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Making Muufri – An Indian, an American and a Canadian walk into a lab…

Published October 4, 2014 | Updated October 4, 2021 |

April 15, 2014: I emailed two New Harvest volunteers that had never met each other before with an idea. Did they want to start a company to produce milk in cell culture?

Perumal Gandhi Ryan Pandya headshot

My friend Pantea from Synbiota had told me that a new biotechnology accelerator was seeking applicants for summer 2014 and winners would have access to laboratory space, mentorship and $30,000 in initial funding. She wondered if I knew any new start-ups that could apply. I didn’t… but I started thinking. Meat – that’s kinda tough for a few months in the lab. But milk – now that was something you get going in just one summer.

Ryan Pandya was one of the first people I had spoken with after I joined as New Harvest’s director in January 2013. He had dabbled in cultured meat research and first brought to my attention the idea of making milk in cell culture. He was a biological and chemical engineer who had just graduated from Tufts University. Perumal Gandhi I had met for the first time less than a month before – he sent me a message on LinkedIn in March asking advice for how to tailor his education. He had a biotechnology undergrad degree and was doing a Masters in Biomedical Engineering at Stonybrook University on a student visa. They were the only two people I’ve met in New Harvest’s network that had mentioned the idea of producing milk in cell culture.

I emailed both of them, asking if they wanted to apply. Amazingly, they did. It was a crazy time crunch. The deadline was in 4 days.

April 19, 2014: We submit our proposal as the “New Harvest Dairy Project”

We decided to apply as the “New Harvest Dairy Project,” hoping that New Harvest’s established network would help with the application.

Ryan had already done a lot of work on proposals around producing milk in cell culture. He had recently moved to an entrepreneurial co-living space in Boston called Krash, and he got in by posing the idea of producing milk in cell culture. Over the next few hours, and days, I was just shocked and impressed to see how Perumal and Ryan burst forth with all this research literally overnight. Patent searches, protein structures, pros and cons on different steps in the production process. It was inspiring, to say the absolute least.

Four days later, after several hours on Google Hangouts, Google Docs and Prezi, we had a sound presentation. One day ahead of schedule! Check out our proposal presentation here!!

April 22, 2014: Ireland, here we come!

WE GOT IT!  We were thrown into a frenzy of incorporating, buying plane tickets, opening bank accounts, getting visas and quitting jobs. We kept stumbling on what to call this thing. The names we came up with were embarrassing, to say the least (Noccau, Herdler, Bovino are just a sampleof the atrocities we came up with). Finally we got on a call and decided on Muufri. Great searchability, a free .com, and we thought it sounded awesome. Haven’t looked back since!

April 28, 2014: Muufri incorporates.

April 30, 2014: Ryan lands in Cork, Ireland.

When I first saw photos of Ryan in Ireland I couldn’t help but think to myself  – “What have I done?!!?!” Seemed to turn out OK though…

May 8, 2014: New Harvest’s Dairy Project goes out in the NH newsletter

Feedback from the newsletter was fantastic. The Muufri team was already receiving fan mail and media inquiries from journalists, including New Scientist – a forefront science magazine in the UK.

May 16, 2014: Perumal lands in Cork.

May 19, 2014: Isha lands in Cork. The Muufri team meets in person for the first time ever.

Isha Datar Ryan Pandya Perumal Gandhi in Cork

Literally a couple hours after we first met.

Meeting for the first time was nuts. I mean, we were all essentially strangers. I was shocked by how well we got along online and how well we seemed to work together remotely. But what about in person?

It turned out to be a breeze. The other accelerator teams there thought we were all old friends – not that we had just met. It was unbelievable.

The following weeks and months turned out to be a flurry of experiments, research, and making contacts. Without a doubt, New Harvest helped hook Muufri up with all kinds of resources and connections.

June 5, 2014: Natalie lands in Cork.

Natalie Rubio

During the summer of 2014, Natalie Rubio was New Harvest’s star intern. Knowing she was up for travel this summer, I invited her to come to Ireland to work more closely with me (Natalie and I were also working remotely) and help out with Muufri/take advantage of the accelerator environment and learning experience. Natalie stayed for a whole month and is to date continuing to help both New Harvest and Muufri.

June 30, 2014: Muufri’s self-authored article appears in New Scientist.

The summer proceeds with a lot of hard work in the lab and online. This article is our first non-New Harvest-related appearance online. It just explodes and we get follow on articles with the Washington Post and the Daily Mail. Muufri goes on to be mentioned in agriculture and dairy industry publications, too.

July 2, 2014: Horizons Ventures contacts Muufri.

Muufri had been engaging with several investors throughout their time in Ireland, but were especially blown away when Horizons contacted us. The disruptive investment group has a killer portfolio including huge brands like Facebook, Siri and Spotify, alongside our inspiring friends Hampton Creek and Modern Meadow. They had seen our piece in New Scientist and wanted to chat.

July 31, 2014: Ryan, Perumal and Isha land in Hong Kong to meet with Horizons Ventures.

Ryan Pandya Isha Datar Perumal Gandhi Hong Kong

This was one of the most surreal things for me. I got my ticket to Hong Kong the day before flying out, and the whole 15 hour flight I was thinking to myself: this is nuts. We were getting the richest man in Asia excited about creating a progressive food system. Our conversation was great and we could feel the excitement. We wanted to do something big and Horizons wanted to help us do that.

As we worked through the paperwork, I decided to remove myself as a company founder on paper. It is important to me to keep the non-profit voice strong in this new, emerging industry. It will help the industry grow faster, more responsibly, and encourage cooperation and communication. I was more than happy to put the future of Muufri in Ryan and Perumal’s extremely able hands.

August 29, 2014: Muufri meets again – in New York City

Perumal Gandhi Ryan Pandya Isha Datar in New York City

It is beginning to get ridiculous how we’ve been meeting up in places where none of us live. This trip turns out to be more of a fun visit. We check out Modern Meadow’s Brooklyn lab, which is just beautifully outfitted with the most high tech gear – then we check out the community at Genspace and meet a lot of talented folks who can relate to our modern-day, internet-relationship start-up story.

September 1, 2014: Muufri moves to San Francisco.

And really, this is where phase two of the adventure begins. The team starts securing laboratory and office space and the search for new hires begins.

September 30, 2013: $2 Million lands in Muufri’s bank account.

Muufri $2 million

And this is where it all started to finally feel real. I mean, the past 5 months and 15 days had just been an absolutely whirlwind. We were an idea – a seed – blowing in the wind. We went on an international adventure, three people from three different countries – Canada, the US, and India, meeting in three other countries – Ireland, the US and China, not knowing where we were going to land. It was the kind of whirlwind which seems like it’s gonna just blow over or blow away and be gone as quickly as it came. But seeing the money in the bank was like seeing Muufri planting some roots. We’re trying to break ground on making a food future which is sustainable, healthy and humane. This is really, truly, just the beginning.