A member of UTM’s ICUBE incubator is in the process of improving the nutrition of dogs and cats everywhere while looking out for the environment.
Sofia Bonilla, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Toronto, has founded HOPE Pet Foods, a meat-free sustainable pet food company preparing to launch a line of pet foods that utilize sustainable sources of proteins.
“A few years ago, I became very interested in the sustainability of the food system. I was really concerned about food waste, and my expertise is in proteins, and that sort of connected the need for alternative proteins. That’s how I started learning what proteins would be a good alternative to meat,” she says.
Bonilla’s pet food is made from non-traditional food sources, as far as North American standards go. The dog food she is producing relies on insect proteins, while the cat food she created relies on algae proteins – ideas she got while working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Wageningen University and Research, a public research university in the Netherlands.
“I was in the Netherlands and there was a big company producing insects and I learned more about how insects are a complete protein. Not like plants, where you would need to mix different plants to get the same amino acid profile. So, I started learning about insects,” Bonilla explains. “Then, part of my research was using algae for the protein content, and that’s how I started learning about alternative proteins.”
Bonilla, who now has an 11-month-old Newfoundland dog named Snuffie (pronounced Snoofy) that gets insect-based treats, saw an opportunity for her proteins in the pet food market where a high percentage of meat is used in traditional production.
About 25 per cent of meat in North America is used for pet food, according to Bonilla.
“It’s a big number. It just made sense to focus on that market,” she says.
Bonilla has been very active trying to market her product and has found some early successes. The mother of two small children was a recent semi-finalist in the Total Mom Pitch competition with Scotiabank. Her company also won second prize in the Adam’s Sustainability Innovation Prize; and she recently won up to $30,000 from the Lo Family Social Venture fund.
“Obviously, the funds are great. But it’s more about validation that we are on the right track. That we can change and improve how we can feed our pets,” she says. “Trust is the main thing we need to earn. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Bonilla believes that her background as a scientist will help make her product stand out from the competition and win trust from pet owners.
“What we think we can bring to the market is an evidence-based, scientific approach where we are really looking at the evidence behind dog nutrition, and the best possible protein is the one with all the amino acids but is also sustainable,” she says, adding that her product will allow some pet owners to purchase a pet food that is aligned with their values related to sustainability and a “cruelty-free” protein.
Although the consumption of insects is far from mainstream in North American culture, it is a widely accepted practice in many other parts of the globe. Bonilla says the negative stigma in North America related to the consumption of insects hasn’t affected her work to date.
“We really haven’t had one person say they would never give this to their dog…. I guess only time will tell.”
ICUBE success stories
HOPE Pet Foods is only one of the recent successes at UTM’s ICUBE. Other entrepreneurial adventures that have won a Lo Family Social Venture fund include Fyyne, a mobile-first platform that allows beauty artists to run their businesses more effectively and efficiently; Divebox, a local, resale marketplace that offers the convenience of local delivery and in-app payments to create a convenient and safe way to buy and sell second-hand goods; and Axonaly, a startup venture that is creating a mobile application combined with an innovative sweat-sensing patch that tracks key biomarkers and calculates the onset of anxiety attacks.
To learn more about ICUBE and these projects, visit: https://icubeutm.ca