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Josh Balk and Hampton Creek cookies
Josh Balk, a co-founder of Hampton Creek Foods, grins over a spread of cookies made with Hampton Creek’s vegan cookie dough. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Is there money to be made by going meatless? Substitutes for meat, dairy and eggs have been around for decades, as demonstrated by the success of Seattle-based Field Roast Grain Meat Co., but new technologies may well give what’s now known as “clean meat” a boost.

“I don’t know of any companies that are true innovators in this space that are flailing,” said Chris Kerr, investment manager at New Crop Capital, a D.C.-based venture capital firm that specializes in the food frontier.

Kerr was among the experts speaking at a survey of the marketplace for clean meat – that is, meat products that are essentially grown from cells in a vat rather than animals in a feedlot – as well as for plant-based proteins like Field Roast. Monday’s presentation was organized by the University of Washington’s CoMotion Labs in collaboration with the Good Food Institute, a clean-meat advocacy group.

Clean meat made a splash in 2013 when Dutch researcher Mark Post served up a hamburger built from lab-grown stem cells, at a cost of $330,000 for the burger.

Since then, a number of startups have been working to bring that cost down. Post formed a company called Mosa Meat to commercialize the technology. Other cultured-meat ventures include Memphis Meats in the U.S. and SuperMeat in Israel.

Meanwhile, other ventures are working to make plant-based proteins more palatable for fans of meat, dairy and egg products. Hampton Creek Foods, for example, offers mayonnaise, salad dressings, cookies and cookie dough that should pass muster with the strictest vegans. Other entrants – including Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, New Wave Foods and Miyoko’s Kitchen – are working on newfangled plant-based versions of burgers, seafood, cheese and butter.

Food frontier panel at CoMotion
An event on the food frontier, presented by UW CoMotion Labs, featured Christie Lagally. a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute; Josh Balk, a co-founder of Hampton Creek Foods; and Amy Webster of the Humane Society of the United States. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

One of the motivations for marketing (and eating) meat substitutes is to make a dent in the billions of animals and sea creatures that are killed every year to fuel humanity’s appetite.

Another is a realization that livestock agriculture will be too inefficient to feed the estimated 9.7 billion people who will be living on Earth by 2050. By one measure, it takes 40 calories of energy to produce each calorie of food output from beef.

“We actually see our food system as being kind of a disaster,” Kerr said.

Then there’s the profit angle: The next frontier for clean meat and plant-based protein is to produce products that are trendier and more affordable. That’s what it’ll take to expand the market from those who are committed to a meatless lifestyle or sustainable agriculture to the price-conscious mass market.

“What I don’t think has been made is a super-cheap nugget that can displace chicken,” said Josh Balk, a co-founder of Hampton Creek who is now vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. “If someone would create that, I guarantee that is going to be a coup for this business.”

Washington state could be well-placed to play a role in the faux meat industry: Eastern Washington ranks among the nation’s biggest producers of pulse crops – dry peas, lentils and chickpeas – which happen to be the readiest sources for plant-based meat substitutes.

“Right now, peas are a pretty hot item,” Kerr said.

Kerr said Western Washington’s ports could provide the channels for sending those frontier foods out to the rest of the world. “I think it’d be great,” he said.

But David Lee, president and founder of Field Roast, said that over the past 20 years, he’s learned a lesson that newer entrants would do well to emulate.

“Our fundamental innovation is, we set out not to imitate animal meat,” Lee said. Instead, the company focused on a process that takes natural ingredients and transforms them into meat substitutes that can stand on their own – for example, smoked apple sage, Field Roast’s top-selling sausage.

“People want to know where their food comes from,” Lee said. “If you bite into a Boca Burger, where’s your field of reference?”

Clean meat has yet to face a true market test. So is the food frontier poised for a bloodless revolution?

“There are two answers to that question,” Lee told GeekWire. “On the one hand, there’s opportunity. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of established companies, there’s only so much room on the shelf, and when you’re the first, second or third out in the market, that’s a good position to be in.

“We’re lucky to have been in that position. … But I think it’s more difficult now for companies coming up. There’s a lot of pressure on the shelf right now.”

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