People - 21.03.2024 - 15:00 

Changing meat consumption bite by bite: Pascal Bieri from Planted becomes HSG Founder of the Year 2024

Entrepreneur Pascal Bieri and his company Planted were named "HSG Founder of the Year 2024" at this year's START Summit. The Werner Jackstädt Foundation prize is endowed with 10,000 Swiss francs. Together with his team, he wants to fundamentally change the way meat is produced, perceived and consumed and is encouraging a shift from the consumption of animal to plant-based proteins.

Pascal Bieri is one of four founders of Planted and a member of its management team. He grew up in Sursee, studied business administration at the University of St.Gallen and holds an M.A. in Business Innovation. After five years at Migros Industry in various positions, including three years in the USA, he founded the ETH Foodtech spin-off Planted together with three co-founders in 2019. Planted is now the fastest-growing startup company in the field of alternative proteins in Europe. Pascal Bieri is responsible for Sales and International Business Development. The company has already raised over CHF 115 million from investors. What is he currently working on? We spoke to Pascal Bieri at the START Summit in St.Gallen.

Pascal, you and your company Planted were honoured today as HSG Founder of the Year 2024, congratulations! As an investor, goalkeeper Yann Sommer is also convinced of your mission to change the meat industry. What does the company Planted mean to you?  

The entrepreneurial freedom to change something without being forced means a lot to me. As a flexitarian and entrepreneur, it is important to me not to force anyone to change their eating habits, but to offer a wholesome, even better, plant-based option. When I look back, I have the impression that there was an incredible amount of space in my life before I founded the company – this is now occupied, but very positively, by this mission, the team and our partners who drive me every day. Business and life merge over time, I think. You found a company and what you found shapes you as a person. It makes me happy to know that I can effectively help to ensure that fewer animals end up on our plates. And that this food is ultimately better and a lot of fun to buy, prepare and eat.

Planted produces over one tonne of plant-based meat per hour at its factory in Kemptthal. More than a third of the budget is channelled into research and development. What are currently the biggest challenges for a company in the foodtech sector? 

Scaling up the new fermentation platform. In other words, how can we speed up production without sacrificing quality? How can we eventually produce twice as much of our plant-based meat in one day? What adjustments need to be made to optimise production at such a high rate? And how do we get these products onto the plates of our consumers in the best possible way with partners? These are questions that are currently occupying us. The fermentation method plays a major role here; it is at the heart of the business. Our newly launched steak, for example, has been tested and developed by a team of 65 experts over a long period of time.

A look back: Financing is a big challenge for many startups. How did you overcome the obstacles as a team and overcome doubts during crises?

We knew that in the protein market, which is huge, we had to manufacture products that would sell like hot cakes. At the same time, we started the startup phase with an open mind as far as the business case was concerned. We simply wanted to make really good products. We often sailed close to the wind in terms of cash flow – some investments came at just the right time, otherwise we might have failed. However, I was always convinced that our vision of eating plants instead of animals made sense – and I never tire of defending it.

You studied innovation management in St.Gallen. Did the topic of nutrition also occupy you during your education?

No, to be honest, I wasn't particularly interested in nutrition back then. I only really became sensitised to nutrition while working for Migros in the USA. A key experience was reading a magazine in which futurologists talked about what the world could look like in 100 years time. One idea was that we can no longer imagine how we raise animals, only to slaughter and consume them later – all for structured proteins. We respect them too much as living beings and no longer need this inefficient process of factory farming. I was reminded of my cousin and co-founder Lukas Böni's grandfather, who ran a traditional farm on Lake Sempach. He had experienced how people switched from horses to cars – and in his youth, this form of mobility may not have seemed conceivable for the majority of road users. So why should the futurologist's idea only be a utopia? That was the initial spark for me to enter the protein market with new products based on natural ingredients.

To what extent did your degree course at HSG take you where you are today?

In St.Gallen, I met so many people on campus who encouraged me to change things and simply try things out. I was also inspired by the "entrepreneurial spirit" and the students' desire to make a difference. START Summit is a good example of this commitment. As a student, I also appreciated the breadth of subjects and the international academic exchange at the universities in Québec and Buenos Aires. And that you don't just study but can also get involved in many clubs or attend courses in literature and philosophy was inspiring. I went to HSG on the recommendation of Marcel Erni, one of the founders of Partnersgroup, among others, and I have never regretted it.

What advice was valuable to you when you founded the company? And what would you recommend to young talents if you were asked for advice yourself?

Listen to the customer, because we can only create and improve our products through a deep understanding of the consumer. As a result, product innovations are constantly taking place at Planted; our Planted schnitzel, for example, is already in improvement round three. Apart from that, it has always helped me to put forward a thesis and then test it in practice. Working in an entrepreneurial, evidence-based way, if you like – that suits me personally more than spending years pouring over degree courses, degree programmes and calculating probabilities as to whether a product could be successful or not. I'd rather try it out on the market, implement feedback, adapt the product or proposition and move on.

What plans do you have for Planted?

To replace animals on our plates with plants. We want to grow and reach more and more people with good products and offer them better alternatives to animal meat. The brilliant thing is that we can protect our planet with sensible and holistically good products that give our consumers great pleasure and make ecological, ethical and economic sense, without being forced to use them – bite by bite. 

Could you also imagine a joint venture with organic pioneer Raffael Wohlgensinger? He was named HSG Founder of the Year 2022 with his start-up Formo. His company produces dairy products without milk from cows, sheep and goats using microorganisms. Will we one day be able to eat St.Gallen bratwurst from Planted and cordon bleu from Formo & Planted?

A St.Gallen cordon bleu, that would be something – I'm always ready for new culinary approaches! I generally think that various biotechnological production processes – some of them newly combined or rethought – will offer us better, more sustainable, more interestingly priced and tastier products in the future. 

Planted was founded in 2019 after Pascal Bieri was working in the USA in 2017 and became aware of various meat substitute products, but was bothered by the many additives. He brought his cousin Lukas Böni on board, who was in the process of completing his doctorate in food process engineering. Through a professor at ETH Zurich, the two got together with ETH doctoral student Eric Stirnemann, who was particularly good at the wet extrusion process. The team was completed by Christoph Jenny, a financial expert who had already gained a lot of experience in the catering industry at that time. Judith Wemmer joined the Planted Executive Board as a late founder in 2020. Planted's products are designed to be as close as possible to the animal-based original, from flavour and texture to protein content. "When we eat plant-based, we want to eat the way we are culturally accustomed to and the way we like it – without sacrificing anything and with a lot of fun," said Bieri in an interview with the NZZ.

Last, but not least: The "Top 100 Swiss Startup Award 2023" honoured several start-ups by HSG alumni on 6 September. The foodtech company Planted and the fintech company Yokoy took second and third place on the list. Melanie Gabriel from Yokoy was named "HSG Founder of the Year 2023" at START Summit 2023. Both startups carry the official HSG spin-off label, which has now been awarded to 174 startups.

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