Startup Stories: Fern Ho, CEO & Founder of The Leaf Protein Co.

The Leaf Protein Co. founder & CEO, Fern, had a chat with us about market validation, being a Startmate Fellow, and juggling global timezones.

by hao-nguyen on October 5, 2021

Fern Ho is the founder & CEO of The Leaf Protein Co., a company on a mission to bring back biodiversity in agri-food systems by introducing a new category of plant proteins, leaf protein.

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Hi Fern, welcome back! Last time we spoke, it was for Balance the Grind. For those who haven’t had a chance to read that interview, could you tell us a little about The Leaf Protein Co. and how you started that? 

I started The Leaf Protein Co. in mid 2020 when my co-founder told me about the concept of leaf protein, RuBisCo, as the most abundant source of protein in the world. We then spoke with many experts in this area and it became clear that this was a potential future food source worth investing in.

Although the concept has been well researched, starting in 1979 with a paper on “The most abundant protein in the world” by R. John Ellis, there are very few companies that have attempted to commercialise leaf protein as an ingredient for human consumption.

Wow, that’s really interesting. What would be your long-term goal for the company? Is it to get The Leaf Protein Co. products into retail outlets? 

Our focus right now is B2B, so we’re working with food companies and manufacturers who are looking for alternative sustainable plant proteins that are allergen-free and GMO-free.

Despite the growing interest and continued consumer demand for plant-based foods, food companies and manufacturers only have 3 to 4 major plant protein ingredients available to them – soy, wheat, rice and pea. So this is a fantastic opportunity for the industry to reassess the lack of biodiversity in our food system, which has had a significant impact on our health and the environment. 

By building a library of leaf protein ingredients from a variety of plant sources we aim to address this lack of biodiversity, giving food companies a larger range of plant proteins to produce plant-based foods that are nutritionally better for us and for the environment.

How has your role as founder and CEO changed over the past year as the company has grown, but also with the pandemic as well? 

Initially, a large part of my role was to validate the market interest and demand for leaf protein with food companies and manufacturers. So I spent a lot of time in 2020 reaching out to food companies to understand their requirements and pain points. 

When every company I spoke to from local food manufacturers to global household names started to ask to trial our ingredients my focus shifted this year towards gathering more of the right expertise and resources to be able to deliver on that demand. In some ways the pandemic has been helpful as there is a greater willingness to make remote connections. This is especially true with global networks which have been critical in connecting with the right experts in the US and Europe.

You gotta love Zoom! In addition to being a CEO, you’re also a Fellow at Startmate, can you talk more about what that role entails? 

I think being a Fellow at Startmate is not so much a formal role but being a member of a growing community of not-afraid-to-fail go-getters. I have the privilege of being able to connect with some of Australia’s most ambitious minds wanting to make a positive global impact, while also trying to give back by mentoring others seeking to embark on their startup journey.

Do you have any tips for anyone who’s looking to find a mentor? Is it just getting yourself out there and networking with the right people, or is there more to it than that? 

I think it really is as easy as getting yourself out there, especially at events. I’ve found that if you have a genuine interest in doing something, the vast majority of people are very willing to help or support you in your endeavours. If you don’t hear back from someone you’ve reached out to it’s often because they are just too busy. 

So it can pay to be persistent and try to reach out again at a later date, especially if you can show them what progress you have managed to make on your own. Sometimes people aren’t sure exactly how they can help or support you, so it’s often important to have a specific ask or question when you do reach out to a prospective mentor. This makes it a lot easier for them to understand exactly how they can help, and can make them more likely to respond.

Related to that, what do you think have been some of your biggest challenges while building your company? 

Australia is a small country and economy so although we have some great people and resources here I have had to look overseas. So on the one hand this has been challenging, especially constantly working through different time zones, but at the same time it has given the business a broader global perspective from the start.

You’ve gone global right off the jump! One last question before we let you go, tell us about your side hustle Flavour Pop. How do you find the time to work on it? 

The inception of Flavour Pop actually came out of The Leaf Protein when we pondered the need to create a B2C brand to help introduce leaf protein ingredients to consumers. With my background in product management and product marketing I’ve always enjoyed developing new products and bringing them to market. 

So while we scale development of our leaf protein ingredients I decided to develop a D2C brand that holds many of my own values and beliefs that food is a great natural medicine and healer of many health issues. I think it’s easier to find the extra time and energy to work on something you really love. 

I’ve loved developing the Flavour Pop brand and products, especially knowing that I can share the foods that have helped me overcome my health issues with others that suffer from similar gut and immune-health related problems.

Great thanks so much Fern, it’s been wonderful to chat with you again, and we’ll definitely be following The Leaf Protein Co. journey closely! 

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