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Durham startup featured on ‘Shark Tank’ wants your dog to quit its traditional meat diet

Wild Earth first gained notoriety after an appearance on the show Shark Tank.

Wild Earth first gained notoriety after an appearance on the show Shark Tank.

Wild Earth

A Durham startup trying to convince dog owners to ditch meat has just brought in a large infusion of cash.

Wild Earth, a plant-based dog food company that opened a second headquarters in Durham during the pandemic, said Friday it has raised $23 million from investors. The company will use the funds to expand its workforce, boost marketing and continue its quest to make cell-based meat alternatives.

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The startup, founded in 2018 in Berkeley, California, says its ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of waste in the pet-food industry, especially as pet owners around the world are expected to spend billions of dollars on their animals in the coming years.

A 2017 study from UCLA found that dog and cat food production releases around 64 million tons of greenhouse gasses per year, and makes up “about 25% to 30% of the environmental impacts from animal production” due to their use of water, phosphates and fossil fuels.

Wild Earth founder and CEO Ryan Bethencourt, who previously led the California biotech accelerator IndieBio, said the same numbers that bothered him about the human consumption of meat apply equally to pet food.

“You know everyone’s worried about who’s gonna feed the next several billion humans, and I was like no one’s thinking about feeding the next billion animals,” Bethencourt said in an interview with The News & Observer.

“I’m plant-based myself, vegan, and I thought: I bet there are lots of people like me that are looking for healthier, cleaner, more sustainable solutions (for pets),” he added.

Already, millions of Americans are buying alternative meat products for themselves, from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, Bethencourt noted.

In the past few years, plant-based food options have exploded across the U.S. food market, moving from a niche product to one that many Americans are buying regularly. More than 70% of Americans have now tried a plant-based burger or alternative meat, for instance, and non-dairy milks, like oat or almond, make up 14% of all milk sales, The New York Times reported.

Those stats led Bethencourt to believe around 30% of pet owners could be persuaded to try out a vegetarian-friendly diet for their pets. One survey, published in PLOS One, found around a third of pet owners would consider a plant-based diet for their pets.

Investors interested in company

It’s already convincing investors.

The new round of funds, led by At One Ventures and Veginvest, includes $17 million of equity financing and $6 million in venture debt, which can be used like a revolving line of credit. Its previous investors include some heavy hitters, such as Mars Petcare and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Business Insider previously reported.

Wild Earth first gained national attention when Bethencourt appeared on the popular ABC reality competition, “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to influential business leaders. Bethencourt secured a $550,000 investment from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on the Season 10 episode that aired in March 2019.

“Wild Earth is the leader in plant-based pet food,” Cuban said in a statement. “I’m excited about what they have accomplished and look forward to watching them become the leader in cell-based meat pet food.”

The company’s products are available on its own website, Amazon and Chewy.com. An 18-pound bag of Wild Earth dog food costs $70, though it can be less expensive if bought on a monthly plan.

Wild Earth claims that it had 700% growth in revenue over the past year, though it is not disclosing specific revenue numbers. It also says it now has around 40,000 customers across the U.S.

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Wild Earth food on store shelves. Wild Earth

A future of lab-grown meat

Bethencourt said the key to making plant-based food for dogs is using koji — a fungus used as a protein in some Japanese dishes — and wild yeast to provide protein.

“We use yeast as a primary protein source,” Bethencourt said. “Not only is it a great protein source, but it’s cost competitive. We can already out-compete the price of even the lowest cost meat.”

Making the decision to put your pet on a vegan diet remains controversial, mainly because there hasn’t been a lot of rigorous research into the topic, according to a report in Wired Magazine.

Putting a dog on a vegetarian diet is “doable,” Cailin Heinze, veterinary nutritionist at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, told The Washington Post. But she also warned that it requires a lot of care and attention, and she suggested consulting a vet before making any diet change.

“Most dogs can do quite well on a carefully designed vegan diet that meets all of their nutritional needs,” Heinze wrote in an article on Tufts’ website. “… The challenge is that designing these diets is not the easiest thing to do. While a number of commercial vegan and vegetarian diets exist on the market for dogs, not all of them are equivalent in quality.”

Wild Earth says it works carefully with veterinarians to craft its dog food formula, and Bethencourt feeds Wild Earth to his adopted German Shepherd, Lady.

“There’s a misconception that dogs are carnivores and they’re not,” Bethencourt said. “They’re omnivores, and they can survive and thrive on plant-based diets.”

It’s a trickier situation creating a plant-based diet for cats, as their bodies are reliant on getting some important vitamins directly from meat.

That is why the company’s next ambitions are around creating cell-based meat for both cats and dogs.

Cell-cultured meat is a concept that sounds like it comes straight out of a science-fiction novel. The cultured meat is created from taking animal stem cells and then growing them inside of bioreactors.

Many view it as one of the most promising tools for combating the climate impacts from the livestock industry. Hundreds of millions of dollars have now been invested into companies trying to commercialize lab-grown meat.

Regulators have not cleared it for use in the U.S., but Singapore recently approved the company Eat Just to sell lab-grown chicken as an ingredient, CNBC reported.

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Ryan Bethencourt, CEO of Wild Earth. Wild Earth

Bethencourt said cell-based meat will be the “second domestication” by humans, and his company is working with others to make lab-grown poultry and fish.

“The first was the domestication of plants and animals, when our ancestors 10,000 years ago moved from hunter gatherers to agrarians,” he said. “We think that the second domestication is going to be domesticating the cells of those animals, so we no longer have to keep animals to feed ourselves.”

Moving to North Carolina

During the pandemic, Bethencourt traded his house in Oakland, California, for a larger house in Durham.

But it wasn’t just the housing that convinced him to move to the Triangle, which he views as primed to see a huge growth in startups over the next decade.

It had become harder and harder to hire new employees in the Bay Area in recent years, as housing got expensive and the quality of life — in Bethencourt’s opinion — had fallen.

Bethencourt said he had a conversation with the founder of another Triangle startup, Durham’s Biomilq, who mentioned the large number of applicants it received for an open role on its team. It convinced Bethencourt to consider the Triangle as a place he could grow Wild Earth.

“We’ve actually found it pretty hard to hire in in Silicon Valley, and so I was like, you know, why don’t we try to see if we can hire someone” in the Triangle, he said. “We had (an opening) with one role, which was a customer success role. In the Bay Area we got maybe 10 applicants. In the Triangle, we got like 300 applicants.”

Wild Earth has now hired 15 employees in the Triangle, or about half of the company’s total headcount, with plans to add more with the new funding.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.

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