I can’t exactly remember when I met Joanne Zhang, but I’ve always been impressed with her professionalism. We reconnected at this year’s Innovation Showcase. I’m on the board of the Showcase sponsor, The Venture Club of Indiana, and met all of the startups nominated for the pitch competition. One of the finalists was Joanne, who is the CEO and co-founder of Flourring. Flourring was definitely the “sleeper” of The Innovation Showcase. It wasn’t an app, its financial model wasn’t SaaS, and it’s unlikely to inspire tech geeks. What Flourring does have is a huge market and consumers clamoring for its products. Not by name, but for the benefit of making many of the foods and beverages we eat everyday more natural, clean and healthy. I invited Joanne to present to VisionTech’s Screening Committee, and we all agreed she and Flourring should present at our October Pitch Events. Here’s a sneak preview.
BP: Tell me about your professional career before becoming an entrepreneur.
JZ: My career track is very different than many entrepreneurs. I spent 20 years in the corporate world, including 14 years at Praxair and a year with Danisco, an ingredients company. Over the course of my corporate career I worked in marketing, procurement and supply chain, and finance. At Praxair, I was in charge of finances for a $200 million business unit. I’m grateful for my time in corporate because it created a strong foundation for my own startup company. I know how and where to avoid mistakes and have been able to run the company professionally from the start.
BP: How did Flourring come to be?
JZ: Flourring started as a part of Phytoption LLC, a Purdue innovation startup company I co-founded. We had an SBIR award from the National Science Foundation to develop ingredients for drug, food, cosmetics, and agriculture. During that project, we have developed clean and functional ingredients applicable to the food and beverage industries. So we plan to use Flourring to focus on commercializing FLOURA™, a series of all natural, functional flours that could replace traditional emulsifiers and texturizers, many of which are artificial. Traditional emulsifiers, while present in many, many processed or restaurant foods, are usually not natural ingredients and are heavily processed themselves.
BP: What pain points did you identify in the market and how are you solving them?
JZ: There are two big pain points: Consumers’ demand for cleaner, more natural foods and food producers’ needs for a natural alternative to traditional emulsifiers that works for their products. Our proprietary natural flours solves both.
Natural and organic foods have been around and very popular with a segment of the population for a long time, but it’s only been recent years that the general consumer population has begun looking for and requesting more natural ingredients. As a mother myself, I had trouble finding healthy snacks for my own child that didn’t contain artificial additives. So there is now a growing “clean label” movement among consumers who are questioning the additives in foods and basing their purchases on what’s on a product’s label.
Consumer packaged goods (CPGs) companies see what consumers want but up until now there were hardly any feasible substitutes for traditional chemical surfactants, gums, or other types of unwanted emulsifiers and stabilizers. And they can’t just remove them as emulsifiers are needed to prevent separation of ingredients, create a smooth texture and extend shelf life. As an example, a liquid coffee creamer would have separate layers, if they took out the emulsifier. Can you imagine how unappealing it is? With FLOURA™, we’re providing a single ingredient option that’s non-GMO, gluten free, all natural, and doesn’t require chemicals to produce it, and works for a variety of food and beverage, supplements, and even some personal care products.
BP: What’s the FLOURA™ product range look like?
JZ: We currently have several types of flours under the FLOURA™ brand that address the specific requirements of plant milks, creamers, shakes, and smoothies; sauces, soups, and salad dressings; bakery items such as cakes and tortillas; nutraceuticals like hemp oils and essential oils; frozen desserts like ice creams and ice cream novelties; and finally, natural lotions and creams for personal care. In each of these categories, FLOURA™ helps ensure the stability and texture with desirable natural ingredient for a cleaner ingredients label.
BP: What’s your traction like thus far?
JZ: We are building our customer pipeline, and have signed letters of intent from two customers, one in the U.S. and the other in Europe. Both were looking for natural alternatives to current emulsifiers and found Flourring.
BP: How big is the market?
JZ: The ingredients market in the United States, Europe and Asia is huge. The overall global emulsifier market is estimated at $8.4 billion (USD), along with another $12 billion for stabilizers or texturizers. If that surprises you, consider this: emulsifiers and texturizers are used in a wide range of not just food and beverage products but also personal care, pharmaceuticals and even industrial applications. Flourring is targeting is clean label products, a market projected to reach $51.1 billion (USD) by 2024. Consumers are driving growth in this segment. More than 90% of U.S. consumers believe food and beverage options with recognizable ingredients are healthier. Beyond this, the market is attractive because of the spend of individual companies, which can range from a hundred thousand a year to a couple of million dollars.
BP: What’s your exit potential?
JZ: Very straightforward. There are only a few large players in the ingredients market and they’re watching the trend of clean labels, which has accelerated with COVID-19. Some have already been in contact with us.
BP: Are you required to have FDA approval on your products?
JZ: No, our ingredients are natural—corn, rice—so FDA approval is not required. We have gone through a legal review by one of the largest legal firms for the food industry to determine the labeling, and the conclusion was that FLOURA™ is labeled as a flour such as rice flour or corn flour.
BP: Do you have any IP protection?
JZ: I’m very proud of our IP protection. We have a lot of experience with patents so securing a worldwide patent for our process was a priority. That patent was filed in 2018 and is pending in many countries or regions worldwide. Ultimately, we’ll have several patents broken down from the initial filing that will protect our products and technology from different angles, which include materials, processing, and applications.
BP: Do you have competitors beyond traditional emulsifiers?
JZ: Our natural functional flours are the first of their kind emulsifiers on the market so no, we don’t currently have competitors other than the additives such as modified starches, gums, and synthetic chemicals we want to replace.
BP: How much are you planning to raise and how will the proceeds be used?
JZ: We are raising a $1 million seed round, of which we already have $800,000 committed. Half of the funds will be used to scale our manufacturing and the other half will fund our 2022 runway. We have a vice president of sales and will build a production team after the round is closed.
BP: Why should VisionTech Angels invest in Flourring?
JZ: There are three very compelling reasons to invest in Flourring. The clean ingredients market is predicted to enjoy high growth for the foreseeable future. Consumers are communicating their preference for natural ingredients and CPGs are responding where they can. Flourring provides new options that can enable CPGs to meet consumer demand. Second, this is a low-risk opportunity. We have established our products and processes. Now, it’s time to scale, which is what this raise is about. Finally, cost will not be a barrier to market entry. Our products are priced at or below competing products. Too, our gross margins are high, about 75% at scale, because the costs of our raw materials are low.
To learn more about Flourring, visit their website. VisionTech Angels’ October Pitch Events will be virtual on Thursday, October 28 at Noon ET and at 6 p.m. ET. Pitch events are open to our members and accredited investors interested in joining our group. To register, check your email for an invitation, go to our Events page or email Ben Pidgeon at firstname.lastname@example.org.