Willow Cup – Promoting a new ‘dairy’ culture with plant proteins


Research indicates that the traditional dairy system is outdated, unsustainable, inefficient and needs to evolve to meet the shifting demands of our population. For various reasons, traditional cow dairy has been on a steady decline the last two decades and there has been a more recent rapid growth in the non-dairy industry, indicating that today’s consumers want more, healthier, ethical and sustainable options in this space. After all, 65% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant.

Willow Cup, founded in late 2015 by Sara Bonham and Craig Deebank, is removing the cow from the dairy equation to re-invent our premium indulgences using plants.

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At Willow Cup, the team is harnessing the infinite properties of plant proteins and specialty processing methods to create a “new dairy.” Their vision of dairy will be healthier, more functional, flavorful, efficient, ethical and sustainable. They aim to create innovative “new dairy” products that everyone can enjoy by optimizing and enhancing the processing of plant-proteins to suit the palates accustomed to dairy-based products. They recently entered San Francisco’s leading biotechnology accelerator program called IndieBio which provided them with initial funding, and critical mentorship during the early stages accelerating the progression of their product to the market.

Their Edge – The Top of your Cup

The first line of plant-based products will focus on flavor-infused foams, froths and creamers used for specialty tea, bubble tea, coffee and iced-tea beverages. They are low in calorific content, low in cholesterol, hypoallergenic and completely free of cow-based products. There has been a lot of innovation at the bottom of the cup where there are various combinations of flavors in tea and coffee. The team believes there is a unique opportunity to  innovate on the top of the cup (which has generally been steamed milk or whipped cream and their substitutes) while providing consumers with better, healthier and flavorful choices for their daily indulgences.

The products are now in the prototype development stage. Their pricing strategy would be on par with the current players in the non-dairy plant-protein market but with their unique air-delivery technology used in the packaging they are expecting an increase in the end volume of the final product and enhance their functionality and sustainability.

Asian market

There is growing lactose intolerance in adults across the globe and more than 90% of adults in certain East Asian communities are lactose intolerant making them the most prevalent group. Willow Cup’s products could revolutionize the non-dairy industry in Asia where specialty tea and coffee is a burgeoning market. (Read about another startup BioNascent, also incubated at IndieBio, which aims to invent vegan formula milk)

Willow Cup envisions a near future where the dairy industry evolves to the point where the cow becomes outperformed by innovative processing and food technologies, making the new plant-based dairy industry more economically and environmentally viable. This will benefit all involved and help bring the end consumers the most healthy, ethical, flavorful products to the kitchen table, without compromising taste and functionality.

When asked about her thoughts on biotech startups, Sara Bonham, CEO of Willow Cup says, “There has been a lot of exciting changes and rapid growth in the startup culture in Asia and India with a lot of  innovations and disruptive technologies being embraced by both government and corporate agencies in their race to the market. The world of biotech and healthcare is rapidly changing and it is never too late to start a company. In fact, the price to enter the market has gone drastically down. Essentially the barrier has been minimized by the plummeting cost of the technologies that drive innovation and rise of scientific infrastructure outside of academia (i.e. renting lab space). If you’re a young scientist, turning your idea into a company has never been more accessible.”

More about the co-founders

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Sara Bonham and Craig Deebank, Willow Cup

Sara Bonham is the CEO of Willow Cup and has a Bachelors in Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry from McGill University and a Masters in Biological Engineering from the University of Guelph (Canada). Sara has always been passionate about sustainability and creating products that are healthier and tastier for people, which have the added benefit of making a difference in the world. During graduate school, Sara developed bio-based materials utilizing plant proteins and continued this passion in her work at International Food Companies, such as General Mills.

Craig Deebank is the co-founder and COO at Willow Cup. Craig is passionate about using architectural and sustainable design thinking cross-functionally to transform society and make a difference in the world. Craig concluded his Master of Architecture degree at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture and Design in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Craig says, “At Willow Cup we understand that in order to create something that never was, we can’t think how we always have.”

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