Lab-grown meat, vegan cheese and animal free milk and eggs are headed for consumers, often with backing from the technology sector and its financial allies. These food products could fill an important need while reducing environmental problems such as energy and land use for traditional food industries. This new group of startups is essentially hacking the food sector with new ideas and technologies about food that have strong ties to Silicon Valley.
Some companies are using plant protein to substitute for animal products while others are producing foods biologically through so-called 'cellular agriculture'. According to the research firm AgFundert, at least $138 million in investment poured into the segment of 'sustainable protein' startups in 2014. Another research firm, CB Insights, calculates at least $221 million invested in the sector over the past one and half year. More deals appear to be in the pipeline, with participation from major Silicon Valley players like Google Ventures and equity firm Andreessen Horowitz.
Isha Datar, executive director of the nonprofit group New Harvest, which promotes cellular agriculture, or the use of stem or other cells to produce replications of animal products, said, "I think this new industry will be disruptive. The tech sector is spearheading this effort, with most of the traditional food industry stuck in a deeply ingrained system that makes it less amenable to change."
Brooklyn-based startup Modern Meadow is developing an edible cultured meat prototype along with bio-engineered leather products, which do not require animal slaughter. The company receives funding from tech venture firms Sequoia Capital and Artis Ventures. Andras Forgacs, chief executive of the firm, said, "This is bio-fabrication, where cells themselves can be used to grow biological products like tissues and organs. Perhaps bio-fabrication is a natural evolution of manufacturing for mankind. It's environmentally responsible, efficient and humane."
Mark Post, a professor of tissue engineering at Netherlands-based Maastricht University presented the first lab-grown hamburger in 2013. The product, backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, sparked interest in lab-produced foods.
San Francisco-based Clara Foods is using a similar in-vitro technique to produce 'animal free' egg whites, while in the same city laboratory-produced milk is on its way from a startup called Muufri.
Gilonne d'Origny of New Harvest said, "These products are just as versatile as the real ones. An egg white (produced through cellular agriculture) can be used to make meringue. If you create a flank steak this way it will have the cells lined up in the same way as a real flank steak, so it will be identical."
Among the prominent investors in this sector is Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who describes the industry as helping fight against a key environmental challenge. Gates said, "How can we make enough meat without destroying the planet? I am hopeful about the future of meat substitutes. I have invested in some companies working on this and am impressed with the results so far." Gates is among the backers of Impossible Foods, which produces vegetable-based meat and cheese substitutes; and Hampton Creek Foods, a San Francisco startup which makes plant-based egg substitutes for its mayonnaise and cookie dough.
Brent Taylor, co-founder of California-based Beyond Meat, which uses soy and pea protein for its products including 'Swedish meatballs' and 'Southwest chicken strips', said, "This type of food offers a more sustainable model. Our core mission is to seek mass market solutions to replace animal protein with plant protein. The product creates the fiber-like structures and texture or meat. New ideas are needed because the rate of meat consumption in markets like China is rising at such a rapid clip that we can't keep up."
Chris Dixon at the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz said, "We have all sorts of food-related problems in the world- malnutrition, diabetes, and obesity, to name a few. Part of the solution to these problems is providing people with better scientific research, and more food choices that are convenient, nutritious, and affordable. Yet it remains unclear if the general public will accept these manufactured food substitutes."