Post Headline Formula: Podcast #14: What the Health Foods Co-Founder and CEO, Stephen Co speaks with Andrew D. Ive from Big Idea Ventures about starting a company in the Philippines. Producing plant based alternative protein products using the flavours and tastes of South Asia.

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YouTube Episode

 


 

TRANSCRIPT

 

SPEAKERS

Stephen, Andrew D Ive

 

Andrew D Ive  

Hi, this is Andrew, your host from the Big Idea podcast focused on food. Today we’re going to be talking to Steven, the CEO of What the Health Foods based in the Philippines. They’re recreating traditional Filipino style foods, spices and tastes, using plant based ingredients. A great company doing some really interesting, innovative things. So let’s listen to what Stephen has to say on today’s podcast. Thanks for coming.  Welcome to the Bg Idea podcast: food. How are you doing?

 

Stephen  

Hi, Andrew. Thanks for having me. I admire your work at Big Idea Ventures. I am a huge fan of Big Idea Ventures and I’m happy to be a portfolio company of Big Idea Ventures and I’m just thrilled to be here.

 

Andrew D Ive  

Wow, that’s nice of you to say. I’ve spoken to a few people so far and you’re the first person to say that, I was starting to worry. Anyway, so Steven, you have a great company we invested I think about a year maybe a little bit longer ago now. WTH or What the Health right? How did you come up with that name? It’s very cool. 

 

Stephen  

If you’re in this meat alternative space, I believe it’s a huge advantage to have a great branding, a great brand recall and so we came up with something that hasn’t been done before, especially in the Philippines. It’s WTH. We came up first with the acronym WTH, we wanted that name to be the first thing that our consumers would say when they tasted our product. Like what the hell, it’s not meat. We knew it would register in any country I guess and so secondly we thought of filling out that WTH acronym and we thought through food matters. And so we thought like it’s Worth the Help. That would be a fitting name for WTH foods.

 

Andrew D Ive  

Was What the Food taken?

 

Stephen  

 It would sound too weird if it was What the Food Foods

 

Andrew D Ive  

No, I’m just you know, obviously there’s WTF right so I was like what the food?

 

Yeah. Actually, like a lot of our consumers mistake us for whatf? I guess you’ve also at one point mistaken it and asked me WTF foods?

 

Andrew D Ive  

I’ve always known it’s WTH. So let’s take people through what you guys do, where you are, why you’re special. Where are you based? What are the food products you are producing and why.

 

Stephen  

So we are based out of Manila, in the Philippines and we are the first plant based Food Innovation company coming out of the Philippines. So our mission is exploring the taste, texture and nutritional properties of local and sustainable raw ingredients like torajan, seaweeds, micro algae, mung beans and jackfruits and turning them into plant based versions of processed meat products that Southeast Asians love. Like sausages, hotdogs.  One of our best sellers is actually a jackfruit based corned beef. It’s huge in the Philippines made from foreign beef and we’d love to be an alternative, a more sustainable alternative, to what Filipinos eat and what Southeast Asians eat.

 

Andrew D Ive  

So in the Philippines, the kind of dishes you guys are creating from a plant based perspective are a range of very popular Filipino dishes.

 

Stephen  

Yeah, our expertise is in Filipino flavors and we create what Filipinos love. With Philippines being a developing country, our demand for animal based meat is ever growing and before 2050, we hope to replace that with a more sustainable alternative. So meat alternatives, we believe in the future of meat alternatives, especially plant based meat alternatives and we believe in localizing the taste and flavor to suit the Southeast Asian region, and especially the Philippines.

 

Andrew D Ive  

Give me some examples of the dishes that you guys replace. What are some of the more popular dishes that in Philippines people are used to eating and now they can get your versions of that dish?

 

Stephen  

Processed meat is very big in the Philippines, I guess. It’s the case of price and convenience factor why Filipinos consume mostly processed meat. In the Philippines they eat 70% processed meat. We have the mung bean base, ground meats, we have a jackfruit base, corn beef and shredded meat and we are in the process of developing a macro algae based sausage product and then fish ball. So those are very typical of a Philippine dish. They’re very tasty. They’re convenient, they’re consumed throughout the day and I believe it’s also quite similar to Southeast Asian culture.

 

Andrew D Ive  

What kind of channels are you selling your product in? Is it restaurants food service, etc? Is it packaged goods in a grocery store? Where can people get What the Health in the Philippines?

 

Stephen  

The COVID pandemic has greatly affected the Philippines and the trend of cooking at home and staying in has also grown. More people have been taking up cooking at home and so we are targeting that audience. It’s a b2c market. e commerce has grown exponentially already in our country and so half of our sales are actually from e commerce so that you can directly order from our website, or WTH Foods.ph. Or we have, at the moment, about 16 or so re-selling partners across 10 major cities in the Philippines.

 

Andrew D Ive  

And they’re selling it as an ecommerce product in those cities, or are they selling it as a product that’s available in stores and restaurants and things like that?

 

Stephen  

Most of our pioneers have physical stores that sell to their communities and I think that that has grown and that trend has grown over the course of the pandemic where things have been more localized than centralized. 

 

Andrew D Ive  

Got it. That’s a really interesting model. So you guys are manufacturing in one place, and then you’re shipping your product to different locations, and then they’re selling it in those locations. Is that what’s happening?

 

Stephen  

Yes, That’s absolutely correct. Logistics have greatly improved and accelerated because of the pandemic and so our products are currently in the frozen format but they are available to ship nationwide.  Just because logistics have massively improved over the course of the COVID pandemic and it’s a great opportunity for us. And so we are available nationwide in the Philippines.

 

Andrew D Ive  

Perfect, amazing how long have you been in business?

 

Stephen  

So we registered our company in late 2019, just before the pandemic and, as a typical startup, we had  to figure out a different model from what we initially started out as and it’s a struggle. It’s a big challenge. The COVID pandemic is still an ongoing challenge for us, but you know with the support of Big Idea Ventures and being in the accelerator program has been very relevant and has been very on trend in terms of responding to our food tech and sustainable food tech startups.  Big Idea Ventures have been very supportive of how its portfolio companies can overcome the challenges of COVID. So we are very happy to have participated in the accelerator program and that has actually helped us a lot in overcoming the challenges of COVID.

 

Andrew D Ive  

It’s going to be really interesting to see in three or four years time, how those companies who really got started during COVID, what impact that has on them, after COVID has been and gone. I’m going to be interested to see if there’s going to be this sort of generation of startups who, because they learn how to hustle and kind of pivot and change their business model to survive during that COVID crisis, whether that makes those companies stronger and more able to weather the storms of startup.  I think it will. I think anyone that actually started their business during COVID is probably going to end up being a stronger business in the long run. I think it’s going to be interesting to see so what’s your kind of number one best selling dish or product in  the Philippines right now?

 

Stephen  

At the moment, we have our Jack fruit based corned beef. It’s a Filipino thing. Corned beef, but it’s not the Irish corned beef, or, I guess like the Boston, New England corn beef. That it’s kind of like a shredded meat from a cow. It’s a very common Filipino breakfast dish.  So it’s like a meat hash? Oh, yeah. Right. Yeah. So it’ chock full of sodium, it’s chock full of fat and we are on a mission. It’s our mission to make breakfast more pleasurable and healthy for Filipinos.

 

Andrew D Ive  

Fantastic. So you started in 2019 and you’ve got a number of dishes you’re selling across the Philippines already? What have been some of the key things you’ve needed to learn or key challenges you’ve needed to overcome? Obviously, there’s the pandemic, and that’s brought its own set of challenges but, from a startup perspective, what are some of the things you needed to sort of learn as you launched?

 

Stephen  

That’s a very tough question. Everyday is a day to learn, full of challenges, I guess. The biggest would be really going up against huge meat, huge animal based meats brands. They have decade’s worth of experience and advantage in taking things to scale. And, you know, I would be a bit of an activist here and, you know, they haven’t been paying their dues, have been destroying the environment and have been producing food that is really unsustainable.  So we have to, as plant based meat alternatives startups, we have to go against them. And, you know, with their decades of experience in marketing and branding, we have to overcome that. We have to go mainstream. One of our big challenges is going mainstream, as I’ve mentioned, the Philippines and the region is actually still a developing nation and so the demand for protein, the demand for animal based protein is going up, is rising very rapidly against us compared to the more developed areas in the West, like Europe, or North America and that is a very big challenge for us.  Meat alternative startups, in terms of how do we resonate with our audience, how do we resonate with our consumers on in terms of our marketing and branding. I mean, the Southeast Asians, and I guess this part of the world, are not much concerned with animal welfare and sustainability as our Western friends are.  Our business thesis is actually built on three things, we believe that we can succeed and differentiate if we can properly add, taste, price and convenience. So, those are the three main challenges that are very relevant to us as meat alternative startups. And those are also the three key qualities that the big conglomerates have protected, case price and convenience. And so we have a steep learning curve, and we have to learn as quickly as possible.

 

Andrew D Ive  

Absolutely. So, how do you, given that you have a limited budget and you don’t have those decades of experience, how are you dealing with that? They’ve got the knowledge, they’ve got the money, how do you think you guys are dealing with that set of challenges? What are some of the ways that you think you’re trying to accomplish what you need as a business, given the competition?

 

Stephen  

So I am happy that we started our adventure in Southeast Asia and setting up office in Singapore. Singapore has been a pioneer in the region in promoting Food Innovation and being the leader in Food Innovation and I would venture to say that we are benefiting from that kind of leadership from Singapore, and Big Idea Ventures in the region, providing us with funding, with the connections, with support and synergy with other companies, with other entrepreneurs in the region. We are pushing forward that mission of promoting meat alternatives in Southeast Asia so I am very happy with what’s going on in terms of funding and investors. Investors coming into the region realize that this is the future. So we are seeing an ongoing trend and because of that, governments are also pushing for this industry.  The Philippines is trying to sign on as a signatory in one trade agreement. It’s called a CP comprehensive, something Trans Pacific Partnership and the local trade department of the Philippines is pushing for meat alternatives as an export potential for the Philippines. So I would venture into saying that in two to three years time you would see Filipino made meat alternatives being exported to North America and Europe and we will be there. 

 

Andrew D Ive  

Nice. That sounds great. So let’s unpack your product a little bit. Part you mentioned that taste was a key component of why you guys are going to win in this marketplace, you’re going to make sure that the taste is good and obviously in line with what people expect from a meat product, let alone a meat alternative product.  One of the things we get asked about a lot especially on panels and things I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot too, is plant based price competitive with their meat based alternatives? So you know, versus meat. Is your product price competitive, is it close to, is it double the price, etc. You know, Where are you guys from a price perspective versus the product you’re trying to replace?

 

Stephen  

Meat is still ridiculously cheap in this part of the world. I don’t know how they do it, it is super cheap. So we are still reacting off of what’s available in the market for what we want to replace with but with scale, with the attention given to this industry by protein suppliers by ingredient suppliers, we are seeing an increase in supply of our raw ingredients, whether it’s soy based or jackfruit, whatever. We are seeing an increase in supply and it would be just a matter of time, maybe 2 to 3 years I strongly believe we will see price parity with the meat products that we are trying to replace.

 

Andrew D Ive  

So right now 3x. But over time, you see that dramatically coming back down? So next two to three years. Despite the 3x you’re distributing your product across the whole of the Philippines, you’ve got 60 I think you mentioned companies that are distributing and selling your products in multiple outlets. So despite the fact it’s three times the price, people are still still buying.

 

Stephen  

Oh, yeah. So the trend is coming over to this part of the world and people are realizing that sustainability is key. It’s not very big yet, but sustainability, or the word sustainable has been coming up more frequently in our daily conversations about food. They understand what our mission is and so we are targeting our natural target audience. I mean, it’s still the millennials and the Gen Z that are driving this industry forward but we are seeing an older age group, 35 to 45 at the present moment, who are embracing a more sustainable lifestyle and plant based meat alternatives are satisfying that aspect of their diet. 

 

Andrew D Ive  

So do you do you see your products being used on a occasional basis, so someone will try it once and maybe they’ll try it again a month later and it’s sort of an occasional thing that they’re doing for the sake of sustainability? Or are you actually seeing people who are saying this is delicious, this is how I want to eat moving forward, and I’m going to integrate these products into my life ongoing. How? Or is it all over the map? It’s you know, people are just all over the place in terms of their habits now with your alternative protein products?

 

Stephen  

So that’s a that’s an absolutely great question. That’s the question that we ask ourselves every day as well. So we have some hardcore consumers that use our products every day but of course they’re generally one of the biggest problems of plant based meat alternatives is the low frequency in repurchase.Tthey would purchase it again but like once a month so that’s our biggest challenge. Marketing and Branding is more important too as consumers don’t appreciate the product so we have to improve our website and improve our marketing. We startups believe in doing product development and improving our products and then we see our lack of marketing expertise to compete against the mainstream.  I guess like meat brands, meat products and so that’s I mean we’re seeing it in the West with Oakley and Beyond gaining traction just because of like crazy but amazing marketing and we are looking into how do we do that in the Philippines as well to encourage more frequent purchases. We have a solid base of diehard fans, but yeah, going mainstream that’s a question that we ask ourselves every day, how to cross that chasm and become mainstream. 

 

Andrew D Ive  

Because I know that your products are really good, and they taste good and the quality is very high, I don’t think it’s the taste question. In my mind, there’s two things that you need to crack. One is getting your product in as many mouths as possible, because when people try it, they like it. So one is getting it into people’s mouths, and the other is the price. If it’s two or three times the price of meat, you’re going to get the people who care about sustainability, but it’s not necessarily going to be the core product that people just integrate into their daily lives, it’s going to be a, something they do, because they want to do good.  Now, thankfully, there’s a small percentage of people in the world who want to do good. So they’ll do what they need to do, pay three times the amount of money but if we want this product to be popular, integrated into everyone’s daily lives on a day to day basis, we need to get the price to a place where it’s on parity with the meat products we want to replace. So I think price might be a key driver, because I know that your taste is good.

 

Stephen  

Yeah, absolutely. So that’s also one of our massive challenges. For package packing, all manufacturing, it’s not, it’s not very prevalent in our region, there’s only a few choices of four. So, the traditional model has been if you develop a good product, you also develop the capability of producing or manufacturing those products. So it has been a challenge for us to look for co-packing co-packers in the region and anyone that you know, we have to invest contracts in, in putting up our own facility and we would be accounting that into our costs.  So I guess that’s also one of the challenges but when big companies like taking notice of this industry, they are putting up facilities to help startups like us to scale up our products and that’s a good sign. That’s a very good sign in our in this region and so we are looking forward to more co-packing facilities and manufacturers investing in Southeast Asia.  You know that with me, for example, like with the opening of the Buhler Givaudan Protein Innovation Center down in Singapore, we see the interest in r&d and in big companies and big legacy companies investing, like walking the talk and investing in alternative proteins and offering their services to Starbucks. So, if those are very, very good signs and so that’s why I firmly believe that in the next two to perhaps two to five years, some of us would be able to bring down our products to price parity with animal protein and that would be great news for the industry.

 

Andrew D Ive  

So hard. So obviously a lot of the innovation and the success we’re seeing in Singapore is partly because the Singaporean government has a plan and a vision of where they’re going as a country, and they’re very good about bringing the pieces of the puzzle together. How has the Filipino government done? Do they have a similar team of folks thinking about the future of food as far as you can tell? Or how supportive of your business and this category have they been so far?

 

Stephen  

There are agencies for the Department of Trade and district industry, we’ve seen reports where they are indeed pushing for this industry to grow. So I’ve been interviewed by journalists who are interested in this field and that would say that it does not take a whole government approach to push for this industry forward.  You know, with Singapore and the Singaporean government making so much noise about this industry, it would just be a matter of time before other governments would realize the potential of this, of the investment that comes with this industry and I wouldn’t venture to say that very quickly, they would take notice and put up our own capabilities in supporting startups in this field and industry as a really viable alternative than just investing in FinTech or whatever tech. They will realize that FinTech is also what would drive the growth of the country in the next decades. So, yeah, like, kudos to Singapore government, and thanks for making so much noise about this. And surely other governments can follow suit?

 

Andrew D Ive  

Absolutely. So, how many people in the team right now?

 

Stephen  

We are a team of 10.

 

Andrew D Ive  

I didn’t realize it was so many people

 

Stephen  

Well you know, it’s a very creative industry and, as I said, it’s all about taste and texture. Those are the primary drivers for consumers and, you need so much diversity in building a great team, you also need diversity in palette and tasting and you need like super tasters and people who are good at blending to get the right taste. So we have 10 people and all have different tastes.  That’s the beauty of food as well as the challenge. If you give a food product to 10 people that have 100 opinions of how to improve the product. So diversity is really important to us and we’re all Filipinos right now, we’re hoping to enter the Singapore market to test out products in a more diverse region in a more diverse country.  We need all the taste buds we could that we could muster to keep our products improving so just like any meat alternative company, we are improving everyday. We never stop r&d, and our products are just getting better and better every day.

 

Andrew D Ive  

I can attest to that. What are you most looking forward to over the next two to three years from a business perspective, what are some of the things you’d like to accomplish?

 

Stephen  

Business travel has to be one. We’ve been with lockdown for the past year, it’s been very difficult, especially in terms of scaling up, tasting the products, fundraising. I mean, the investors would love to taste your products, but  logistically it has been very difficult. so I missed riding the plane and bringing my products with me and getting it tasted across the region.  So I hope the pandemic will soon be over and an exchange of ideas will start flowing again. And it’s really different when I could let you know we have this in person pop ops demo days, having our products like taste that in person. Those are, I think very crucial for a young startup like us. So yeah, looking forward to that in the next two to three years and I guess that would be a jumpstart, I think like a massive re energizing of the industry.

 

Andrew D Ive  

Yeah. Perfect. So let’s talk now briefly about what kind of help you’re looking for. If someone’s listening to this, and are really interested in what you’re doing, what kind of help would you be looking for? What What do you want people to do when they listen to this podcast?

 

Stephen  

 And I believe food matters for everyone. Everyone has a role to play in making our food consumption food systems more sustainable, whether it’s in convincing consumers to take on more to take on a more sustainable diet or sustainable lifestyle, and for big legacy companies to invest in startups or in this space and area.  For us it’s cliche, but it’s like government support. Investors, who would be very supportive not only in funding, but in actively partnering with us startups, there are a lot of big food companies that have the capabilities of upscaling of helping us scale up the products. And it would be for the benefit of humankind, if, everyone comes together, and helps this industry grow and understand the emission of alternative proteins. I couldn’t express enough how grateful I am, or my team is, to begin to your ventures for letting the world know that food matters and protein alternatives is the key to a more biodiverse, fluid secure world. In the future.

 

Andrew D Ive  

Man, I should have sent you money. I should send sponsorship money for mentioning BIV so many times in this podcast, I want to reassure anyone listening that I never actually bribed him to talk about us so much. So I appreciate your thoughts and your sentiment about us. Thank you, Steven that’s fantastic.  So let’s just kind of break it down. If you’re a consumer in the Philippines, you need to go find WTH in your town, in your city, or online so that you can order the product and have it delivered to your home through e commerce and what’s the web address again for that?

 

Stephen  

So for our consumers, for those interested in checking out our website, it’s www.wthfoods.ph. Our social media handles wthfoods.ph and Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn. We respond in person so you won’t be talking to a bot, and we look forward to seeing you there.

 

Andrew D Ive  

Now you’ve also been getting some really strong interest from investors. I don’t want to tell people what your up to in that regard because it’s top secret but a lot of excited people about WTH especially from an investment perspective. So if there are people listening who could be potential investors interested in alternative protein and plant based meats in the Philippines. Now saying that, I know that you guys won’t stop at the Philippines. You’re already across most of the Philippines. We’ll be seeing your products across Asia, I would guess in the next 12 to 18 months, we’ll see you in other other countries as well. So if you’re an investor in this space, wthfoods.ph awesome. I’m guessing you are also on LinkedIn and stuff, aren’t you? Personally?

 

Stephen  

Yep. Steven Co

 

Andrew D Ive  

Steven Michael, last name, CO. Awesome. Just making sure that it’s very clear if anyone’s listening to this. Okay, one last thing if you can give people sort of a passing thing that you want people to remember most about WTH, as they wrap up this podcast today?

 

Stephen  

We we all know how we love our processed meat products but you know, it’s those same products that are deeply linked to the increase of lifestyle diseases. Cardiovascular diseases and cancer are the number one killers in the world today, we are on a mission to improve the health of Southeast Asians through better breakfasts through better meat products and I invite you to join us in our mission of spreading the love, spreading the word, because it’s where the health.

 

Andrew D Ive  

it is, man, it’s worth the health and you’re spreading the health through great tasting products, which people, if they bring them into their homes, they’re going to have a really good experience because the food is good andso will be their hearts and their health. They’re gonna appreciate that decision. So, okay, man, we’ve got lots to talk about offline. I’m really looking forward to pausing this so I can like ask you a few things.  But thank you everyone for listening. This is Steven Michael CO from What the Health  wthfoods.ph. For today’s podcast. Thanks for listening. And we’re gonna pause the podcast and please come and listen to the podcast next week. Thank you. 

 

Stephen  

Thank you, Andrew. 

 

Andrew D Ive  

So I hope you enjoyed today’s discussion with Stephen Co from What the Health Foods in the Philippines. Thanks for coming. If you have questions or comments about today’s podcast, please do come along to Big Idea Ventures.com where you can find me and reach out to me via our Contact Us page. You can also find Steven via LinkedIn and the details provided if you do like the What the Health company then I know they’d like a mention on social media so feel free to do that also.  So this is Andrew Ive from Big Idea Ventures This is the Big Idea podcast focused on food. Please do like and subscribe us on either YouTube, iTunes, and wherever you see this. Thanks for your time today and subscribe so you can find out about next week’s podcast. Thanks very much. Look forward to engaging with you then. Bye bye

Lorem ipsum | Vietnam | cesiscompany.vn

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