Will van den Tweel from Those Vegan Cowboys on the path to animal free dairy products

Those Vegan Cowboys is a Belgian company on a mission to make the best cheese without the use of animals in the process. We caught up with their Project Manager Will van den Tweel after his talk at sTARTUp Day 2022 to discuss the challenges and innovation in the field of artificial animal proteins, and more.

This interview was written by Tejas Anil Shah, a team member of the sTARTUp Day communications & marketing team.

Plant-based meat products have become ridiculously good in the past few years. There are reports from some brands claiming that their products outperform traditional meat products in taste tests. There is even a projection that plant-based meat will pass the “Turing Test” by 2023 – essentially it means that plant-based meat and traditional meat will be indistinguishable in blind tests by 2023.

Plant-based cheese is a different story altogether. Plant-based cheese products are nowhere close to the texture, taste, and price points of traditional dairy cheese.

Additionally, cheese is the number one product that plant-based consumers miss in their shopping carts as reported in a large survey conducted by ProVeg. The reason? The lack of casein, a protein that gives dairy cheese its edge. Casein is not found in the plant kingdom at all. A lot of companies now have their eyes set on synthesizing the elusive protein without involving animals.

Those Vegan Cowboys is one such company taking the challenge head-on. The aim of Those Vegan Cowboys is to produce milk proteins sustainably and ultimately more complex dairy products such as cheese by efficient microbial fermentation processes. We had the opportunity to speak with Will van den Tweel, Project Manager at Those Vegan Cowboys after his talk at sTARTUp Day 2022 to understand a little more about the company’s mission and his role there.

How would you explain what Those Vegan Cowboys are trying to do to a child?

The way we make things like milk and cheese creates a lot of problems for the environment. We need lots of land, both for the cow and for producing the feed for the cows, we also need lots of water and produce large quantities of CO2. We need to produce our food and food ingredients more efficiently. To solve this problem, our company is trying to produce the same products without the cows.

Are you vegan? What are your thoughts on plant-based alternatives?

I’m not vegan, but my children are. The more I think about these issues the more I’m convinced that switching to plant-based alternatives is one of the solutions that we need. I consider myself to be a flexitarian* however.

(* A flexitarian is someone who has primarily a vegetarian diet, but occasionally consumes animal products.)

You worked at DSM, a Dutch multinational corporation active in the fields of health, nutrition and materials for over 30 years before moving to Those Vegan Cowboys. What was the switch like for you?

It has been quite interesting. I used to work with innovation and scaling novel technologies at DSM. I have a similar role at Those Vegan Cowboys. So in terms of work, it hasn’t been a very big switch. However at DSM, there was a department for everything, be it regulation or clearances, that kind of support capacity is something that we are still building at Those Vegan Cowboys. We have some people who work part-time on these things, but of course, it can’t be compared to what was present at DSM.

Can you talk a little bit about the rapeseed protein project that you led before you joined TVC?

Sure, this was a project that was set up in collaboration with Avril, a French company and DSM. Avril is experienced in crushing rapeseed for oil production. Jointly both companies had an interest to extract the protein from the rapeseed byproduct. So we first set up a pilot plant to test a novel process of aqueous extraction of the protein and validated the concept. Now DSM & Avril are in the process of setting up a full-scale factory in Dieppe, France. It should be operational sometime soon. I have to say that these projects require a lot of specialists and are quite complex. I played my part in making sure that this collaboration was successful.

Apart from Those Vegan Cowboys, which company or process would you be betting on to solve this problem of manufacturing animal proteins in a different way?

This isn’t how I prefer to think about the challenge we’re working on. When you think of casein protein, it isn’t a single protein that needs to be synthesized. The challenge is quite complex and as such there could be lots of solutions and contributions to be successful.

Our company is set up such that we can easily collaborate and bring about solutions that are required.

We’ve even set up a bounty hunt to find a fungal spore that could help us bring about the solution together. So I’m looking forward to more collaboration and not competition.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

I’ve been working for a long time now. When I was younger, I think I was pushier and I wanted results fast. However, after working for over 3 decades in innovation I’ve understood that a lot of the work we do is extremely complex and sophisticated. So, over time I’ve learned to be more patient and I think it has made my life more relaxed.

Is it true that you can open a bottle of wine with a syringe?

Laughs first. Yes, this takes me back to the time when I was doing my Ph.D. In those times we’d sometimes bring a bottle of wine to the lab, which is nowadays not allowed anymore. Being at the lab meant we didn’t have a corkscrew to open the bottle. So, I’d plunge a syringe into the cork and pump air into the bottle. That would increase the pressure inside the bottle and push the cork out.

The next edition of sTARTUp Day will be held on 15-17 March 2023 and will feature topics such as AI, EdTech, FemTech and HealthTech, among others. To be the first to receive news and offers about the festival, sign up for our bi-monthly newsletter.
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