Darko Mandich has been working on developing food products both in his homeland and abroad for more than seven years with a special emphasis on premium products. Last year, he concluded that it was time to move on, he packed his bags and set sails for the US, determined to succeed. And, that is exactly what he did.
The products of his company, Happy Honey, have been showcased at prestigious food trade shows ANUGA in Cologne, Fancy Food in New York, Foodex in Tokio, PLMA in Amsterdam, and have received the Best of Serbia 2017 award in the category The Most Successful Establishment of a Start-up Business along with the SIAL Innovation Selection 2018 award in Paris. Once Darko concluded that it was time to progress even further and that the local market simply wasn’t capable of providing for more progress, Mr. Mandich decided to move on and continue building his career in the United States of America. And, soon enough he received an investment.
We had the conversation for Original Magazine a few days after he came back to Serbia and we started it by talking about Happy Honey’s beginning and how it later transformed into MeliBio, which is the name of his newly-founded company. ‘I have always believed that Serbia can offer not only quality food but also innovative concepts that, not only follow international trends but also contribute to the building of new ideas.’
Happy Honey managed to do exactly that by offering Serbian honey and Serbian raspberries in a new creamy structure on the shelves of eleven international markets. From artisan shops of Manhattan to Galeries Lafayette in Paris, this brand proved that big dreams of small Serbian manufacturers and innovators can, indeed, become a reality. Just like in life, in business comes a moment of transformation. My personal and business epiphany happened last year when I decided that I want to take my chances and try building a start-up business in California. While I was reading biographies of innovators such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, where one can read about magical California, I decided that I wanted to test my entrepreneurial skills in that environment. And, it was at that moment that I made a big decision that I would no longer be the most diligent bee in Happy Honey, instead, I would leave the company to my partners and head West alone. Not long after I have arrived in San Francisco, I had the luck of meeting one of the most promising American young scientists, Aaron Schaller from the University of California Berkeley.
In our discussions regarding honey and bees, MeliBio came to life, a new start-up of the Californian scene of alternative food. Soon after we have also started talking to potential investors and secured funding from NYC based VC Big Idea Ventures. The biggest American, Singaporean, and Swiss companies stand behind this fund. At the moment, we are taking part in their accelerator program and working on further developing and growing our start-up.
The MeliBio website claims that ‘The future of honey. Better for humans. Better for bees.’ Tell us more about the idea, and the way your company is developing right now.
‘Soon the world will have its 8 billionth resident, and by half of the century, we can expect this number to grow to 10 billion and more. The growth of this kind poses huge challenges for food companies and their supply chains. This is especially true when it comes to products made from animals that have great effects on our environment and whose market price is not realistic due to massive subsidies handed out by the state to this industry. To make it possible for people to enjoy the food they are already used to but still maintain sustainable development and improvement of the environment, there are special technologies that are being developed for food manufacturing directly from plants. That is how, today, in the US, one can eat a hamburger completely made of peas and other ingredients and it will have the same flavor and texture as a meat burger. The same goes for all alternative kinds of milk that are appearing in Western Europe and the US. For instance, oat milk during the pandemic in the US became a more sold type of milk than dairy milk. The idea behind MeliBio was to develop a special technology based on the latest innovations in microbiology that would allow us to get honey directly from plants without having to include bees as mediators. Bees, especially those that are not the honeybees, are endangered, their survival is essential for humanity due to their contribution to pollination.’
Your story is truly unique, you came to California with a backpack as a tourist just to receive an investment half a year later and start your own company in Berkeley. Can you say that you are living the American dream now and what does that dream look like in your case?
The American dream is quite an individual thing. I have always thought about the US as one huge playground for progressive ideas that directly impact and shape the evolution of mankind. That dream became reality for me due to the numerous incredible people I met in the past year. That group of innovators and entrepreneurs in one place creates a unique atmosphere for the generation of new ideas, products, and services. I am looking forward to my further personal and business development in California and I will gladly share the new ideas with people in Serbia.
You founded Foodscale Hub, an accelerator program that promotes Serbian brands that export food products. What are the results of this Hub that you are proud of?
‘It doesn’t matter how far away ideas take entrepreneurs from their home, he or she can always find a way to go back home. For me, that is the Foodscale Hub that I started as a non-profit group to help local business owners of the food, science, and tech industries. We have created an excellent team made of international experts specializing in scaling business endeavors of entrepreneurs and small businesses that managed to secure two big projects financed by the EU that shall be executed within the next few years. Nonetheless, here, we won’t stop and we will continue to broaden our team and use our knowledge and contacts to help create a better launch platform for innovations born in Serbia for a better world in general.
Shortly after I have arrived in San Francisco I met a young scientist by the name of Aaron Schaller and in our discussion about bees MeliBio came to life, a new start-up of the alternative food scene
You are devoted to the development of food products. When you analyze changes in the last decade, how have habits and preferences of people here changed when it comes to food and diet?
‘The last huge trend worldwide when it comes to food and diet that is becoming omnipresent is plant-based or vegan food. As someone who has been following a plant-based diet for a year now, I have to say that I have never felt better. I have managed to improve my health considerably and even lose 26kg. The energy level I now have is truly incredible. As if I don’t even feel fatigued at all. On the other hand, I understand that his type of diet is not the first option for people living in south-eastern Europe, but I believe that they will give it a chance thanks to some great people that are setting examples such as the sporting giants like Novak Djokovic and Louis Hamilton. Exactly due to the professionals such as the ones mentioned here, people will soon try this kind of diet for themselves and they will see the results.
I have always believed that Serbia can offer quality food and innovative concepts that not only follow international trends but also contribute to building new ideas and concepts. Happy Honey managed to achieve exactly that.
A few years ago you held a lecture ‘How to Fail Successfully in Your 20’s?’ Before anything else, what motivated you to do that and, please, tell us how one can fail successfully?
To make a mistake successfully and then learn from it is my version of living life to the fullest. A life like that is a life followed by a lot of work but it is also followed by quality and longevous relaxation. Nature tends to find balance and the same applies to humans since they are an integral part of nature. I receive most of my motivation from people that surround me, especially from my wife, with whom I always strive for a higher level of consciousness and improvement. Self-love but also love for others is a simple way to achieve a nice and successful life.