The honey industry may not be the first industry that comes to mind when one is asked to name an unethical and unsustainable industry. Yet, in reality, there are over 20,000 species of bees that currently exist. However, most of these bee species that are native and wild are being pushed back by the notoriously invasive honey bee species that aid in honey production. In addition to being killed in the honey production process, bees face unethical treatments such as the smoking of bees and the clipping of the queen bees’ wings inside the beehives.
We recently had the opportunity to have a chat with Darko Mandich. Darko is originally from Serbia, a country in Southeast Europe, who spent 8 years working in the European honey industry before realizing how unethical and unsustainable the industry is. Last year, he moved to California and co-founded MeliBio alongside Aaron Schaller. MeliBio is a Berkeley-based startup that focuses on creating a technology that will produce honey without the bees. Earlier this year, the company was backed by one of the most prominent venture capital firms and accelerators, Big Idea Ventures, which accelerated their growth. Thus, they are aiming to launch a product into the market by the end of next year.
1.We first knew of MeliBio a couple of months ago, and it was very mind-blowing for us looking at how innovative it is! Can you tell us more about MeliBio and your journey with it?
MeliBio is looking to deliver a future that is better for the future and for the bees. For more than 9000 years now, humans have been consuming honey as one of the most amazing and powerful ingredients. Besides being a superior sweetener, honey comes with antibacterial, antioxidant attributes. It’s very positive for cardiovascular and cognitive health. However, we found out how unsustainable the current commercial beekeeping industry is.
Honeybee is one of the main bee species but not the only bee species. And with beehives multiplying all over the place, native and wild bees are being pushed back. Aligned with my personal mission as I became vegan, I also wanted to consume honey that is vegan, and therefore I decided to make real honey just without the bees and help humans to consume more of it and help the bees by reducing the pressure that they currently have from the commercial beekeeping.
2.You worked in the honey industry for a while. Do you think that the experience played a role in your realization of the unsustainability of the current honey industry?
I spent almost 8 years in the European honey industry, and I had a chance to see how the industry works and meet all the different stakeholders in the industry. Unfortunately, out of all the farms, only around 2% are small beekeepers, which have a different treatment towards the bees than commercial large-scale industrial beekeeping. During that time, I only thought of producing more beehives and honey. But only recently did I come across the latest studies showing that actually there are so many other bee species out there. There are around 20,000 bee species, and honey bees behave like an invasive species. They push back the native and wild species.
There’s also a pathogen spillover happening when the big trucks with bees are moving all around the place. When I looked into this, it really changed my mind because I was really surprised. I discovered an entirely new world that wasn’t known to me, and that was how the idea for MeliBio was born. I was fortunate enough to come from the traditional honey industry because I know the industry and I can really help this industry by taking it in an ethical approach for the future because current unethical practices include smoking the bees and clipping their wings.
3.There are vegan alternatives to honey, such as agave that have been in the market for a long time. How is your product different from the typical vegan honey alternatives?
We believe the products that we grew up consuming that we have familiar tastes and occasions. We believe that the future should contain all these products, but the future shouldn’t be relying on animals to produce them. We believe that honey is an exceptional product, but we don’t underestimate other products’ power because every product has a specific strength.
However, we see honey as a superior product because it also contains impressive flavonoids, amino acids, and a little bit of protein beyond just the fructose and glucose. And to everyone, especially the vegan population, we believe in providing them with an opportunity to consume honey as if they came from bees. While we believe that products shouldn’t be competing among themselves, we believe that honey is not replaceable by anything else. It’s just that how it’s produced should be kind, ethical, efficient, and innovative.
4.With so many labels such as plant-based, cell-based, etc. in the industry right now, what would be the best way to describe the honey product MeliBio is making?
One of the most important things with honey is that actually, it comes from plants. So, in a way, we can say that it is kind of plant-based. And we are actually working on some plant-based honey prototypes. But down the road, what we are looking for is just making honey without the bees, regardless of the approach. We believe that the perfect future food products will be made of several disciplines to create unique products that customers would love while helping sustainable development goals and meeting the functional needs.
5.MeliBio was backed by Big Idea Ventures a few months ago. Can you tell us more about that experience? And how have things changed since the investment?
Big Idea Ventures is one of the most memorable experiences I have in my life. I’ve never had an opportunity before to be accelerated in a couple of months. The network of people in the BIV community is really unique. My co-founder, Aaron Schaller, and I were challenged, inspired, helped, and supported by notable scientists, business people, and experts from various fields. They helped us navigate our venture into the future. I was amazed by the level of dedication and interest they showed us and how they excellently shaped us.
6.How has Covid-19 affected your company? If so, how has MeliBio adapted to all the changes?
We’ve seen opportunities and challenges. I’d start with opportunities because I think that we received an acceleration worth of a couple of years compressed into half a year. And there are just fantastic opportunities to get on the call with investors from Singapore, Europe, and all over the world. We can also get mentoring lessons on Zoom, which was really an important thing that helped us accelerate better.
On the other hand, we had challenges with the R&D process because our work in the lab was delayed a little bit. But thanks to our partners at the Cell Valley Labs in Berkeley, they adapted to the situation quickly and catered to us wonderfully with all the safety measures in check. At the end of the day, I’m thrilled that because of the dedication of Aaron and the days he spent in the lab, we are on track with the plans that we had before the accelerator program.
7.You are originally from Serbia. Why did you decide to move to the United States, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area?
I always wanted to be in an environment that questions everything and join the community making all these unbelievable efforts to make the world a better place. I’ve always followed the tech industry, but only after following the biotech industry did I realize how vital the industry is. I came here with an open heart and an open mind, and I was fortunate enough to meet my co-founder a couple of weeks after I arrived in San Francisco. And I like the spirit of California, the spirit of trying to find better, more efficient ways to help everyone across the board.
8.You recently published the State of the Bees report. May we know what it is about? And where will we be able to access the report?
I believe that the report is one of the most comprehensive reports that provide the opportunity for people to realize the relationship we have with the bees, what are different bees, how they interact with each other, and how the honey production and pollination are not helping them because of the pressure that we as humans put on them. We want to be the piece of the puzzle taking care of the bees, honey, and facilitate the conversation because we believe that the bees deserve a much bigger conversation.
Photo Source: MeliBio, Inc.