Sustainable food is one of the new favorites in the Green Technology revolution. With the growing global population and economic prosperity, the demand for nutrient-rich foods is higher than ever before. But traditional farming is simply unsustainable in today’s world with high carbon emissions and land/water usage. These challenges have driven entrepreneurs like Jonas Günther, Cofounder of We Are The New Farmers, to explore alternative sources of nutrient-dense foods and new ways of farming. “Microalgae is food from the distant past,” says Jonas, “…but also very much food for the future.”
We Are The New Farmers is a Sustainable FoodTech company based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York. The company uses a new way of farming to produce Spirulina, a microalgae that’s rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants among other nutrients. It is a popular source of plant-based protein, consumers can find tubs of dried Spirulina powder in any Whole Foods today. “Actually, if you look at dry weight, it has more protein than chicken breast,” Jonas explains. One of the reasons for Spirulina’s popularity in FoodTech is how sustainable it is. Compared to Spirulina, producing the same amount of protein with beef requires 14 times more water, 3800 times more land, and emits 19 times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (in fact, Spirulina is “carbon negative”, they intake CO2 and emit O2). That all has to do with the way Spirulina is farmed.
Spirulina is a cyanobacterium, which has been around for 3.6 billion years. That means it belongs to a family that is one of the first groups of organisms to do photosynthesis and created the first 10-15% of the oxygen on earth. We literarily wouldn’t be here without Cyanobacteria. “They’re primordial,” says Jonas, “and because they’re so old, they’re extremely efficient in turning very scarce resources into the building blocks of life.” Traditionally, Spirulina is farmed in warm, tropical climates. They’re grown in large open ponds in Southeast Asia near the equator. This method has a few downsides: one, growing the algae in open ponds makes them prone to contamination; two, in order to ship the product to the western markets, it must be dried. Spirulina is dried through the process of spray-drying, and then it’s turned into a powder. There are often additives added to the powder to prevent clumping, or if it’s turned into a pill, artificial glue is added. Dried Spirulina is not only more processed but also has fewer nutrients because the drying process kills the algae, it has a fishy taste as well.
We Are The New Farmers are approaching this farming process in a different way. “We grow [Spirulina] in what’s called a controlled environment,” Jonas explains, “[where] we have full control over the climates, life cycle, water quality, etc. We grow completely indoors using artificial grow lights, in closed tanks to prevent contamination.” All of this is to ensure that the product is high quality and pure, with no other strains of algae in the tanks. Spirulina and microalga, in general, grow very fast. Once the tanks achieve a level of density, the Spirulina is filtered out of the water, pressed slightly to get rid of some moisture, and the end result is a Spirulina paste. The entire process seems very straightforward, and it’s that way by design. “Fresh, completely unprocessed Spirulina is something that hasn’t been available in the American market at all, and that’s something we’re pioneering,” Jonas concludes. From here, We Are The New Farmers sell them fresh in 4oz, 8oz, and 16oz containers, or in tubs containing 30, 60, or 90 frozen cubes. They’re consumed mostly in smoothies.
Jonas is one of three cofounders of We Are The New Farmers. Originally from Germany, Jonas came to New York City in 2016 to pursue a Master’s degree in Management of Technology at NYU Tandon. Before NYU, Jonas worked in Product Management at MedTech companies, but he’s always had an interest in food of the future. Jonas had always been a cook and would grow tomatoes out of his balcony or basil on the windowsill, but he couldn’t picture himself being a professional chef or a traditional crop farmer. At NYU, with an ecosystem of professors and coaches from the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, Jonas was able to explore commercial uses of algae and indoor farming. “I had the seed in my hand, and NYU was the perfect soil,” Jonas jokes.
In 2018, Jonas went through the Summer Launchpad at NYU Entrepreneurial Institute with We Are The New Farmers and moved into their first production space. They started selling products in the middle of 2019 and have built not only a sustainable product but also a sustainable business model since then. The startup is DTC and prices one-time purchases for cubes ranging from $45 to $120, depending on the size, before tax and shipping. One-time purchases for fresh Spirulina ranges from $24 to $75. But the startup also offers subscriptions with a 10% discount in price, which makes a lot of sense. “This is a product people love to have for breakfast,” Jonas explains, “and breakfast is very ritual-driven.” In fact, the startup is making more than 40% of its revenue from subscriptions, and two out of three customers place another order within 90 days. The startup is enjoying a retention rate of over 65% and an LTV to CAC ratio of 6:1. They’ve been growing their subscriber base steadily at a 10% MoM growth since March of 2021, and saw a 76.9% increase in quarterly revenue between Q1 and Q3 of 2021.
Operating out of two Brooklyn facilities today – one in Sunset Park, one in South Slope – We Are The New Farmers has generated over $200k in revenue since its start. Its two facilities allow for a revenue capacity of $400k, and with expansion plans in place, that number is projected to be $25M by 2024. Because of the nature of the product, We Are The New Farmers’ placement in periurban areas accommodates their distribution. In fact, the Spirulina is shipped the same day it is harvested and has a fridge life of only 14-16 days. “Food is supposed to be fresh, food is supposed to be perishable,” says Jonas, “good food goes bad. It’s a sign of quality that the product is perishable.” This is also a driver of the startup’s recurring revenue, as the product is very sticky. The startup plans to open production facilities in Los Angelos, Chicago, Austin, and Miami in the next few years.
We Are The New Farmers are currently raising an equity crowdfunding round on Republic. “Anyone can own a piece of your local farm,” says Jonas, “‘own your food’, if you will.” The round has already generated interest from individual investors and will be used to implement expansion plans like moving into B2B and expanding the product line. We Are The New Farmers are planning on getting their products in more than 6000 smoothie and juice shops, as well as retail stores. This expansion will not only create a new revenue channel but also bring more exposure to the startup’s DTC channel since many smoothie enthusiasts discover new smoothie supplements through to-go smoothies. “Convenience is a huge part of health and we make the boundaries to follow your healthy habits as low as possible,” Jonas points out. The startup will expand three main product lines: boosters, bites, and bowls to make consumption as convenient as possible.
“I see ourselves expanding our product portfolio and really becoming a breakfast company,” Jonas describes, “the same kind of presence as Daily Harvest, Kind, or Chobani. I think we’re uniquely positioned to make microbiology a category leader in breakfast.” We Are The New Farmers is one of many FoodTech companies that are solving the global food and climate crisis through sustainable farming and food engineering. Algae in a cup may not be many people’s go-to breakfast today, but given its health and environmental benefits, I definitely wouldn’t knock it until I try it.