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Newly promoted CEO Nicole Atchison says Minneapolis-based Puris Holdings, part of the nation’s largest supplier of pea protein, is expanding efforts to help brands develop new plant-based foods to meet growing consumer demand and strengthen support for farmers.

Atchison, who has a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota, joined family-owned Puris Holdings three years ago as chief technology officer after working in the medical device industry for several years. She leads innovation and business development across Puris’ portfolio of companies.

Atchison’s father, board Chairman Jerry Lorenzen, launched the company in 1985 in Iowa to develop high-protein crops as food ingredients. Her brother, Tyler Lorenzen, is CEO of Puris Proteins, a joint venture with Cargill Inc. that manufactures and commercializes pea protein and other products.

Cargill has invested $100 million in Puris since 2018, the Star Tribune has reported, largely for a new processing facility in Dawson in western Minnesota that will double production of pea protein, a major ingredient in products like Beyond Burger. “Together we’re going to be one of [the largest], if not the largest, pea-protein companies in the world sometime next year,” Atchison said in an interview.

Puris’ other key initiatives include commercializing a first-of-its-kind, high-protein pea that can grow as far south as Georgia, Atchison said, and focusing more resources on downstream product development to support innovation and help brands scale products faster.

U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods hit $5 billion last year, Atchison said, citing Plant Based Foods Association research.

Q: How has the pandemic affected the plant-based food market?

A: Year over year plant-based food outperformed animal-based across the board. During the pandemic we didn’t see it fall off; we saw it accelerate. Even with the food service industry being hit hard, retail picked up and supported the industry. We don’t see it slowing down. Plant-based milk and plant-based meat are growing but other categories — nondairy or dairy alternative, think yogurt, cheeses or ice cream, are starting to grow rapidly too. There are a lot of plant-based foods that are just getting started that have a lot of growth ahead of them. It’s going to be an exciting next 10 years.

Q: How have your responsibilities changed as CEO?

A: When I came to Puris I leveraged my technical background to help drive innovation across the organization from the genetic side to what we’re doing in the manufacturing side to what we do in downstream support and product development with our customers. As CEO, my job is to do that for sure specifically on the agriculture side and also on the downstream product development side but also to look more strategically at how we take what we have in our legacy that we’ve built over the past 35 years and move faster and broader.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish as CEO?

A: Our mission is we want to support this agriculture transformation that is thinking about the whole system, a sustainable food platform that starts with growers growing crops that create a profitable return and are the foundation for nutritious and healthy foods that people actually want to eat. We need to have that virtuous cycle where it’s great food that people want to continue to buy so that we can make more ingredients so that ultimately we can work with more farmers and grow more sustainable, regenerative crops right here at home.”

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is todd_nelson@mac.com.