MISSISSAUGA, ONTARIO — Sofia Bonilla, Ph.D., has an impressive academic background spanning microbiology, environmental science, and chemical engineering, and has now merged those areas of expertise to benefit the health and happiness of Canada’s dogs and cats. From her perspective of the industry, Bonilla quickly realized an opportunity to bring scientific advancements in alternative proteins to the real world of pet food by starting her own brand: HOPE Pet Food. The company is currently run by a small team of women who share lofty goals for the future of the company and the pet food industry at large.
“I’m mostly proud of the team I lead,” she said. “We are currently a team of five strong, smart and hard-working women enabling positive change in the pet food industry from formulation to logistics.”
In the following Q&A, Bonilla explains how new extraction technologies she developed led her to start her own pet food business, the “why” behind the brand’s focus on alternative proteins, and the top three trends she sees shaping the industry’s future.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Bonilla: HOPE is a pet food company reimagining the way we feed our pets by bridging the gap between nutritious and sustainable pet food. We know that removing livestock and fish ingredients, which contribute to up to 70% of the environmental impact of pet food, is the single most impactful change we can make to bridge the gap between nutrition and sustainability. We use an evidence-based approach and novel ingredients from insects, algae and fungi to leave livestock and fish ingredients behind.
We currently have an insect-based line of dog treats and will be releasing our insect-based dog food this year. In addition to our insect-based lines, we are planning to use more ingredients from algae and fungi to provide the nutrients pets need in a more sustainable manner.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Bonilla: For more than 10 years I had been doing research in bioprocess engineering, producing novel proteins to better understand their properties and using them to solve various environmental problems. More recently, my interest was in algal proteins. I developed processes to extract algal proteins in a milder way in order to get a purer protein fraction, which would lead to better applications in food products and better process economics.
I love doing research, but over time it became clear that a lot of what was done and learnt in an academic research setting was not being implemented in the industry. The potential positive impact of a lot of these innovative solutions was not materialized in the “real” world.
In 2019, as I was pregnant with my second, I felt I needed to do something about it and that’s how HOPE Pet Food started. At the time, it seemed strange to me that novel proteins from insects, algae and fungi were not taking center stage in pet food, given their nutritional value and the fact that they can be produced much more sustainably.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Bonilla: The transition from a career as a scientist to leading a pet food brand has been exciting and rewarding, but also challenging. I started HOPE just before the pandemic hit and, from a personal perspective, it was extremely hard to find the so-called work/life balance. As a mom, dealing with all the childcare disruptions at the time while also starting a business — which in itself was a big change from life as a researcher — was very difficult.
On the professional side, the main challenge has been finding better ways to communicate the value of alternative proteins and specifically insect proteins, since that is our first line of products. Black soldier fly larvae protein has a complete amino acid profile, it is a source of calcium, phosphorus, and can act as a prebiotic. Plus, dogs love the taste and it is eco-friendly. It is a win-win-win ingredient that should be in pet food.
However, in recent years, pet parents have been hearing that meat should be the first ingredient in their pets’ food and here we come telling them that there is no need for meat at all. Changing the narrative and “tradition” is undeniably hard and takes time, but having science on our side makes it easier and I’m always up for a challenge.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Bonilla: More than a single accomplishment, I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in the past two years starting our insect-based line of treats for dogs, developing other products that we’ll be launching this year — including our complete and balanced dog food — while also developing technology to produce novel algal ingredients that provide key nutrients for pets beyond Omegas 3 fatty acids. We’ve been balancing what we can do today with building the future of pet food.
I’m mostly proud of the team I lead. We are currently a team of five strong, smart and hard-working women enabling positive change in the pet food industry from formulation to logistics.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Bonilla: Expanding our business is top of mind for 2023. We are working on new products and also establishing distribution partnerships to bring our products to where pet parents shop.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Bonilla: First is sustainability. Pet parents are concerned about the impact of their purchases, and there is so much space to improve in the pet food industry all across the supply chain, from ingredient sourcing to packaging and logistics. At HOPE, sustainability is always part of our decision-making process. We source eco-friendly ingredients and work with suppliers that align with these values. Our products have a much lower environmental impact just by removing livestock and fish ingredients.
Second is science. Pets are part of the family, and we want to make the best decisions for them. Pet parents are looking for products that will allow their pets to live a healthy life. There is a lot of interest in high quality, healthy and functional food. Pet parents are becoming better and better at identifying science from fiction.
Thirdly, humanization. This is an interesting trend that we’ve seen for some time now, and I think it is a double-edged sword. Pets are family members and with this comes a sense that pets are better taken care of. Empathy for animals has grown. On top of that, pet parents are looking for better products for their pets and want to bring their pets on board with our own lifestyle habits, and that’s all really positive.
"As much as pets are part of the family, we should evaluate humanization trends with an evidence-based lens that actually leads to a better future," Bonilla said.
There is a fine line to a darker side of humanization. For example, we know of too many human food products that are not healthy nor sustainable, but they are in fact “human-grade,” so all this is to say “human-grade” is not necessarily better. It is important to remember that pets have different needs than humans. We have different eating habits, and we have different nutritional needs. As much as pets are part of the family, we should evaluate humanization trends with an evidence-based lens that actually leads to a better future.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Bonilla: I think most people don’t realize the science behind pet nutrition and the opportunity we have to provide the nutrients pets need in a balanced way.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Bonilla: I’d say that we all have the opportunity to leave a positive impact in the things that we do and with the people that we work with, and to embrace that. Kindness feels good and is contagious.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
Bonilla: I’m a dog person, but I also love cats. Our family is complete with Snoofy, a more than 130-lb Newfoundland. Snoofy has 20+ nicknames (in Spanish and English) and loves human contact. He’s also completely unaware of his gigantic size and often wants to be a lapdog. When he is not sleeping or on a walk asking to be petted by neighbors, he is HOPE’s chief tasting officer — he loves bugs!
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Bonilla: I encourage women in the industry to find their own leadership style and embrace it.
Sofia Bonilla, Ph.D., is chief executive officer and founder of HOPE Pet Food, a novel-ingredient pet nutrition brand launched in late 2019. Bonilla earned her bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the Universidad de Los Andes, followed by her master’s in environmental science by UNSW. She went on to receive her Ph.D. in chemical engineering and applied chemistry from the University of Toronto. Bonilla served as a postdoctoral research fellow at both Wageningen University & Research and the University of Toronto before starting HOPE Pet Food.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.