Right now, you can buy groats and steel-cut oats (which have a ‘bite’), rolled oats (less chewy), oat bran, oat fiber, and oat flour, says Pop Oats cofounder Marc Pfeiffer, a former real estate executive with entrepreneurial ambitions who got talking with fellow Berkeley graduate Rodger Morris at an alumni event - and embarked on a pretty radical career change.
But no one - as far as they were aware - had commercialized ‘popped’ oats.
“Rodger noticed how there was air-popped popcorn, and wondered, what if oats could pop like popcorn?" Pfeiffer told FoodNavigator-USA.
“So we did some tinkering in our kitchens, and then called around on campus at UC Berkeley, and got in touch with the food science department and that led to preliminary testing. Then they put us in touch with the USDA’s healthy processed food department, and we formed a collaborative research and development agreement that took us to a patent-pending process, and we’ve worked out how to do this on a scale that’s commercially viable.
“It’s a patent-pending process so we don’t want to give too much away, but it involves a combination of a few things including heating drying and soaking that give the oat kernels that airy feel but also a crunch. But it’s not the same as puffed oats, which are used in some snacks and cereals, it’s a process that delivers a real crunch. The fact that the USDA believed we had a patentable process was also pretty encouraging.”
Morris added: “You hear a popping noise during the process and there’s an expansion rather than an explosion of the groat, but the crunchy texture is unique. It reminds people of corn nuts, sunflower seeds and popcorn in terms of taste and texture.”
So far the pair have funded their enterprise with their own cash, coupled with a $5k Audience Choice Award in U.C. Berkeley's 2017 LAUNCH Startup Accelerator program and a SBIR (small business innovation research) phase one grant to help buy new equipment to scale up the process and explore how their ‘pop oats’ perform in different food matrices, especially where moisture levels vary.
“So we wanted to see how pop oats work in clusters, or in chocolate instead of crisped rice, and other applications,” said Morris, who has been gauging consumer feedback at food festivals and farmer’s markets.
“We’re also looking at how different varieties of oats perform as we’ve seen big differences between oat groats from five or six different providers, and we have hunches as to why that is [what the characteristics are of the oats that perform better] but we’re doing continued research to understand what’s happening.
“We’re also looking at how the process impacts the nutrition as we want to preserve as much of the nutrition as possible.”
The business model
So what’s the business model for Pop Oats (for which Morris has registered a trademark)? Is this a b2b play (an ingredient for chocolate bars, granola bars, snack clusters and bites) or a technology licensing opportunity? The basis of a new consumer brand? A standalone snack? A salad, yogurt, or ice cream topper?
It’s early days, but the initial plan is to launch a kickstarter campaign for a retail snack product in three flavors (probably BBQ, White Cheddar, and Butter Sea Salt) in the fall to gauge consumer interest ahead of a launch via online channels and some independents in the Bay area next year.
“We’re also looking at some kind of chocolate cluster combo because they work really well with chocolate,” said Morris.