From flavonoids to flavor

For many scientists, the weekend closest to 14 February is a high point of the year, bringing the chance to gather with colleagues and friends at the AAAS annual meeting. But mid-February has a different significance for former postdoc Adam Kavalier. “We do very well at Valentine’s Day,” he says of one of the year’s major chocolate-buying periods.

“We” is Undone Chocolate, a “bean to bar craft chocolate maker,” according to its website, that has produced chocolate bars by hand in Washington, D.C., since December 2014. Kavalier, a phytochemist-turned-entrepreneur and the company’s CEO, founded it with his wife, who is not a scientist. Running all aspects of a small business has taken him far from the lab bench. He sees his journey from university researcher to food company businessman, however, as a natural outgrowth of his original scientific fascination with the biochemistry of flavonoids, which are compounds with strong antioxidant properties that occur in many kinds of plants.

If you can do a postdoc in science, you can do anything, because a postdoc is a very difficult career path. So is entrepreneurship.

Other researchers can and should also follow their passions into founding a business, Kavalier believes, and postdocs have a particular advantage. “If you can do a postdoc in science,” he says, “you can do anything, because a postdoc is a very difficult career path. So is entrepreneurship.”

A passion is born

Like many scientific trainees, Kavalier initially intended to pursue a conventional academic research career in his chosen area of plant biochemistry. For his graduate work in the biology department at the City University of New York, he focused on flavonoids in the hop plant, a major ingredient in brewing beer—and a major flavonoid producer. In the lab in New York City he investigated the hop flavonoid production process, and in fieldwork in Washington state he studied the biology of the plant’s growth. Particularly interesting was a group of compounds called terpenophenolics, which have strong antiproliferative properties and are currently in clinical trials for treating breast and prostate cancer, Kavalier explains.

But even as his scientific interests developed, two other forces were also molding his occupational path. First, the extreme shortage of faculty jobs made reaching his initial goal of becoming an academic researcher increasingly unlikely, and the need to find other opportunities increasingly obvious. Second, another major producer of flavonoids, the bean of the Theobroma cacao tree, was also catching his attention. (This scientific name, meaning “food of the gods” in Greek, recalls the belief of native Mesoamericans that their deities had bestowed its product—chocolate—on humanity.) In particular, Kavalier was interested by the fact that its beans contain a high concentration of the antioxidant epicatechin, which is “good for endothelial health [and also] increases blood flow,” Kavalier says. It also occurs in green tea, red wine, and tropical fruits, but the cocoa bean is the antioxidant’s most plentiful food source.

Increasingly intrigued by the idea that a food as delicious as chocolate could also be healthful, he and a friend, ethnobiologist Nat Bletter, “set out to make a chocolate that is rich in antioxidant compounds,” Kavalier recalls. The two graduate students began making chocolate as a hobby, but, being researchers, they also collaborated on some presentations for fellow scientists about its chemical and botanical properties.

When Bletter moved on to a postdoc in Hawaii, Kavalier’s experiments to “balance flavor with health” continued in New York City. Along with his fascination with the compounds in chocolate, he found himself becoming fascinated with the process of making it. Always a “process-oriented” person, he had worked part time as a carpenter while in college and enjoyed working with machinery and his hands, he says. Chocolate making, he found, required building or repurposing machines to carry out the multistep process of moving from bean to bar, which took “a lot of creativity,” he says.  

This process also required chemistry, to make sure that the antioxidant levels remained high throughout production. For example, one of critical steps in developing flavor, fermenting, is also when antioxidants can break down. His chemistry skills were integral to his growing extracurricular interest as he developed and optimized his production process.

This experimentation took place at home, alongside his dissertation work and a postdoc in pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medical College studying the small molecules of cancer cells. There he used a number of the analytical chemistry techniques, particularly mass spectrometry, that he had learned while studying the small molecules of hops. Fortunately, his postdoc adviser “was cool with” him continuing his spare-time experimentation with chocolate, Kavalier says. But finally, “the passion [for making chocolate] overtook me. I wanted to do it full time, make it available to people because they liked it. The only way to do that is to start a company or work for someone else. I had a vision, so I decided to do it myself.” His postdoc adviser encouraged him to explore how to “pursue this dream.” Mustering his savings and some seed money from friends and family, he decided that he would, indeed, leave his postdoc and start a chocolate business.

Making it real

Having learned the chemistry and craft of chocolate, he now had to learn how to establish and run a company, a subject that was totally new to him. But his experience had already taught him that “going from plant chemistry to pharmacology to cancer biology was doable,” because “you can learn anything if you study it.” He immersed himself in online forums about chocolate, attended meetings of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, developed friendships with other chocolate makers, and generally sought out people expert in the chocolate business “to learn from them.”

A major obstacle to entering the food industry is the legal requirement to work in a licensed commercial kitchen, which is expensive and difficult to establish on one’s own. In 2014 he moved to Washington, D.C., where he had grown up, and where he could join the Union Kitchen, an incubator for food industry startups. Entrepreneurs work there “for a period of time, develop their business, and then move on” to other quarters, he says. In addition to access to the licensed kitchen where he produces his chocolate, the Kitchen also provides coaching on “how to start a business and be successful. I learned all my business there. I had no background.” But, he adds, “if you study something for a while you pick it up, so I picked it up.” Continuing to work at the Kitchen, he finds that being surrounded by other food entrepreneurs provides a constant source of learning, rather like the interactions in a research lab.

Kavalier has hired three full-time employees in addition to himself and sells his products through about 65 stores, including Whole Foods, organic markets, and specialty shops along the East Coast and in California, as well as online. “Our margins are … slim,” he says, but “we’re getting to the point where we’re selling enough to be profitable.” He is now able to pay himself a salary and plans to reinvest profits in the company. He hopes to one day have his own factory and testing laboratory and to offer courses in chocolate making.

But entrepreneurship, he warns, is “only for the very dedicated, very hardworking. Since I started the chocolate business, I’ve never worked so hard in my life. But at the same time, I haven’t worked a day since. The passion hasn’t stopped. It’s been incredible fun. I work 70-, 80-hour weeks, [but] it’s not work in the sense of what a lot people associate with work. It’s exhilarating and fun.”

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