If you were to take a sip of NotMilk, a plant-based whole-milk replacement made by Chilean food-tech company NotCo, you might wonder how it tastes so creamy.

It’s not fat from nuts or oats, as with other replacements on the market. The secret, says Matias Muchnick, NotCo CEO and co-founder, is a mix of pineapple and cabbage. When processed correctly, the unlikely union of tropical fruit and leafy vegetable reacts to form lactones, which help give NotMilk a milky flavor and scent.

NotCo did not stumble across this combination through brute-force trial and error, says Muchnick, 35. Rather, his team uses artificial intelligence to discover unlikely pairings that mimic the tastes of animal-based foods using plant-based ingredients. “There is a complete world of ingredients that, in their combinations, we have no idea as human beings how they can react, or what they can create, when mixed together,” he says.

As more people, himself included, began to understand how what they eat affects their bodies and the planet, Muchnick spied a way to turn his passion for food into a business opportunity. He founded his first venture, a plant-based-mayonnaise vendor named the Eggless Co., in 2012 in Santiago, Chile. “It was the garage story,” he recalls, fondly, of the company’s humble start.

The mayo project taught him how the consumer-goods industry works, and after selling the company in 2015, he was eager to try again. He went to the U.S. to take executive education courses at the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Business School. At the latter he met computer scientist Karim Pichara, with whom, alongside plant geneticist Pablo Zamora, he founded NotCo. The company grew rapidly, and in 2021 it became the first Chilean unicorn, raising $235 million at a valuation of $1.5 billion. In addition to NotMilk, the company sells a range of plant-based products including NotBurger, NotChicken—the flavor of which is partly provided by another unlikely duo, tomato and strawberry—and a plant-based version of the Latin American sweet favorite, NotDulceDeLeche.

Matias Muchnick, founder and chief executive officer of Not Company, in New York, US, on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. (Gabby Jones—Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Matias Muchnick, founder and chief executive officer of Not Company, in New York, US, on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022.
Gabby Jones—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Muchnick attributes NotCo’s success to the AI tools his team has built, which he says are at the core of the company’s work. NotCo uses AI to design mixtures of molecules to produce desired tastes, textures, smells, and colors. This AI system, along with others NotCo has developed, allowed the company to create a plant-based custard in three months in partnership with ShakeShack—a problem the chain had spent years trying to solve, says Muchnick.

While NotCo is not yet profitable, Muchnick hopes the business will turn an operating profit later this year. As for the future of plant-based food, Muchnick believes that only by becoming “ultra-­obsessed” with customer experience can the sector graduate to the mainstream.

“It’s the experience that’s king, and the only way that we’re going to get that $10 billion industry, that today might be niche, into the trillion-­dollar realm.”

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