Forward-thinking Iowa farmer Jerry Lorenzen saw the potential for pea protein early on. Now his son and daughter are building on his vision.
Beyond Meat has created an alt-meat craze and sparked Tesla-like speculation in its financial prospects. But the world-changing brand of plant-based burgers might still be on a side burner in a lab somewhere in California if it weren’t for Puris.
Give our yellow pea protein a try as your staple ingredient, Tyler Lorenzen, scion of an Iowa farming enterprise, urged Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown a few years ago. It’s a lot better than soy protein for myriad reasons, Lorenzen assured the hotshot Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
And now, not only is Beyond Meat heavily influencing Americans’ notion of “meat” with Puris Holdings as a key ingredient supplier, but Minneapolis-based Puris has become a global leader in applications of yellow pea protein, in production of ingredients for alt meats and other innovations, and in spreading a regenerative agriculture ethos that has been at the heart of the family-owned crop improvement enterprise for more than 35 years.
Puris has grown quickly over the past few years and just completed the overhaul of an old dairy facility in Dawson, Minn., with a $150 million investment that will increase output by about 150%. It will make Puris the largest producer of pea protein in North America just seven years after first commercializing its product.
“We’ve been able to take mothballed dairy assets and turn them into what will be the future of pea protein production in America,” says Lorenzen, who is CEO of Puris, while his sister, Nicole Atchison, is CEO of the holding company, Puris Holdings. “It’s fun doing disruptive things and pushing the needle on what’s possible.”
He feels that way in part because the siblings grew up in a family that pushed the envelope in agriculture. In the 1980s, their father, Jerry Lorenzen, was living in Fremont, Iowa, and selling Purina livestock feed to farmers when he started thinking about the fundamental inefficiency of using crops to feed animals instead of people. He began breeding soybeans in his basement to make them tastier and supplied custom corn and soybean seeds to nearby farmers.
Soon, the whole family was crossbreeding seeds in a former school gymnasium as Lorenzen went all in to pursue his dream. He started a company called World Food Processing and got contracts to supply soybeans to Japanese companies. The startup even created its own brand of blended hot dog—part tofu and part free-range pork—that Tyler and Nicole would hawk at food shows and festivals.
But about 10 years ago, Lorenzen switched to yellow peas as his vehicle for the future of agriculture. For one thing, consumer sentiment was starting to turn against soy. Also, protein-packed yellow peas were organic, non-GMO, nonallergenic, and nitrogen-fixing. The crop could be planted at different times of the year to act as a natural shield against weeds.
“But when the company got into pea protein, the quality was such that most was being used as pet food,” Atchison says. “A lot of the early work our team had to do was prove that model wrong, to prove that it could be used in plant-based snacks or ‘milk’ or ‘meat’ without compromising on the product taste. First, we had to change the mindset: ‘Pea protein tastes bad, so you can’t formulate with it.’”
Lorenzen directed his son and Kushal Chandak, now vice president of research and development at Puris, to throw everything they had at perfecting the yellow pea. “We used a proprietary process of separation, temperature, and process controls to create the end results,” Tyler Lorenzen said, crediting Chandak for leading the ideation and execution. By 2014, they had a product. In 2016, Tyler Lorenzen persuaded Atchison to leave her career in biomedical engineering to come and run the family company and search for more capital.
Two private investors opted in but wanted the siblings to rebrand, so in 2017, World Food Processing became Puris. The team also figured out how to rapidly scale production to commercial levels. The company appeared on the radar of Cargill, and the global grain giant invested at least $100 million to help Puris get ahead of what turned out to be exploding demand for pea protein in the United States.
Now, applying its ever-innovating philosophy, Puris is looking at “what value we can gain out of other parts of the pulse or legume,” Lorenzen says, without being specific. That includes “creating new products out of carbs or fibers or even discovering proteins that solve problems for CPG brands and consumers that they’re not even aware are problems yet. We’re just in the first inning of where we’re headed with technology and making better products.”
Atchison says, also without specifying, “We have things in our pipeline that will truly change the game in terms of yogurt and dairy and the customer experience and we have it coming at scale. We can have plant-based nutrition that is the equivalent of dairy but with the mouthfeel that consumers expect.”
Puris remains a B2B ingredient supplier, but the company has launched an e-commerce site for consumers and a branded-content initiative aimed at helping customers “share our supply chain in the fabric and DNA of their company,” as Lorenzen puts it. The company is exploring ways for food companies to include Puris and its ingredients in their marketing efforts so they can tap into the sustainability narrative Puris has created.
The family and company mission extends beyond just selling yellow pea protein. They’re devoted to helping reform American agriculture one farm at a time. A sustainable food system is “table stakes,” Lorenzen says. “How can we build more diverse crops into our agriculture production system and really add more than we take? Peas and soy and other legumes do that. How can we grow them more abundantly and fight weeds by growing more plants?”
Still, the pea protein market is only about one-quarter of the soy concentrate market globally at this point. Chinese producers continue to dominate, having converted several dormant soy facilities into pea processing plants that actually buy peas from Canada and the United States, process them in China, and then ship much of the finished protein powder back to North America.
Puris faces an uphill struggle in getting more farmers to plant its yellow peas. The company is trying to persuade them to plant peas between corn and soybean rotations, but with prices high for corn and soybeans, dealing with anything other than the two staple crops is a tough sell.
And while Puris appears to be doing everything right to advance the cause of pea protein, not everything is positive for one of the hottest ingredients in the food business. Just Inc., a startup with a messy saga when it was known as Hampton Creek, was among the earliest food companies to tout yellow pea protein; its few products, such as Just Mayo, a mayonnaise substitute made with yellow pea protein, haven’t made much impact in the market.
Another pioneering pea-based protein brand, Ripple, which launched a milk analogue line a few years ago, encountered product quality problems and “tarnished pea protein for everyone,” alleges Julie Smolyansky, CEO of Lifeway Foods. Her cultured dairy products company introduced a line of probiotic beverages made with pea protein under the Plantiful label a couple of years ago but then withdrew the products from the market last year.
Still, none of these obstacles compare with the challenges Jerry Lorenzen faced while building the business; he is still chairman of Puris Holdings and runs the breeding operation. “He pushes us to be innovative,” Lorenzen says. “And we’re committed. It started with all the sacrifices our parents made by choosing to keep building the company and not selling out, and not selling our germ plasm to some big seed company.”