Peas and Profits

After growing up in Grosse Pointe Woods, Adam Lowry moved to California and launched two businesses centered on sustainability.
Adam Lowry, co-founder of Method and Ripple Foods, is also an accomplished sailor. Courtesy Photo

In 2000, before Adam Lowry celebrated his 25th birthday, he and his business partner launched Method, a cleaning products company. Their collaboration was a stunning success: In 2012, Method was part of an international merger that created the world’s largest green cleaning operation, with combined revenue of $200 million.

Lowry didn’t rest on his laurels for long. He was on to the next thing — disrupting the food industry with another company, Ripple Foods, which in 2016 launched its version of nondairy milk made from, of all things, yellow peas.

Why the rush to start another company?

“What gets me out of bed every morning is trying to use business to create positive social and environmental impacts,” Lowry says. “I’m a big believer that business really has the responsibility to do this. That’s what gets me jazzed, and that was really the foundational principal of Method — and it is for Ripple Foods, as well.”

Lowry traces his business philosophy back to his days growing up in Grosse Pointe Woods. “I grew up on Newcastle Street in the Woods,” he says. “(There were) lots of middle class homes, bungalows, kids playing Wiffle ball in the streets. There were always a lot of kids on the street, so you’d run from one friend’s house to another, and it was kind of free range. It was pretty cool.”

As Lowry progressed from Monteith Elementary School to Brownell Middle School and then moved on to Grosse Pointe North High School, there was more on his mind than just hanging out with his friends and being a kid.

“I’ve always been focused on trying to do big things that were beneficial to the world,” he says. “That’s kind of been my thing for as long as I can remember. I don’t want to overstate it here; it’s not like I was 10 years old and on a mission to save the world. But my mom would tell you if there were a chaotic situation, I would be the kid who would sit back and observe. That’s just my personality type, very much an observer and a processor, and I just think really early on I would make connections in my brain and start to think, How do we bend things toward the better?”

There was also another critical influencing factor in Lowry’s upbringing: Both his parents were entrepreneurs.

“They started a sales rep business in the automotive industry when I was 7,” Lowry says. “I saw them work incredibly hard and struggle. I remember eating chili for a week when they were starting their business because we didn’t have any money for anything else. They ultimately got to the point where our family was better off as a result of them having started their business.”

When the time came for Lowry to decide on college, his sights were set far beyond the usual, in-state options. “I was eager to spread my wings a little bit,” he says, “and I ended up going to Stanford University. It was an eye-opening experience. That’s when I really started, through academics, to hone in on things I was passionate about, and thought there could be a day when I could start my own business.”

Lowry graduated in 1996 with a degree in chemical engineering. He says his parents gave him the ultimate gift: “They paid for Stanford,” he says, “and I graduated with no debt. I never forgot how their hard work directly related to me being able to have an opportunity that a lot of people in my same situation didn’t have. And I’ll be darned if I was going to waste that opportunity.”

Lowry’s first job out of college was at the Carnegie Institute for Science in Stanford. “I was a climate scientist,” he recalls. “I worked there for four years for the lead author for one of the reports on climate change. Every four years they write about the state of the climate and the human impact on the climate, preaching to the converted.”

It was around this time Lowry experienced what he calls his aha moment. “I decided,” he says, “that maybe business is a better way to create change than working in the public sector or the nonprofit world.”

Lowry was already a self-described “green consumer,” striving to live a more sustainable lifestyle. “I was trying to buy products that were better, environmentally speaking,” he says, “and they were all just horrible products. They were ugly, brown, smelled bad, were overpriced, and didn’t work. I couldn’t think of a brand in history that had been successful based on a proposition of ‘this product sucks but it’s better for the world, so buy it.’ ”

Soon after, Lowry reconnected in San Francisco with Eric Ryan, a branding and marketing expert he had known in high school.

“Eric was wondering why some consumer spaces have brands that are really dull and uninteresting,” Lowry says, “and I was asking why aren’t products that are designed to be more sustainable actually working well? We started coalescing around cleaning products because, in short, it was the most ugly, toxic product category we could find. We started Method and I began formulating products in beer pitchers, and we sold them door-to-door at grocery stores around San Francisco.”

Lowry says his inspiration for Ripple Foods mirrored the strategic thinking that led to the creation of Method — relentlessly analyzing a product and figuring out how to make it better.

“I was looking at the food sector because food is really where the impacts are,” he says. “Food is even more linked to health and the environment than (cleaning supplies), so I really wanted to get into this sector.”

Lowry teamed up with Neil Renninger, a chemical engineer, to form Ripple Foods. Their goal was to improve consumers’ overall experience with protein-laden, plant-based, or nondairy foods. “More than half of America is now trying to move off dairy and eat more plant-based foods,” Lowry says, “and they’re going to need foods that aren’t just plant-based, but delicious. It’s like the brown, smelly cleaning products of 15 years ago. You’re not going to get the benefit of people going to plant-based food if it’s a terrible eating experience.”

Lowry and Renninger honed in on the nondairy milk category, which generates annual retail sales of $2 billion in the United States.

“Long story short, today’s (alternatives to dairy) are pretty bad,” Lowry says.  “None of them really have protein, which is the No. 1 nutritional benefit. They’re thin, watery, and chalky. So we set out to make a dairy alternative. There actually was one that was rich and creamy, the way milk was, (with the) same amount of protein, and it actually has less sugar. It was delicious. And Neil had the technology to create the purest plant protein in the world, from peas.”

These days Lowry is spending much of his time spreading the word about the benefits of Ripple, courtesy of his nudge-nudge, wink-wink “drink your peas” catchphrase.

“Pea milk is sort of funny when you think about it, right? And we’ve embraced that. But the brand is really positioned as it says on the package: Dairy-free as it should be. That’s the message we’re trying to get out there from a marketing standpoint,” Lowry says. “It should be delicious, creamy, and have great nutrition, at least as good as dairy milk. Ironically, most dairy alternatives don’t have any of those things.”

Lowry says Ripple’s milk products are just the start. “Peas aren’t what make Ripple Foods special,” he says. “What makes them special is that we make the purest plant proteins in the world and we can make delicious foods from that. We make it from peas now, but we can make it from any plant source that has protein in it. We’ve launched half-and-half and a kids’ milk product, we’ve got yogurts coming, and we’re going to build a product line that cuts across the whole dairy space.”

Lowry, 43, lives in the San Francisco area, but he says his ties to his roots are stronger than ever.  “There’s a pride that comes with being a Detroiter that’s unlike any (other) city I’ve ever been in,” he says. “You can feel it when you cruise around and see these little pockets starting to come back, and you’re rooting for it, doing what you can to help it keep going.”

Like so many others with roots in Michigan, Lowry attributes his success to the values he learned very early in his life. “I started, growing up, with nothing,” he says, “but then my parents sent me to Stanford. And the gravity of the opportunity I was handed by them was a huge driver of my motivation.”