Mentor’s talk: know-how from Matt Tom

At ProVeg Incubator, we work with more than 75 mentors with different backgrounds and expertise. Now, it’s time for you to get to know more about them and their know-how on the alt-protein industry. Let’s start with Matt Tom.

Matt Tom is a specialist in food technology strategy and execution. Within these areas, he is dedicated to new product development, commercialisation, scaling, and manufacturing. Matt has more than 15 years experience in almost all aspects of the value chain – from post-harvest to marketing. He is founder and president of MTCC, a consulting company active in the food industry. As such, he has introduced several plant-based startups to the market. Some of the companies he mentored, including Impossible Foods and Eat Just, are now household names around the world. 

Matt shared some of his insights on startup development with us, as well as his current perceptions of the plant-based market. 

Tell us briefly about your background and how you came to set up your consulting company.

Matt: I specialise in new-product development, commercialisation, scaling, and manufacturing. I like to tell people that when I do my job well (i.e. launching the product into the marketplace), I’m basically out of a job! 

After going through this process a couple of times, I realised that early startups only ever have one product in the pipeline, so I would always be out of a job! That was my ‘ah-ha’ moment, and so I decided to start working for myself as an independent consultant! And, of course, over the years, I wanted to take on more projects to help move the industry as a whole forward faster. And now I’ve got myself a small business!

What are the key points you look at when working with a startup?

Matt: Because my company started out from my own skill-sets, I usually engaged with startups right at that transition stage where things are ready to move off the bench and into the larger world (e.g. scaling up). However, I noticed that as I started scaling these prototypes, it was necessary to go back upstream to fix countless issues – another ‘ah-ha’ moment’ I decided to try to get involved earlier in the development timeline and help guide R&D teams using a ‘design-for-manufacture’ mindset.

Supporting startups earlier led to three fundamental questions that I used to ask when helping to formulate product-development and go-to market strategies:

  • What is the mission and what are the values that drive you? How do these relate to your customer?
  • Are you actually a product company, or a technology company that thinks it’s a product company?
  • Is there really a specific problem to be solved? Or do you have a solution in search of a problem?

If you were to found a food startup today, which category would you focus on and why? (seafood, egg, snacks, etc)

Matt: Personally, I would focus on adding value or recapturing what are traditionally considered “food-waste streams” because it’s a huge global inefficiency. This could be actual food waste such as unsold produce due to consumer dislike, without there being quality or safety issues. Or it could be waste streams from another process (such as the material left over after protein extraction) where there is actually still a lot of useful biomaterial. I feel like it’s a poor form to continually need new fresh sources when there’s still untapped potential.

Supermarket’s food waste

What are the main challenges for startup founders when it comes to product development and how can they be avoided or overcome?

Matt: This falls in line with the three questions I mentioned earlier, and really gets to the heart of what the product is supposed to be while maintaining alignment with a company’s mission and values. Mastering the ability to zoom back-and-forth from high level down to day-to-day details and keep everything directed on path is crucial.

The other very important thing to remember is that we are making food products for people to eat. (ie, not science experiments and not software). Consumers are unforgiving when it comes to food, especially new-to-market products, now that there’s something new every day and much choice. You get one chance to make a good impression – and hopefully make the customer return. There’s no patch or bugfix that you can apply in the next version – it will be too late. And there’s no getting a ton of users first and then converting to payments in order to become profitable. Food products are very practical things. You have to win the first time, right out of the gate!

What are the top three things entrepreneurs should consider when looking to commercialise food products?

Matt: Firstly, the product must have a ‘killer feature’ that is easily evident in its appeal. A ‘good story’ is not enough. It has to be something that the customer can easily point to in head-to-head comparisons. 

Secondly, the process must be designed with an eye to large-scale manufacturing right from the beginning. Formulating a smarter path makes the journey easier and more enjoyable (ie, less headaches when commercialising and scaling, clearer path to profitability, etc). 

And lastly, engineering for product robustness. Customers never do what you tell them to do, unintentionally or otherwise, i.e. the product should be designed to do what it’s supposed to do –  it should follow the stated specifications. 

In your opinion, what’s a food startup’s biggest asset? 

Matt: Like with any company really, but especially for young small startups, the answer is always the people and the culture. The very definition of startups is “building the airplane while you’re flying it”. Success is directly related to the cohesiveness of the team and the strength of the vision.

Why should a startup consider joining an incubator programme?

Matt: An incubator offers many things – basic business management skills, network, mentors, publicity, and more. Depending on the experience of the founders, they could want all or some of these features. However, it’s important to know that all of these things help a startup move faster. And speed is the name of the game.

What is your favourite thing about working in the alt-protein space?

Matt: I am constantly amazed by the passion and creativity of entrepreneurs. They all have this shared vision where we can change the world for the better, and that’s amazing. 

Lastly, what would be your main piece of advice for an entrepreneur or founder in the alt-protein space? 

Matt: Be true to yourself, your mission, and your values. If you know you have a good idea, and you know how to execute it, don’t be distracted or dissuaded. And finally, always lend a helping hand. We’ll need to stand on each other’s shoulders to achieve the global change that the world wants and needs.

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