Posted: Fri 22nd Jan 2021
Just over a year ago, as the world was waking up to the threat of coronavirus, Lauren O'Donnell left her job as HSBC's global social media manager to launch a plant-based breakfast business, Oatsu.
It was a leap of faith propelled by Lauren's participation in Enterprise Nation's Next Generation programme - and her knowledge of two key trends she had heard food retail buyers mention repeatedly: gut health, and the shift towards plant-based eating.
I sat down with the 2020 Female Start-up of the Year finalist - over Zoom, naturally - to discuss lightbulb ideas, where she finds inspiration, and an ingredient that you may not have heard of: amazake.
Lauren, tell me where the idea for Oatsu came from…
"My interest in plant-based eating started a few years ago. I was living and working in Hong Kong, and was inspired to take part in a month-long vegan challenge whilst out there. I felt lighter and more energised after it, and haven't looked back since.
"I started making overnight oats and bringing them into work for breakfast. But it wasn't until a year or two later that I thought about turning the idea into a business. I attended Enterprise Nation's Next Generation programme in 2019, and here I introduced people to my product for the first time.
"By that point, I was already considering a career pivot. I wanted to harness my marketing and communications experience to help inspire people to eat more plants. I considered joining an existing plant-based food start-up, but Enterprise Nation's programme gave me the confidence to launch a business of my own."
How did you arrive at your product?
"When I didn't have time to prepare my own overnight oats for breakfast, I struggled to find affordable, plant-based alternatives that would keep me full until lunchtime in the stores around Canary Wharf. Pret A Manger and Starbucks made breakfast pots, but they mostly contained dairy, and looked small for the price.
"Soaking oats overnight was first popularised in the US, and I saw that overnight oats were already available in US supermarkets. I knew it was only a matter of time before the concept took off in the UK.
"I started making and selling jars of overnight oats from my home kitchen - initially to friends and to people I'd met through Next Generation. I posted about them on Instagram, and started taking orders through our Direct Messages. Within a few months I'd built and launched our online store, which made managing and fulfilling orders much easier!"
What makes your overnight oats different?
"In December 2019 I went to Japan, where my mum was born, to research ingredients. I wanted to incorporate something in the recipe that was inspired by my Japanese heritage.
"There's an ingredient that the Japanese have been using for centuries that supports the gut. It's called amazake, and it's made from fermented rice. When it ferments it turns into a sweet, probiotic-rich paste, which I use to naturally sweeten our overnight oats."
Has using amazake generated more interest?
"Definitely. People are familiar with fermented foods like kimchi and kombucha, but they aren't necessarily familiar with amazake.
"We're only just starting to understand the important role the gut plays in our physical and mental health, and how consuming fermented foods supports the microbiome.
"I recently asked our Instagram followers whether the fact our overnight oats were gut-friendly or plant-based was more appealing to them - 71% voted for 'gut-friendly'."
Do you think this interest will emerge at buyer level, too?
"I've been to a lot of physical and online food industry events, and buyers repeatedly mention that they're looking to expand their ranges of vegan and gut-friendly products.
"The dairy and yoghurt categories are leading the way on the gut-health front, but I haven't seen many dairy-free or food-to-go products focus on it, so I think there's opportunity for disruption there."
What's it like to quit your job and start a business a few months before a pandemic?
"I don't think the pandemic has been too much of a hindrance for Oatsu. In fact, we've been growing month-on-month since our April launch. People are focusing on their health more than ever, and even if they're not commuting anymore, they're still looking for convenience. Customers love that within days of placing an order, they'll receive a fridge full of nutritious, ready-to-eat breakfasts for the week ahead.
"Before the pandemic, I really enjoyed going to events and meeting other founders. But since in-person events have stopped, I've joined a few online communities, and even launched my own. I run an accountability group for 30+ food entrepreneurs, alongside Jess [Salamanca], founder of Banana Scoops. Having a weekly catch up with our members has helped me feel more connected and focused during what might otherwise be a difficult time."
You were recently one of our Female Start-up of the Year finalists. How did you find the experience?
"It was one of the highlights of last year for me! I was over the moon to get to the final three from hundreds of applicants across so many industries. It felt like a bit of full-circle moment, as it had been about a year since I'd taken part in the Next Generation programme.
"I really enjoyed pitching to the panel of judges - and doing so virtually was a new experience! I received so many encouraging comments from the audience too, which was lovely. I remember leaving the session on such a high."
Where's the business at now, and what are you hoping to achieve next year?
"I currently make our overnight oat pots by hand in my home kitchen, and they're delivered by our courier. Since April, I've sent hundreds of orders and thousands of jars out to customers across the UK.
"I'm currently developing an overnight oat mix that you can keep in your store cupboard. You just need to add milk or plant milk to make the perfect overnight oats anytime, anywhere.
"I'm also in talks with manufacturers, who will help us produce both products at scale, allowing us to approach major retailers later this year.
"Oatsu pots are already stocked in a few coffee shops and co-working spaces across London as well, so I'm planning to expand our reach in more similar locations."
Inspired by Lauren's story? Head over to Oatsu's about us page to find out more about how the business came about, where its name comes from, and what new products to expect in the coming months.