How A Vegan Startup Is Pivoting To Create The ‘Pandora of Food’

Talk about making changes on the fly. In July 2015, Alexis Fox , the cofounder of  Lighter, a Boston-based startup that helps people move to a healthier, plant-based diet, was heading to London to meet with an investor. Her pitch was all ready to go, describing how the company would provide nutritional advice, menu planning and food delivery.

But as she was traveling to the airport, she received a call from her consulting engineer, who proposed a radical change in their business model.

Fox  liked what she heard so much that she asked him to write up a rough pitch deck. After  she landed in London, she spent all night refining it. The next day she pitched the new plan and by the time the meeting was over,  she had  raised  almost $400,000 to create Version 2 of Lighter as a so-called market network, which combines features of social media, online  marketplaces and SAS ,  or Software as a Service.

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“We made a massive pivot,” says Fox. She  earned a law degree in animal protection and spent five years as the Massachusetts state director for the Humane Society of the United States before launching Lighter with cofounder Micah, a nutritionist and ultra-marathoner. While neither of them has a tech background, they’ve learned to hire the people with the right expertise and refine and iterate as they go.

Lighter’s new platform (still in beta) helps people to prepare healthy meals by giving them personalized plant-based menus and shopping lists by following the recommendations of trusted “food leaders,” a roster of experts that includes athletes, chefs, health gurus, super parents, “working pros” and “bad-ass world changers.”

 

The program relies on sophisticated software that gradually learns an individual’s preferences — what Fox likes to call “the Pandora for food.” Starting in August or September, you’ll be able to order the groceries on your personalized shopping list through Lighter as well.

“When people are deciding they want to eat less meat, they’re often overwhelmed, they feel lost,” Fox tells me. “Yet there’s this incredible network of people that have been through this journey, people who have great recommendations that they’re sharing through talks and books and with their patients,” she adds.

Lighter is part of a growing cohort of vegan startups that want to change the way people eat and fix what many of them call a “broken food system.”  A study published in March by  researchers at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Martin School concluded that a broad shift away from meat to more plant-based diets could save as many as 8 million lives and reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 70% by 2050.

I  met the cofounders one winter evening on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, at an elegant plant-based tasting dinner sponsored by one of their investors. At the time, they were already well into their pivot but not quite ready to go public. They have raised some $2 million to date from investors as far away as Hong Kong,  and they aim to become a global service.

Right now, there are about 40 food leaders, and another 25 to be added in stages. You can only follow one person at a time, but you can switch as often as you like. Eventually, any expert who is vetted will be able to set up a profile on the platform and can direct their clients or patients to the site, Fox says.

Until June 1, the entire site is free for exploration, but after that you’ll have to start paying for premium services like one-on-one nutritional counseling. Because the founders want everyone to benefit from the advice imparted by food leaders, a number of basic features will always remain gratis, Fox says.

I asked Fox if she worries about competition from the proliferating meal-kit companies, which send pre-measured ingredients and chef-developed recipes to your doorstep.

“Our biggest competitor is the status quo or literally anywhere else you can get food,” says Fox.

Unlike meal-kit purveyors, Lighter doesn’t get involved in sourcing the food.

“What we’ll be doing is taking this platform and enable it to rest above existing grocery services,” says Fox,”The problem I want to solve is how do we help moms at 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, when the kids are hungry and she’s had a long day at work, and she resolved to eat better weeks ago.”

Recipes on Lighter have been averaging about $4-$5 per person per meal, about half that of most of the meal-kit services, making it more affordable and accessible.

 

So, it’s time to take the software for a test drive. First, I register online, indicating my preferences and allergies, my cooking expertise, my equipment, the size of my appetite, how many people I’m cooking for and how much time I want to spend preparing each meal.

Next , I click on the tab that says “People” and search for  a food leader to follow. In the athlete category, I’m curious about NFL player David Carter, the “300 pound vegan,” who transformed his lifestyle and his health by switching to a plant-based diet.

Clicking on Carter’s favorite meals, I learn that his go-to breakfast is a carob peanut butter cup smoothie bowl and his fave lunch is a “classic crunchy lentil taco.” I can click on the ingredients and the recipe and see how long it will take to prepare. But I don’t think I should eat the same way a 300-pound football player does.

Once I settle on a food leader, in this case Michael Greger, a best-selling author and physician who advocates eating whole foods that are oil-free and low-sodium, the program quickly spits out my suggested menus  for the entire week. I can mix and match or skip meals, as I like. I can’t wait to try Greger’s dairy-free and sugar-free chocolate-cherry-banana soft-serve.

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