About Organic Plant Protein
- Founders: Ulrich Kern-Hansen and Fie Graugaard
- Founded in: 2016
- Employees: -
- Money raised: 10 million euros
- Ultimate goal: -
Every year, thousands of new entrepreneurs over the age of sixty register with Chambers of Commerce across Europe. Innovation Origins spoke to a number of these grey innovative starters and asked them about their motives. This week, we portray them in a special senior edition of the Start-up of the Day series. Read all the stories about the “silver start-ups” here.
After building up a multi-million pound organic pork business, Danish entrepreneur Ulrich Kern-Hansen and his wife Fie Graugaard are still not ready to retire. Just past their seventies, they are now focusing on healthy and affordable meat substitutes.
“We had the first pig farm in Denmark where the animals roamed outdoors all year round,” says Ulrich Kern-Hansen (71) with a touch of pride.
“Pigs are wonderful animals,” the entrepreneur readily admits. “But they are not very good when it comes to the climate. They destroy the soil and were at one time intended as a last resort when harvests failed. In the past, before industrialisation, a farm had no more than two. The scale on which we keep them now is not future-proof.”
All those decennia in the meat industry were the reason why Kern-Hansen and Graugaard decided to look elsewhere. And the couple have come a long way. After selling their stake in their pork company Hanegal, they started Organic Plant Protein with the proceeds that amounted to around €10 million.
Kern-Hansen is sitting on the top floor of the modest factory and has just presented a tasting of what could replace pork in the near future: kebab chunks, chicken dices and burgers – but all made from split peas and broad beans. “We are working on perfecting the burger even further so that it can contain more fat. And we would like to start offering chicken nuggets too.”
Without exception, all the products taste good. The texture is rich and the flavour – especially in a curry sauce or richly seasoned – are pretty close to real meat. The burger is indeed somewhat on the lean side and does not yet measure up to its now famous counterparts such as Beyond Meat, which gained fame for its juiciness.
“Split peas and broad beans are very low in fat and that is what makes meat burgers so appetising. We can still gain a lot from that,” Kern-Hansen admits. On the other hand, today’s meat substitutes are full of chemical trickery and it is not always clear what substances a soy burger actually contains.
Inspiration for Kern-Hansen came in 2015. Although his pork company Hanegal was wholly organic, the climate summit in Paris unveiled to him the need to reduce the consumption of any kind of meat. ‘At first, that went just fine when it came to pâté, for example, but it’s much harder as far as sausages or meatballs are concerned.’
Via via he heard about a promising innovation from the Dansk Teknologist Institut. “They found a way to make texture from dry proteins. This is a huge breakthrough, because most meat substitutes entails types of wet protein, which means you get a wet product that costs a lot of energy.” The dry method also doesn’t need any artificial additives.
Organic Plant Protein currently sources the split peas and broad beans from Latvia. Another company processes them into pulp in Norway and sends it to Denmark, where there is potential to grow 8,000 hectares of beans and split peas – a demand that Organic Plant Protein hopes to encourage. Kern-Hansen and his team then produce the chicken pieces or other variations, with or without a ready-made sauce or recipe. Graugaard, co-owner of Organic Plant Protein, comes up with these recipes. Food brands bring these products to the customer via the supermarket. The Vegetarian Butcher might be one of our customers,’ Kern-Hansen says with a wink.
According to the entrepreneur, the meat substitutes from Organic Plant Protein are cheaper to make and healthier to eat than actual meat. Per kilo of substitute, only 900 grams of CO₂ are emitted, compared to 7 to 12 kilos for a kilo of pork or 60 kilos for beef. “The high temperature of our production process opens up these proteins extremely well and makes them more digestible.”
With the familiarity from decades of entrepreneurship, Ulrich Kern-Hansen is convincing: The idea behind both companies is basically the same. “Producing food in a way that is good for people, animals and the planet. When I started with organic food, the emphasis was very much on being responsible on a local level. You had to take good care of the soil, keep an eye on the groundwater.”
The seeds for his shift in thinking are found in increased awareness: “Nowadays, even though we are far from the desert, we are also thinking about desertification or harmful artificial fertilizers. We must leave this planet livable for our grandchildren, that’s my main objective.”
The car parked in front of his company’s factory is a Tesla, albeit a rather conspicuous one. Instead of being deep red or dark blue, this Tesla is covered in a kind of children’s drawing. Two children’s figures announce with speech bubbles: ‘For our future!’ and the number plate stands out too: ORGANIC.
For Kern-Hansen, running a company like Organic Plant Protein is a form of political activism. “Some people join a political party, I do it this way and try to use my platform. And my age doesn’t matter – as long as I can still run marathons, I’ll simply keep on going.”