California-based foodtech start-up MeliBio, a portfolio brand of Big Idea Ventures, plans to hit the market with animal-free honey products next year. NutritionInvestor speaks with co-founder Darko Mandich to find out more

By Murielle Gonzalez

MeliBio honey without bees
Photo as seen on MeliBio’s website

Serbia-raised Darko Mandich is obsessed with honey. He believes it is one of the most powerful food ingredients and is worried that the global population of bees is in decline. Many factors are threatening these hard-working creatures, natural makers of the nutritious ingredient, from climate change and intensive agriculture to pesticides use, biodiversity loss and pollution. He co-founded MeliBio to develop a technology that will produce honey without the bees, hoping to help bring balance to the ecosystem along the way.

Mandich’s know-how of all things honey production comes from hands-on professional experience. In 2012, he joined a major honey-making company in Southeast Europe and paved the way for his entrepreneurial journey, which has seen him launch brands of honey-based products in more than 10 countries, with particular success in Scandinavia.

Moving to California last year marked a milestone in Mandich’s business career. He joined a community committed to removing animals from food production and was inspired to incorporate such work and commitment into MeliBio.

“I was fortunate to meet a scientist, Aaron Schaller, who is also a passionate chef and gardener that cares about bees as I do, so we started a company together. That is how MeliBio came to life,” says Mandich.

A foodtech start-up, MeliBio is a portfolio brand of Big Idea Ventures since May 2020. The business is still in the early stage of development, and Mandich doesn’t give away too much information about the technology that will see the company produce honey without bees.

Mandich says MeliBio is gearing up to provide honey as a superior sweetener to the masses without the negative issues associated with its traditional production.

He claims that most honey products in the market are mislabelled or contaminated with harmful chemicals, and argues that MeliBio’s honey will be produced in a controlled environment and thus be free from pesticides or any other toxic elements.

“We believe that honey should be produced sustainably with a positive impact on the environment,” says Mandich. “By reducing our use of honey bees, we help the native bees thrive,” he adds.

Mandich notes that equally important is removing price volatility from honey, which currently discourages many food manufacturers from using more honey in their products.

To the point

Darko Mandich
Darko Mandich, co-founder and chief executive of MeliBio

How does commercial honey production affect bees?

[To date] the only way to produce honey is through commercial beekeeping. Besides being unethical, the latest reports show that it is inefficient, expensive and unsustainable because of the negative impact of honey bees on wild and native bees.

As domesticated animals, honey bees are pushing back on even more important pollinators such as bumblebees, green metallic bees, and other endemic bee species.

How could honey production without bees help them?

Producing honey without bees would restore balance in the ecosystem. The pressure on honey bees would be reduced, and native and wild bee species would thrive.

Additionally, pollinators’ biodiversity would be significantly improved, and that would mean better chances of having plenty of diverse food on our tables.

Is MeliBio’s technology similar to cell cultivation?

Not exactly, it is more in line with the concept of producing milk without animals. Essentially, we are creating a product that currently is known only to be produced by the work of a specific animal. However, thanks to recent advances in food science and biotechnology, we are able to skip the animal part and produce the product all the same.

What are the nutritional values that MeliBio is aiming to achieve, and how do they compare with traditional honey?

Our goal is to produce honey that not only matches the taste, colour, and viscosity of bee-made honey but also matches or exceeds the current nutrient value. In our opinion, providing a honey ‘mimic’ is not enough.

Honey is a superfood sweetener, and through continued development, we are confident in our abilities to keep it that way.

How did MeliBio become a portfolio company of Big Idea Ventures?

We are pleased to be a part of the second New York cohort of the Big Idea Ventures accelerator programme. Among hundreds of start-ups that applied, our idea and our team caught their attention, so we started talking about pre-seed investment and joining the programme.

After getting positive feedback from an earlier cohort and getting to see a lot of experienced professionals as mentors, we decided to take the opportunity to accelerate our start-up.

Getting close to our Demo Day, we would say that decision is one of the best we made, and we are excited to see what happens next.

How has this experience been so far?

I would say that our founding team feels much bigger and stronger with all the great people from Big Idea Ventures by our side.

Entrepreneurship is a mission call that can be much more fulfilling with a big crowd of honest and experienced people that can help you move forward.

As for Aaron and myself, we have mutual respect for business and scientific work, and besides being open to new ideas, we think our diverse backgrounds make our founding team strong and up to the challenge we have taken on.

What challenges have you had while running the business, and how have you managed to overcome those challenges?

One of the big challenges is to practise saying no to so many good opportunities that are taking you away from the greatest ones.

Additionally, learning to adapt to our current times presented an initial challenge to moving forward with our R&D. Thankfully, we are now back on track thanks to the amazing work of our partners who provide us with lab space, and are making sure that our working environment is safe for conducting our R&D work.

Mandich reveals that MeliBio is currently perfecting product development, focused on finding the best methods for scaling up production.

“We will be ready for commercialisation next year when we plan to launch our first product in the market,” says Mandich. He also reveals that MeliBio is already engaged in conversations with potential customers.

Date published: 16 September 2020

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