Life is Sweet for Founder of Sugar Substitute Supplant
Tom Simmons spent 10 years in academia working as a lecturer and researcher. Despite having zero capital to start a company, he knew he wanted to create a business that was meaningful, though he had no idea what it would be.
Fast-forward to today, Simmons is now the CEO of U.K.-based The Supplant Company, a sugar substitute brand made from agricultural waste. The business also boasts recipes created by Michelin Star and James Beard award-winning chef Thomas Keller.
Simmons is entering a growing industrial sector with a cheap and plentiful resource. The global market size for sugar substitutes is expected to rise from $7.91 billion in 2022 to $12.86 billion by 2029, according to Fortune Business Insights.
The Supplant story began when Simmons applied for a fellowship opportunity at the University of Cambridge with a business plan, for which he was accepted and awarded funding by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was given a salary to build a technology company without requirements of what the business would have to do. The fellowship took place on a college campus that came with the freedom and resources to explore various ideas. He created three business plans in total and ended up running with the third concept.
“The first business idea had nothing to do with sugar,” says Simmons. “It was a tool for pharmaceutical analysis.” The second plan was a product for pharmaceutical testing that sold well but wouldn’t make the kind of impact Simmons wanted.
REDUCING SUGAR AND WASTE
Even though the second plan proved it could be successful financially, Simmons didn’t feel fulfilled. Next, he attended academic conferences to search for ideas and see what global problems needed solving. At one of these conferences, Simmons learned about the challenge of reducing sugar in food. But it was clear that wouldn’t be an easy challenge to solve.
“To do this, you need something that not only has some sweetness to it, but also has similar baking and caramelization properties,” Simmons explains. “So, you have to take things like corn cobs, wheat straw, and rice straw, and break them down with enzymes from fungi to make this substitute for sugar.”
The resulting fiber offers sweetness and can work like cane sugar in such foods as chocolate and baked goods. This process also helps with reducing agricultural waste, because the ingredients Simmons identified are normally agricultural byproducts that are thrown away.
Some 30 percent to 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. ends up as agricultural waste, according to the FDA. Globally, the figure is estimated at 1.3 billion tons per year. Simmons saw an opportunity to make a product that is better for consumers – with fewer calories and higher nutritional value than sugar – and better for the planet.
THIRD TIME THE CHARM
Thus, his third business idea was to create The Supplant Company. He understood the science needed to create a sugar substitute, but he didn’t have the cooking know-how to test the product in recipes, nor the capital to support the business.
His first priorities were raising capital and continuing to develop his business skills. Simmons incorporated the business in 2017. At that point, he was still working mostly alone, with only a professor from the university serving as his advisor.
“The hands-on stuff, I did all by myself at that point,” says Simmons. “We didn’t have anyone else join until about 15 months after incorporation.”
For the first year, they raised zero cash. They didn’t learn how to fundraise until 2018, when they participated in the Y Combinator accelerator program, which helps founders develop their products and sharpen their business skills. Airbnb and Dropbox are among the businesses that were also developed there.
“We did Y Combinator in 2018, but we didn’t actually do anything commercial until 2021,” says Simmons. In the interim, they put their fundraising skills to use, learned about navigating the regulatory landscape, and gained an understanding of how the product tastes and functions in food. “It can completely replace sugar in any recipe,” Simmons says of Supplant.
SEARCH FOR A CHEF
Simmons also started looking for a celebrity chef to help attract publicity for the product and examine how the sugar substitute could be used to create effective recipes. The idea of finding a well-known chef was inspired by the meat substitute maker Impossible Foods.
“Other companies have taken this approach and had a partner, both as a celebrity angle and as an expert in the food ingredient space,” says Simmons. “They found professional chefs who’ve worked with meat to figure out how to make their product taste like meat. For instance, David Chang put the Impossible Burger on the menu at his Nishi restaurant.”
In 2018 and 2019, The Supplant Company sent out handwritten letters to the chefs they thought would make good partners in developing and showcasing recipes with their products. After the letters were sent, they followed up by phone and email. They also sent samples and waited for restaurant kitchen staff to work with the sugar substitute in recipes.
“Some restaurants we sent samples to, our product got stuck on the shelf for six months,” says Simmons. “Then, there were follow-ups after that, too.”
When The Supplant Company sent a sample to Thomas Keller, one of Keller’s team members tested the products in recipes first. It took over a year before meetings took place between The Supplant Company and Chef Keller in his restaurant French Laundry.
Now, Keller uses Supplant in all his recipes requiring sugar at his restaurants. For instance, at Per Se, he’s featured Supplant in dishes ranging from homemade ketchup to sweet onion relish on a tartlet. Keller owns the recipes that are used in his restaurants, and The Supplant Company owns the recipes used in all its own products.
Today, two years after Chef Keller began using Supplant, the business consists of 37 employees tasked with functions including application science, process development and scale-up, branding and marketing, sales and business development, regulatory and impact, and intellectual property.
Chocolate bars made with the Supplant sugar substitute are currently being sold in more than 200 retail stores, as well as on Amazon. Simmons also plans to sell the sugar substitute as an ingredient to other businesses so they can use it to create products of their own. Supplant also is cooking up a high-protein starch from oat waste, having recently received a trademark for the process.