find some amazing experts, which is one of the biggest challenges in this industry. So you're looking truly for a tiny, tiny needle in the global haystack. So we had to recruit people from South Korea and Brazil and find experts in every corner of the globe.

Bryan (15:50.156)

Mm -hmm.

Alan (15:58.804)

who really knew how to develop this technology and scale this up, since it's such a niche part of bio manufacturing. And we had a sort of cobble together the team from the wine industry, the beer industry, the chemical engineering industry, and put that all together. And that was sort of...

a relatively unique way of thinking about building this company.

Bryan (16:32.078)

That's awesome. Yeah. And I think, you know, thank you internet because it has brought us all together globally. I mean, just a few weeks ago, I didn't even know you existed and here you are now on the show with me. So reach out to some of those experts is the, is the big takeaway there. Cause they're probably more than willing to help and or B you can get somebody from around the globe to help you dive in. Now I'm a chocolate connoisseur. I like to think so.

Talk to me a little bit about the taste and the quality. How do you compare these things together? Break that down for the skeptics that out there that are like, well, this isn't real chocolate, right? So help me dispel those myths.

Alan (17:14.068)

Yeah, so we're very focused on producing high quality ingredients and products that are not only really tasty, but can give many traditional chocolates a run for their money. So we've been very focused in making sure that we're producing amazing high quality cocoa butter. And we're very proud to say that it's the first in the world to be lead free.

because unfortunately in traditional chocolate, lead is a problem because the poplars trees are bioaccumulators. And many of the areas they grow in are usually volcanic soils and they suck in huge amounts of lead. And that's been a significant issue. So our first ingredient that we managed to figure out how to make from these plant cells is poplars butter, poplars mass, which is fiber.

Bryan (17:59.502)


Alan (18:11.572)

which is the bioactive components of chocolate. And we figure out also how to produce them in very high levels. In other area why this is superior to many different types of chocolate. So many consumers love dark chocolate for its health effects and the way it makes them feel. So there was a huge amount of science and research.

that was going into exactly why. Specifically, there was something called the COSMOS study, which was funded by Pfizer, Mars, and a subsidiary of Harvard, which studied over 20 ,000 patients in a double -blind study, where they were giving these people about 500 milligrams of these copo extracts, which naturally basically occur in

in a dark chocolate by less than 1%, but they had to produce an incredible amount of chocolate and copo to harvest that small percent to make these pills, which was a very long time coming. And they saw that consumption daily of these copoflavone pills reduced our cardiovascular issues such as her attack, stroke, and AFib.

by over 30%. So they saw a significant benefit. So we're basically trying to engineer healthier cocoa butter, super high amounts of flavonols, as well as these really delicate and fine chocolate flavors into our product. So we can basically create a chocolate that tastes like milk chocolate, but functions like dark chocolate, but -

has a lot more cleaner and sustainable profile. So that's basically the engineering work that we've been trying to create. So we've created everything from mainstream dark chocolate flavors to fine flavors. We can have notes of raspberry or even cream inside of it without having any dairy. So a lot of the technological innovation.

Bryan (20:10.604)


Alan (20:35.06)

is how we can make these flavors that people know and love, but make them pop and keep them relatively pure. And we basically think that as long as we can have these innovations that people want to see, as well as to price it at a relatively competitive price point, it's something what consumers want. And we think that this is one of the only technologies that can really make sure that

consumers can have the chocolate that tastes amazing with the properties they want and the price they want, which is something that we think only this type of technology can produce.

Bryan (21:17.166)

That is awesome. Yeah. I am signed up for everything that you just said right there. Like that is phenomenal. Cause I mean, as a person who's been vegan for such a long time, the milk chocolate is rampant and we have to get to those more healthy chocolates. And yeah, I'm a big fan of the flavonoids and all that kind of research. So I absolutely love it. So beyond, beyond the chocolate and coffee, are there other products you're considering for cell culturing in the future?

Alan (21:45.012)

There are a ton, but I'm going to point to other companies as well. There's a company doing cell culture avocado, another one in England doing wheat, another one in Asia doing rice. There are companies in Europe doing fruit and nuts. So honestly, if there's any environmental catastrophe, lots of scientists or companies are working.

on these relatively important crops. So if the price of avocados jumps up by a factor of 10 or disease hits wheat or something else, there are many scientists and entrepreneurs trying to work on these backup technologies. So we would be able in theory, thinking about 10 or 20 or even 50 years from now,

to grow like wheat, avocado, nuts, fruits in these types of systems anywhere in the world or even in space, which is the ultimate goal that what you think about like how are the future gonna feed themselves? In essence, trying to take in CO2 and convert it directly into energy for these plant cells, which is a real sci -fi.

topic today, but eventually it's going to happen and you're going to see tons of companies producing all these ingredients in new and novel ways.

Bryan (23:23.406)

That is awesome. You just, you just had my science fiction brain firing on all cylinders there for sure. I mean, clearly chocolate's the most important, but I'm glad to know when we go to Mars, we will be able to get rice, wheat and avocados as well on that front. So that is phenomenal. Um, let's go back to like the entrepreneurs that are listening to the, to these podcasts. Like what are some of the regulatory hurdles have you encountered or do you anticipate as you bring?

self -cultured chocolate and coffee to market.

Alan (23:55.956)

Yeah, so for, as I said earlier, I sort of been in this industry for a long time and seeing what the hurdles are and we basically put in engineering requirements all the way at the beginning of when we started saying that everything has to be completely food grade from one end to another. So we basically spent a lot of time sort of literally grabbing

Bryan (24:02.902)

Mm -hmm.

Alan (24:25.5)

ingredients off the grocery shelves and testing its viability. And that was a way to very quick and dirty find what works and what doesn't work, as well as to show that this was a viable pack. And by starting with these food safe ingredients that are already being sold, it basically lowered some of the regulatory risks that we were facing.

And that's maybe another thing, sort of trying to understand where your future risks are and trying to de -risk it as quick as possible with literally off -the -shelf ingredients or things that are much more available and lower costing. After that, we've also been working trying to find the best experts in the regulatory sciences as possible.

Well, it could be pretty pricey to find one of these lawyers or experts, but when it comes down to it, it's better to pay once than to pay two or three times with some of these people. So that's another really important lesson, making sure that if you're going to be spending a lot of money, you would get the best person to direct you. And you don't necessarily have to...

Bryan (25:41.358)


Alan (25:50.77)

Um do it all at once or wait till the last second You can always reach out earlier to say hi. I would like to work with you in a year This is my plan of what what to do and where we're going to go How do you think is the best way to work with you? Especially since my budget is is going to be minimal until we hit a specific inflection point so that also helped us a lot of figuring out what to do or not to do and making sure we avoided some

Bryan (26:17.71)

Mm -hmm.

Alan (26:20.082)

massive missteps within that regulatory process. And now we're basically all set for our regulatory application cycle this coming up quarter. So we're very excited that we were able to do things like that.

Bryan (26:34.414)

Yeah. Wow. That was just loaded with awesome advice. I can't underscore that enough. I mean, like people like you and me are glad to give five, 10 minutes here and there for anybody that just has a quick question and like, yeah, in a year from now, I'll charge you this much to help you get off your feet. So like, please feel free to reach out to the experts that you can find. And I'm most people are more than willing to pour in a little bit. And then you made me think of this.

One quote I heard a week or two ago, it was more in the development space, but it was something like weeks and weeks of manufacturing can save you hours of planning. So like I totally agree with you on the planning side of it. But yeah, thank you for that advice. And talk to us a little bit about the funny, the money piece of it. Like you touched on it a little bit. How have you approached funding and investment opportunities for California culture?

Alan (27:29.012)

Yeah, so funding like everything else is also significant amounts of planning. Quite a while before I was looking to funding, I sort of started catching up with some peers, some friends, some reaching out to people online as well who would fund different technology like this and start introducing ourselves.

literally months before, even years before we were looking to raise from them. And when we basically, we sort of reached out to everybody, even funds that were relatively advanced. And the reason why is you have to start planting your seeds now. So in a year or two years or three years, you never know where you could reconnect.

Bryan (28:20.59)

Mm -hmm.

Alan (28:27.732)

but that's a relatively important part, just establishing yourselves, cold calling, working with a team to send these things out. There's so many different ways to start planning and building your network, even though if you don't have anything, that's most of how many entrepreneurs start. It's just cold email and cold outreach.

And you also have to build up your rejection muscle as well, because as anything in entrepreneurship, you're going to be rejected a lot. You know, just always the, you know, the biggest entrepreneurs of our time got rejected dozens to hundreds of times. So skill number one, getting rejected by many investors.

Bryan (29:02.734)


Alan (29:24.116)

And still moving forward is probably another way how to prepare yourself because many times there's a very few percentage of the right people out there and you just have to just navigate through crowds to get there and that's just putting in the basic work.

Bryan (29:46.51)

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, very, very well said. I mean, you, it's just, I guess it's very similar to the cocoa tree. It takes three to 10 years to really get to cocoa tree growing the right thing. But if you're building your business, it takes that same amount of time. That's why most businesses fail within the first five years. Um, you got to get out there and plant those seeds. So where, where do you see California cultured in the next 10 years? And how do you envision its role in the future of food?

Alan (30:15.316)

Yeah, we basically see ourselves growing quite substantially over the next couple of years. Unfortunately, we've also seen what's been happening in these forest areas. They're significantly losing their capacity to grow cocoa and coffee. It's been getting worse and worse and worse. Just...

For instance, just seeing the severe shortages that many industries are facing today. And we're also seeing not only severe shortages, but there's an even larger demand for chocolate and coffee coming down the pipeline. There's a bigger demand in the US. South America, again, ravenous for chocolate and coffee. China, India, many of the world's most populated places are

just getting a taste for these foods at the same time that they're disappearing. And this means either there's going to be massive deforestation or other issues happening, or the world can find more sustainable ways of growing the world's chocolate and coffee. And we think that this technology is going to be a very important piece of solving these significant shortages.

that the world's going to encounter. So we're going to be significantly ramping up over the next five to 10 years. And overall, you're going to see our chocolate pop up in lots of places, from everywhere, from your skin cream with enhanced cocoa butter properties, to lotions, to even materials as well. So we're very excited.

with the shield applicability of this type of technology. And as this gets more and more scaled up, it's going to be in a lot of places. So we're very excited that we're gonna be launching our first products at the end of this year with Meji Chocolate, who's known for making Hello Panda snacks and other products. And we're gonna be launching some mainstream chocolates over the next year.

Bryan (32:43.982)

That is awesome. I mean, I can't say thank you enough for having that vision so many years ago to start on this journey. And while the hurdles you have faced, I'm sure have been, uh, numerous over the years, but you're, you feel like, I feel like you're so close to the finish line on many, many levels. And I wanted to say thank you so much for coming on the show and talking to us about the rampant problems in the chocolate coffee world and just how you're helping to be a big part of the solution for the future. So.

What can we do as a community to help you and California culture, you know, and what are the best ways to get in touch?

Alan (33:22.996)

Yeah, so the best way to get in touch is reach out. We're at caculture .com. You can find us on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn. We'd love to connect. And if you have any questions, we'd love to answer them and be on the lookout at the end of this year for some of our really groundbreaking chocolate products that we're going to be launching. So we'll be...

Locked to connect.

Bryan (33:54.606)

Awesome. Is there anything in particular we can do as a community to help spread the word on anything in particular?

Alan (33:59.508)

Um, yeah, just blast it on your socials and just learn more about, you know, our our favorite ingredients and and what's happening to them. I think education is always, you know, the first step and just let people know, save, we have to work to save the world's species and chocolate and coffee are

super important. So we're a big fans of social responsibility when it comes with sustainable practices and definitely try to save as many of these delicious species as we can.

Bryan (34:30.444)

Mm -hmm.

Bryan (34:46.67)

That is awesome. Thank you again, Paul, for being here and spending some time and educating us on this. I think there's tons of great business tips too. So that is all the time we have for this episode of the Plant Based on Fire podcast. Again, thank you. Thank you, Helen, for all your time and help on this and sharing your insights and experiences with our community. So until next time, everybody, let's keep those fires burning.



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