How This Startup Is Hatching A New Market For Alt-Eggs In Japan - Alt-Egg Exploration #4

UMAMI UNITED uses two unique ingredients to stand out from the competition and win over the local market with their powdered egg products.

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Happy Tuesday Market Shakers! Today we share our conversation with Hiroto Yamazaki, CEO and Co-Founder of Japan’s leading alt-egg startup, UMAMI UNITED

UMAMI UNITED works day in and day out with the challenges and opportunities of egg alternatives in Japan. Today’s interview offers fascinating insights into what it’s like for a startup to forge a new market in Japan.

Introducing Hiroto Yamazaki

While working as a tour guide in Tokyo, Hiroto learned from visitors to Japan about the emerging movement to reduce meat consumption overseas. He saw that the concepts of veganism and flexitarianism were broadly accepted in Europe and the US. But in Japan, he saw polarization - a minority of vegans and vegetarians on one side, and a majority of meat eaters on the other.

Hiroto aspired to break down the boundary between vegan and non-vegan. He wanted to unite herbivores and carnivores to co-exist and enjoy the benefits of meat-free eating.

I believe that the key to uniting customers in this way is creating a delicious product that can be enjoyed by anyone. Umami is the essence of “deliciousness”, so I established UMAMI UNITED to create delicious products that can be enjoyed by vegans and non-vegans alike.

A White Space for Non-Allergenic Eggs

When it came to brainstorming the kind of product I wanted to create, eggs stood out as white space in the market. There were already solutions for plant-based meat and milk. However, before this year(2022), there were no solutions for plant-based eggs.

The need for egg alternatives in Japan has long been felt. 10% of Japan’s population have allergies, and eggs are the most common cause. Especially amongst children.

In Japan, egg allergies are the most prevalent type of allergy among kids. UMAMI EGG was born to meet the need for a substitute.

UMAMI UNITED has developed a plant-based powdered egg, UMAMI EGG. Made from konjac, it comes in two versions which we introduced last week. The first is an umami-rich powdered egg that can be used as the base for omelettes, scrambled eggs, and also for baking applications, such as cakes and sweets. Their second product is a “pudding mix”. This offering is explicitly designed to make custard desserts like Japanese purin.

Cracking the Market for Alt-Eggs in Japan Starts With B2B

The market for egg alternatives in Japan is currently driven by consumers with egg allergies and consumers who seek alternatives to animal products; your vegans and flexitarians. 

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The right product-market fit is vital for UMAMI UNITED to make the most of this white space.

We thoroughly researched opportunities in the market and identified B2B as our best option. We’ve identified school kitchens and the companies that supply them as a market with major potential. Outside of the family home, this is where the need for alternatives is keenly felt.

Another booming market where egg alternatives can surely succeed is baby food. Hiroto explains UMAMI UNITED is already in talks with several major producers who want to co-develop products for retail.

Then there’s the market for vegan and plant-based products. 

Over 50% of eggs used in Japan go into baked goods and pastries. Makers are looking for ways to create non-allergenic products. We are positioning UMAMI EGG as their solution. 

Hiroto explains that UMAMI UNITED has attracted interest from several major baking companies, including an almond milk maker seeking to develop a plant-based custard pudding.

So, there are plenty of opportunities in B2B, but how about B2C? Hiroto explains it is currently a challenging strategy.

Japanese consumers are behind western markets in adopting plant-based products. We’ve struggled in our outreach to general consumers so far.

The first step is to target businesses and consumers who have a real need for alt-eggs, like those with allergies. After that we need to focus on raising awareness and leveraging plant-based products' health benefits.

Marketing Plant-Based Eggs in Japan

When it comes to marketing products containing UMAMI EGG, health is the key lever to pull to grab consumers.

Outside of consumers with allergies, we’re looking at the general market for plant-based products in Japan. Here we know consumers, especially those aged 30 and above, are motivated by health. Our product has several advantages here. Compared to conventional eggs, UMAMI EGG is low in cholesterol and high in fiber thanks to the primary ingredient, konjac. 

The Two Secret Ingredients for Irresistible Alt-Eggs in Japan

UMAMI EGG is unique in using konjac root as its primary ingredient. 

Konjac is a root vegetable that grows in Asia. It is traditionally consumed in Japan as a source of dietary fibre. Konjac has additional health-giving properties, including lowering cholesterol, making it a prime candidate for a superfood.

According to Hiroto, this appeals overseas.

We’ve had consistent interest in our product from potential customers and investors overseas. They are interested in the potential of konjac, way more than we ever imagined. It’s an up and coming superfood and we’re currently participating in incubators in Germany and Singapore to help us leverage this.

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In addition to konjac, another core ingredient that appeals to the local market is UMAMI EGG’s umami powder. UMAMI EGG is flavoured with powdered wood ear mushrooms that have been fermented with enzymes. The process breaks down the proteins in the usually bland mushroom, unlocking rich, dormant flavour.

We are proud of our umami powder. Not only is it delicious, but also sustainable. The mushroom we use is the Japanese wood ear and it’s abundant in Japan. Companies that operate solar farms on agricultural land are required by law to plant plants underneath their solar panels. The wood ear mushroom is perfect for this because it can grow in shade. But because of this, there’s an oversupply now. So we chose to use the wood ear mushroom in our egg so that this food source doesn’t go to waste.

The flavour-packed mushroom powder has proved so popular with UMAMI’s partners that they have requested they sell the umami powder alone.

What’s Next for UMAMI UNITED?

We’re currently in discussion with several potential customers in Japan. There are major players who are interested in developing packaged egg sandwich fillings for example. Baby food is another significant market we’re seeing progress in.

UMAMI UNITED are also looking to grow its business overseas and capitalize on fertile global markets for alt proteins.

We’re looking for opportunities to expand abroad. We want to take advantage of our position in Japan by partnering with local sushi companies that want to develop vegan egg sushi for their overseas markets. Singapore and then the US are where we’re heading in the future.

UMAMI UNITED received investment from Big Idea Ventures, one of the largest food-tech investment funds, earlier this year to help them expand.

With plenty of opportunities, Hiroto is still a realist when it comes to Japan.

The market for egg alternatives in Japan is still small. It will take time for our products to capture even a small percentage of the egg market. Right now we’re focusing on growing the market for non-allergenic products as a priority.

That’s All Folks

The story of UMAMI EGG offers inspiration for any company seeing to innovate in Japan.

It’s not easy to launch a new product in an unfamiliar category here. But it’s early days for alt-eggs and that means the space is rich with opportunities. What’s important is to seek out opportunities by constantly exploring channels and collaborations.

Now, while competition remains minimal, this is exactly what UMAMI UNITED are doing. With a little grit, determination, and a tasty product, they will hatch the market for alt eggs in Japan sooner or later.

A huge thank you to Hiroto Yamazaki and the rest of the team at UMAMI EGG for supporting this interview.

See you next Tuesday for more alt-egg explorations.

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