It looks like Silicon Valley venture capitalists have found the next industry they would like to disrupt: Food.
A batch of food startups have sprung up over the last few years, backed by big money, with the goal of revolutionizing the way that we eat.
In 2012, investors put nearly $US350 million dollars into the burgeoning food technology industry, which includes web and mobile food applications and actual food products coming to market. That’s a 37% increase over 2011. In 2008, the number was just $US50 million.
So why, the food industry? Josh Tetrick, the founder and chief executive of Hampton Creek Foods, the makers of a plant-based egg product, had an answer.
“The food system is bizarre and ineffectual and completely lacking in innovation,” Tetrick told The New York Times.
Here are the start-ups that are making Silicon Valley VCs investment-crazy:
What Are The Products: Beyond Eggs is a plant-based egg substitute made out of peas, sorghum, and nine other plants. While it may sound gross, Hampton Creek claims its product is healthier, has a longer shelf-life, and costs 19 per cent less than real eggs. As of right now, Beyond Eggs is intended only for baking uses, though the company just released Just Mayo, a plant-based mayo substitute, and it has announced plans to release a scrambled egg product next March. Here is a preview:
Who Is Investing: Khosla Ventures (Vinod Khosla & Bill Gates)
How Does It Taste: In blind taste tests, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, Fast CoExist’s Ariel Schwartz, and Huffington Post’s Nile Cappello couldn’t tell the difference between products baked with Beyond Eggs and those that weren’t.
Why You Should Pay Attention: The egg industry is a $US6 billion dollar industry and Hampton Creek claims that its product is “better than eggs.” While it may take a while to win over everyday consumers, the company has already arranging deals with major food manufacturing companies to replace eggs in many processed foods you already eat.
What Are The Products: Chicken-Free Strips are Beyond Meat’s solution to the potentially unsustainable poultry industry (humans eat 183 billion pounds of chicken every year). The chicken-free strips are made of a variety of plants including soy, peas, flours, and fibre and come in three varieties: lightly seasoned, grilled, and southwest.
What makes Chicken-Free Strips different from fake meat already on the market (such as Tofurkey or Boca Burgers) is that they are the first of their kind to mimic not only the taste of chicken but also the texture. The plant protein mixture is kneaded into a specific arrangement that looks like chicken and feels like it when you bite into it.
How Does It Taste: Chef and Food Network host Alton Brown tasted the not-chicken and declared, “It’s more like meat than anything I’ve ever seen that wasn’t meat.” However, he wasn’t all glowing. While he found the texture to be on point, he said the product tastes “distinctly vegetal.”
After the taste test, Brown went to work with a team of chefs to try the product out in different recipes. While he had trouble recommending the product for anything that puts the not-chicken front and center, he said that it works well for tacos, stir-fries, soups, and even chicken nuggets (“most impressive”).
Why You Should Pay Attention: We’re not buying Twitter’s Biz Stone’s declaration that, “If someone were to serve this to me in a restaurant I would have said ‘I think this is a mistake,'” (he is a vegan after all). However, it’s clear he believes in the company, which might be reason for us to as well.
What turned the heads of the guys at Obvious Corporation wasn’t necessarily the product itself, but founder Ethan Brown’s vision. Brown told Stone and company that he didn’t want the product to be a niche product for vegans, he wanted it to be something everyday consumers would replace their chicken with.
It is already available at Whole Foods, packaged and in many of their prepared products.
What Are The Products: Modern Meadow co-founder Andras Forgacs has a revolutionary, if somewhat unsettling idea: use lab cultures and 3-D printing to grow meat in a lab. Forgacs is trying disrupt the meat industry, which he calls “an environmental train wreck,” by combining regenerative medicine (cell cultures from cow stem cells) with 3-D printing to create hamburger meat without the environmental impact or the inhumane animal treatment. The product is still in the testing phase and is probably several years away from scaling to a level where you might find it in a grocery store.
How Does It Taste: In a recent Reddit AMA, Forgacs gave an extremely candid response on the details of the lab meat. Here’s what he had to say:
I’ve tasted it as have my colleagues. We’ve only been able to have small bites since we’re still working on getting the process right.
I cooked some pieces in olive oil and ate some with and without salt and pepper. Not bad. The taste is good but not yet fully like meat. We have yet to get the fat content right and other elements that influence taste. This process will be iterative and involve us working closely with our consulting chefs.
Why You Should Pay Attention: In the same AMA, Forgacs stressed that the “bio-printing” process used to create lab beef could be used for just about any type of meat, including fish. The trick is getting the cost down, which Forgacs has said is a main priority. He estimates that by the time the meat comes to market, it will cost $US30/lb to start. Not cheap, but not terrible either.
The company has big money behind it and a great idea that is sounding less like science fiction everyday.
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