CHICAGO — With a background in biochemistry and microbiology, Shannon Falconer, Ph.D., chief executive officer and co-founder of Because, Animals, is hoping to break barriers and shift perspectives around protein sources for dog and cat nutrition. Following recognition by a notable industry accelerator as its most innovative startup in 2020, the company is reimagining supplements, treats and eventually complete-and-balanced diets, all without animal-based ingredients.
“Despite all of the many daily challenges, I can’t imagine spending my life doing anything else,” she said.
In the following Q&A, Falconer shares the challenges of establishing a successful startup, what sustainability means to her and her company, and how she hopes to disrupt the status quo.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Falconer: We want to revolutionize the pet industry. We are growing cultured meat for pet food, which means cruelty-free, slaughter-free, 100% real meat for pets without any of the devastating effects associated with traditional animal agriculture. Our team of (mostly female!) scientists is hard at work culturing animal cells for the most ancestrally appropriate foods for our pets: rabbit for dogs and mouse for cats.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Falconer: While I never intended on working in the pet industry, when I look back on my life, it seems like it was my destiny. I have been devoted to animals since I was child—I had so many pets growing up! And, I’ve always been highly sensitive to hearing about any sort of harm being inflicted on animals. I stopped eating meat in my teens. And I began volunteering in animal rescue in my early adulthood, while also pursuing a career in science (I am a biochemist by training).
It was while working as a post-doctoral research fellow at Stanford University that I had my eureka moment—the best use of my scientific training is to take animals out of the food supply chain.
My co-founder, Joshua Errett, had also volunteered at the same cat rescue charity as I did, and we later bonded over the ethical quandary of having to feed our cats other animals. Long story short, we left our former careers and dove headfirst into the startup world.
Today, our company, Because, Animals, is the only company developing cultured meat for cats and dogs.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Falconer: Where to start! Our biggest challenges are more specific to surviving entrepreneurship than the pet industry. We had to learn how to run a company, get funding, hire a team, and did I mention get funding? The learning curve was, and still is, huge, but we are still here and growing quickly! Despite all of the many daily challenges, I can’t imagine spending my life doing anything else.
PFP: What is top-of-mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
“When we say ‘sustainability,’ we mean something beyond recycled packaging or introducing sustainable practices (which are also necessary, but alone are insufficient),” Falconer said.
Falconer: For us it’s taking animals out of the supply chain and sustainability, which go hand in hand. So, when we say “sustainability,” we mean something beyond recycled packaging or introducing sustainable practices (which are also necessary, but alone are insufficient). By replacing factory farmed meat in pet food with cultured meat, we will eliminate the massive carbon footprint in pet food that is created by the unsustainable animal agriculture industry. And wrapped up in that is education. We know the benefits that cultured meat will bring to our planet and to other animals, and this is something consumers are waiting for.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Falconer: In 2020, we won the grand prize in Purina’s Pet Care Innovation Prize for our cultured meat technology. When we entertain concerns as to whether the pet industry is ready for us, remembering that this giant in the field recognized our future helps alleviate those fears!
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Falconer: The standard advice is to do something you love. I used to find that to be… a bit hokey. But I find new relevance in it every day, because whatever you choose to do, you have to wake up every morning and do that all day, every day. So, it’s not just a nice slogan – you really have to love what you do to focus on it day in, day out! But my more specific advice to young people in pet startups would be to do something different.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Falconer: The majority of pet food is run by a few conglomerates. I think the average person walks into a pet store and sees so many different titles, but that’s the illusion.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Falconer: Finding ways to feed our dogs and cats something other than farmed animals because the earth depends on it! I can’t think of any other trend that could be more important than that.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
Falconer: I could never choose! That said, at the moment I only live with dogs. Gaia is a rescue that I brought home after finding her famished and severely malnourished in a village in Costa Rica. And Nori came to live with us a year and a half ago after spending the first seven years of her life in an outdoor shelter in Serbia. Both Gaia and Nori come from terribly upsetting circumstances, but they are very loved and happy here with me in their adopted home.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Falconer: It’s a male-dominated industry. Even though women consumers tend to make the decisions in the purchasing of pet foods, men definitely make the decisions in formulation, production, marketing and sale of pet foods. I think there is a way to upend that – and it involves taking another perspective from the pet food industry’s current status quo.
Shannon Falconer is leveraging her knowledge of biochemistry, microbiology and immunology to take animals out of the supply chain for pet food and treats. She earned her doctorate in biochemistry from McMaster University and served as a post-doctoral research fellow at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. Read more about Because, Animals.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.