The challenge came in autumn 2014. That’s when entrepreneur Maija Itkonen persuaded her childhood friend, researcher Reetta Kivelä to use her expertise in oats to develop an oat-based meat substitute that could be cut and pan-fried. Kivelä accepted the challenge, and by Christmas, she had prepared an oat-based patty that could be browned like a schnitzel.
Three years later, pulled oats, the oat-based plant protein developed by the Gold&Green Foods start-up, has become possibly the most hyped food product in the history of Finland. Pulled oats has brought its creator, CTO Reetta Kivelä a great deal of publicity. Her path to the start-up world took an unusual route, via studies, research jobs in the food industry and an award-winning doctoral dissertation.
Unusual student life
Kivelä’s experiences as a student on the Kumpula and Viikki campuses were exceptional, for she gave birth to her first child in spring 1998, when she was 21, in her second year as a chemistry major and cramming for the entrance examination in food sciences.
“Maternity leave was a great opportunity to take a break and prepare for the entrance exam,” Kivelä says.
The young Kivelä found chemistry too broad a discipline. When the lectures explored the dispersal of molecules in space, the whole world – or at least the world of chemistry – seemed too open, which made the pragmatic Kivelä anxious. Then she discovered chemistry in the course catalogue.
“It gave me a framework. Chemistry was examined in relation to foods, which made the whole thing easier to approach.”
Kivelä and her family moved to a student building in Viikki where all other residents also had children. When one of the mothers went to attend a lecture, the others would look after her child. If this was impossible, Kivelä’s daughter would sleep in a pram with a baby monitor outside the lecture room.
“It’s nice to be at home with kids, but it’s not intellectually stimulating. Studying and taking examinations suited my life perfectly,” Kivelä explains.
Her best memories relate to when she understood the framework, or matrix, of food science as a whole and how different aspects are interlinked.
“I learned to study better and found my ‘flow’. I was able to keep track of the big picture and easily add pieces to it. That’s an experience I have since carried with me.”
Kivelä’s studies slowed down in 2000, when she had twins. Her master’s thesis was delayed by one year, as Kivelä was at home with her three daughters.
In her first job at the food and environmental laboratory in Hämeenlinna, Kivelä was the supervisor of five laboratory assistants.
“No one had told us that we would immediately work as supervisors. It was initially quite a shock for someone with no previous work experience.”
Breakthrough in beta-glucan research
From Hämeenlinna, Kivelä soon moved to another job, working on development at the Atria sausage and salad factory. In 2007, she was selected to the University of Helsinki research group in crop technology to complete her dissertation on beta-glucan, the healthy oat fibre. She should not actually have been allowed to embark on doctoral studies because they require a grade of magna cum laude or higher for the master’s thesis – Kivelä’s had received the lower grade, cum laude.
“The rules were not followed as strictly at the time. Maybe the fact that I had received excellent grades for my general studies was considered an extenuating circumstance.”
Studies have shown that oat beta-glucan lowers LDL cholesterol and helps keep blood sugar levels stable. However, as anyone who has ever made oat porridge knows, the fibre has a slimy texture, which means it can easily block factor filters. Another problem with beta-glucan for industrial use was the fact that it changes its state uncontrollably. For example, an oat drink may initially be quite thick, but when stored, it may become runny. Kivelä’s dissertation supervisor, Tuula Sontag-Strohm, tasked her with finding why this happens.
“It was a highly applied research question that above all required concrete problem-solving,” Kivelä points out.
The research group discovered for the first time in the world that beta-glucan is broken down during storage. The process is explained by factors such as the oxidisation of the fibre molecule. The researchers also found new oxidisation reactions. Both ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, and iron accelerate the oxidisation of beta-glucan and, thus, the breaking down of the fibre. This finding was important because the food industry usually uses ascorbic acid for the opposite purpose, i.e., to prevent the product from oxidising.
“It’s impossible to fully prevent beta-glucan from breaking down, and in industrial processes, its breaking down is actually desired. But it’s important to know the process to be able to control it,” Kivelä states.
Her doctoral dissertation was selected in 2011 as the dissertation of the year in applied biosciences at the University of Helsinki.
“It was cool to find the reason for the breaking down of oat fibre. I was the only one defending my finding at conferences. At first I had to stand up for my results, but further research confirmed my original finding.”
From a home kitchen to the Chinese market
Kivelä worked as head of research at Fazer for four years, trying to establish, for example, how the refinement of cocoa beans into chocolate affects their antioxidants, flavanols.
Then came autumn 2014, and her friend Maija Itkonen, who was well ahead of the curve, asking Kivelä to to develop a fast and easy-to-use oat product. In spring 2015, Itkonen and Kivelä established the Gold&Green Foods company. However, a product consisting entirely of oats seemed difficult to produce on an industrial scale, so the women recruited University of Helsinki researcher Zhong-qing Jiang, who specialised in legumes, as their head of research.
Kivelä and her new head of research travelled to northern China, to learn from local industrial expertise in the processing of soy. The region is one of the world’s biggest producers of oats and manufactures many innovative oat products, such as oat noodles and oat bran dessert balls.
On their first trip, the two carried Finish oatmeal and oat bran in their backpacks. Once they had found a partner laboratory in the countryside close to Beijing, they carried larger amounts of oats in their suitcases on the following trips. The Chinese laboratory mixed the oats with broad bean and yellow pea. The mass was kept fairly dry to prevent the oats from acquiring a slimy texture. It was ground and heated by machines to obtain fibres of suitable length. The ratio of oat in the mixture was gradually increased.
“Once a suitable structure was achieved with a mass consisting of 50% oat, the lab erupted in cheers. Thirty men spoke excitedly in Chinese, raised their mugs in a toast and enthused about how this would be the next Pepsi Company,” Kivelä describes the breakthrough moment.
On their way back through customs, the pair had difficulty explaining what the fabric-like pulled oat fibre actually was.
In Finland, pulled oats were immediately a tremendous success. The demand continues to far exceed the production capacity of the Järvenpää factory. However, the strategy of Gold&Green Foods is not to be a food factory, but a technology company.
The intention is to keep the resources in product development and sell licenses for the manufacture of pulled oats to food companies throughout the world. In addition to new types of pulled oats, the product development laboratory in Helsinki is currently planning several other plant-based sources of protein.
Alumna of the Year wants to speak up for equality and innovation
The Alumni Association of the University of Helsinki chose Reetta Kivelä as the University of Helsinki’s Alumna of the Year 2018. For Kivelä, the title feels natural. She feels she has never left the University’s corridors. In her new honorary role, she intends to put the spotlight on issues such as equality and innovation.
“In Finland, I have never had to think that I’m just a girl. But you don’t have to go further than Central Europe to find a much more traditional and masculine food industry,” Kivelä says.
According to her, innovations require a wide range of people looking at the world from different perspectives.
“I found it easy to grasp the idea of pulled oats as a working vegetarian mother. I had no time to soak lentils.”
Kivelä says that in the Finnish mentality, there is unnecessary shame associated with failure. She feels that the basic security provided by our welfare state has encouraged her to try unlikely things with a minimal chance of success. If Kivelä were to change something at the University, she would like teachers to talk not only about research and theory, but also about their concerns.
“Five minutes of every lecture could be devoted to ‘what I’m thinking about’. You can’t innovate if you’re not worried about anything.”