Q&A with Bond Pet Foods’ Rich Kelleman

Rich is the Co-founder & CEO of Bond Pet Foods, a pet food company using biotechnology to create food that’s nutritionally comparable to conventional meat but without all the bad stuff.

Briefly introduce us to Bond Pet Foods and your journey to founding the company.

At Bond, we are using biotechnology to make pet foods from cultured protein, including real meat protein without the animal.  We are using microbial fermentation, which has been used for decades (think of enzymes for cheese), and reassembling the process for our meat-based recipes.  

This whole crazy idea came to be about 10 years ago when my wife and I moved to Colorado for a career opportunity.  My background is in advertising and I spent the past 25 years working on everything from diapers to motorcycles.  The account that I was working on here was Burger King, way before they were serving Impossible Burgers.  At the time, they were trying to compete with emerging restaurant chains like Panera Bread and Chipotle, who were redefining what quality fast food looked like.  Digging into BK’s business and sourcing challenges, the conversations opened my eyes to the challenges that are attached to meat production and conventional agriculture. Supply chain security, safety, farm animal welfare, sustainability — and more.  All of this stuck with me and ultimately I became a vegan working on Burger King. 

A few years later a dog came into our home and lives. I knew that meat could be a valuable part of her (Rumples) diet, but I struggled with the ethics and sustainability aspects of it.  And I began to consider — could there be a better way of giving our pets the nutrients they need without harming other animals, and the planet? 

At the same time, Geltor and Memphis Meats were beginning to make some hay around making various meat products and by-products through food tech, and I was fascinated by it.  I thought, could there be an application of this technology for pet food?  The more I learned, the more I realized the path to commercialization for pet food could be relatively easier because one doesn’t have to fully recapitulate the meat eating experience for our dogs and cats — the taste, smell, mouth feel and texture.  It’s primarily a nutritional challenge; there’s more flexibility with its form and function.

With that simple realization, I knew if I could assemble the right brain trust and find a co-pilot who was seasoned in biotechnology, we could create something special.  And Bond was born.

It took me a year to build out our core team; once we had that group together I self-funded some initial discovery in the lab.  We pressed ahead with that work, and once we finalized our tech approach we started looking for capital and closed our seed round last year.

As the CEO, what KPIs do you prioritize and how do you establish a business model that can serve both your R&D needs and business economics?

On the R&D side, it’s something that’s built on near and long-term milestones.  Our KPIs are centered around achievements in our discovery that demonstrate progress with Bond’s foundational tech, scale-up (volume and unit economics), regulatory (FDA/AAFCO) and defensibility (patents/IP).

Soft metrics are also important (P.R./reach/quality of impressions) to create awareness about our brand and work with the press, public and investors.

On the other side of the fence, while our meat proteins are in development, we recently introduced a first-generation product so we could begin educating the public about the beauty and merits of proteins and products made through fermentation. It’s a dog treat made with a dried, inactive yeast — while not animal derived, this “hero” protein is made using a similar fermentation process. KPIs for our commercial introduction include building our social presence, social engagement, site traffic and trial/conversion, and repeat purchase.

What has been a particular inflection point along Bond Pet Food’s journey that has allowed you to get to the point where you are today?

It’s less of “one” thing and more of a number of meaningful successes along the way.  In early 2019 we had an angel who wholeheartedly believed in what we were doing, and he took the leap, supporting us with our first significant check.  If we didn’t have his contribution we wouldn’t have been able to accelerate our research and discovery. Around that same time, we received recognition from Nestle Purina as one of its annual Pet Care Innovation Prize winners.  The relationships that stemmed from our first investment and the Prize led to VC and partnership introductions, which allowed us to run even faster with our R&D and hit meaningful milestones like developing our first batch of chicken protein, converting patents and launching our first gen dog treat bar.

Tell us about having Saudi Arabian Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal as an investor and the value add that he brings?

Khaled is amazing.  I can’t believe it’s been two years since we had our initial conversation.  Khaled and his team at KBW Ventures reached out to me after they learned about Bond in an article, and we set up a Skype call (I wasn’t nervous at all, right?).  Anyone who has met Khaled knows he is very serious and business-minded, especially when looking at something he’s considering investing in.  But he’s also very human, and we hit it off.  

It’s always a slow burn with investors, and it’s no different for Khaled. Beyond diligence, it’s also about building trust and the personal relationship since you’re truly partners in the business together.  Over time, Khaled and the KBW team have become big advocates for our work; they recently invested additional capital into our venture and have made introductions to press outlets, investors and distributors. I can’t think of a better partner.

What do you think is the most important part of a business to get right first?

I think it is the foundational idea.  It’s essential that you understand what you are trying to do, your mission, and then how you can translate that mission into a product or application that stands the test of financial interrogation — only then can it be a viable business.  Also, who can you bring in to execute on your vision?  The team is everything and you will often need a variety of skill sets.

What are the top things consumers want in pet food?

It depends on the segment you are talking about.  But first and foremost, it is making sure pet parents are confident that their dogs and cats are getting the nutrition they need.  One single product or recipe often needs to do more and carries the burden of delivering complete nutrition, since it’s often the same meal day in and out. There’s also a growing interest in many of the same values and criteria that have become more important for people and their own food choices, including a brand and products’ eco-friendly, farm animal welfare and transparency; when you think about the trajectory of food culture and how it has evolved, pet food usually follows suit.

And of course, price always comes into play for most consumers.  

What is a memento from your childhood that you still keep and how does it serve you?

I don’t think I have a specific object from when I was a kid.  I have memories and sayings from family from years past.  I grew up in a Greek family and my grandfather was a very wise man.  He would always say, “better days coming.”  Life isn’t easy — it has its twists and turns and it’s the same with a startup. Some days you’re riding high, other days you truly feel beat down. But if you dust yourself off, try and stay resilient and keep working on you, your business or whatever goal you’re pursuing, inevitably better days will come.

What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever done?

I’ve done so many weird things!  I would say that when I first met my wife, I tried to impress her by playing hockey.  I signed up for a hockey league, got all my stuff, and went to the first practice.  She came and watched from the balcony.  But there was a problem, I never skated before in my life.  It was just a pure sitcom: bouncing off the walls, falling on the ice, the whole nine.  But a few bumps and a little discomfort are always worth it for people and passions you care deeply about.

What is your creative outlet and how does it help you channel a flow state?

By and large it is walking with my dog.  When I need to take a break or am overwhelmed, I (literally) get some fresh air with my dog.  It lets me relax.  Interestingly, it allows me to make connections that I otherwise wouldn’t make if I was at home or the lab.  Also, it’s just a great feeling walking with your dog and you two having this moment, this time together.  

What type of dog do you have and what is your favorite thing about her?

Her name is Rumples, but we often call her Stilts (Rumplestiltskin).  We got her from the shelter and when she started growing we didn’t necessarily know what breed she was.  We found out that she is a Rottweiler-Pitbull-Shar Pei mix, all the breeds that you would think are vicious but couldn’t be less true.  She is so sweet and wouldn’t hurt a fly. She’s my co-pilot — she sleeps in our bed, we work, walk, play, howl, watch TV together. It’s an amazing relationship we have with our pets, isn’t it? They’re such a big part of our shared lives and experience.

What is one daily ritual that you cannot live without?

This is new to me but not new to everyone else on earth; I started drinking coffee a couple of years ago.  I literally just turned 50, so this is late in life.  I‘ve always been an iced tea drinker and never really had any interest in the beans.  But one day I was really worn down and had a lot going on, and gave into a cup (come on!). The neurons immediately started firing and ever since then I have my mug of coffee everyday.  

What is the last: 

TV show you binged?

The OC.  Back to the well on that one. 

Movie you watched?

I went to the movies last weekend.  A friend rented out the theater, we watched Tenet. 

Song you listened to?

Survivin’  by Bastille. 

Podcast you listened to?

The Daily. 

Book you read?

I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir by Val Kimer. 

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