Tech Startups Looking to Transform What’s on Your Plate

By August 11, 2014

Food substitutes, 3D-printed meat, ingredient scanners – the list goes on. There are now lots of innovative companies determined to bring about profound changes to the way we eat.

Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, Biz Stone, Evan Williams and Sergey Brin. Some of the biggest names in US high tech are now jostling to invest in tech startups which have the agro-food industry in their sights. Over the last few months their number has continued to surge. They are attracting media attention but also arousing scepticism and even some concern.

Among the young companies in question are Hampton Creek, Beyond Meat, Modern Meadow and New Frontier Foods. Hampton Creek replaces eggs in foodstuffs with plant material, Beyond Meat replaces beef  with 100% pure pea protein and substitutes chicken with a blend of soy and pea protein, Modern Meadow uses 3D bio-printing to create an ‘edible prototype’ meat replacement and New Frontier Foods makes chips from natural seaweed. They are all hoping to revolutionise a sector that is nowadays dominated by huge multinationals.

“The food world isn’t working any more. It’s not sustainable. It’s unhealthy and dangerous,” argues Hampton Creek co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick, whose approach is to replace eggs with material made from peas and sorghum. The investors, well-known figures from Microsoft, Google, PayPal and Twitter, have got the message. “They believe in innovation and don’t have any pre-conceived ideas. They don’t just content themselves with small changes. They want to support companies that aspire to create a new model,” stresses the young entrepreneur.

Protein meat substitutes

Meat production is a key area for attention. “Today this is a very inefficient process,” argues investor Vinod Khosla, founder of venture capital firm Koshla Ventures. “You need 15 kilograms of maize and 3,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef. This represent a very low conversion rate of plant protein into animal protein. We can make this model at least five times more efficient,” he claims.

Meanwhile Bill Gates wrote last year in his blog that “it’s not possible to produce enough meat for nine billion human beings.” So the Microsoft billionaire has invested in Beyond Meat, whose laboratories make ‘ground beef’ and ‘chicken’ substitutes from plant protein. “It’s good, full of protein, and with no saturated fats or cholesterol,” claims the young company’s founder and CEO Ethan Brown. Meanwhile New York startup Modern Meadow is taking another approach, looking to produce steak, fish and poultry using the modern additive layer manufacturing (ALM) technique, aka 3D printing. The Modern Meadow project is still at the research stage and will take a number of years to come to fruition, but it illustrates the growing movement, with new players introducing disruptive food technology to confront a traditional agribusiness model that has changed very little over time.

Starting out from the same observation, Sergey Brin last year financed the first in-vitro steak, which took three months to produce from cattle stem cells. “We have an idealised vision of farms, with a few cows, a few chickens, but meat is not produced like that these days. When I see how cattle are treated, I’m really not happy about it,” said the Google co-founder. The experiment cost $250,000. The synthetic meat, developed by Mark Post, a Dutch scientist at Maastricht University, was then used to make a beefburger, which was dubbed the ‘Frankenburger’. Two gastronomic experts who tasted the product gave it rather a mediocre writeup.  

Rob Rhinehart is trying to take this approach to the next level. This 25 year old American has strong views. With his food substitute, Soylent, you no longer have to think about food. All your nutritional needs are taken care of with one sachet per day of Soylent – which contains 31 ingredients, including oat flour, rice proteins, colza oil, fibre and minerals – dissolved in a large glass of water. The young entrepreneur tested his product on himself for several months. He says that he lost weight and claims that his health improved. Another advantage is that you save time. Soylent only takes five minutes to prepare and there is almost no washing up to do. You get all the foodstuffs you need for $70 a week, i.e. less than half the average US household food budget. “I’m looking forward to the day when we no longer have to worry about hunger or malnutrition,” he says.

Food scanners

Apart from actual food production, food safety is another area being targeted by tech startups. The Peres device from ARS Lab Ltd is a portable ‘electronic nose’ that can determine the quality and freshness of a piece of meat, while the European Union’s Foodsniffer Food Safety Project is also developing a fast screening system for foodstuffs.  Meanwhile Canadian firm Tellspec promises that its spectrometer-based food scanner will identify the ingredients of a dish and also inform the user of how many calories it contains. The Vessyl glass, designed by Frenchman Yves Béhar, does the same thing with drinks. All these startups seem to be determined to shake up our approach to eating and drinking.

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