Food-tech startups aim to replace eggs and chicken (Update)

Dec 08, 2013 by Terence Chea
In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, plant-based products including chocolate chip cookies, cookie dough and mayonnaise are displayed at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco. Can plants replace eggs? A San Francisco startup backed by Bill Gates believes they can. Hampton Creek Foods is scouring the planet for plants that can replace chicken eggs in everything from cookies to omelets to French toast. Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors, the upstart seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The startup is housed in a garage-like space in San Francisco's tech-heavy South of Market neighborhood, but it isn't like most of its neighbors that develop software, websites and mobile-phone apps. Its mission is to find plant replacements for eggs.

Inside, research chefs bake cookies and cakes, whip up batches of flavored mayonnaise and pan-fry omelets and French toast—all without eggs.

Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Hampton Creek Foods seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces.

The company, which just started selling its first product—Just Mayo mayonnaise—at Whole Foods Markets, is part of a new generation of so-called food-tech ventures that aim to change the way we eat.

"There's nothing to indicate that this will be a trend that will end anytime soon," said Anand Sanwal, CEO of CB Insights, a New York firm that tracks venture capital investment. "Sustainability and challenges to the food supply are pretty fundamental issues."

Venture capital firms, which invest heavily in early-stage technology companies, poured nearly $350 million into food-related startups last year, compared with less than $50 million in 2008, according to the firm.

Plant-based alternatives to eggs, poultry and other meat could be good for the environment because it could reduce consumption of meat, which requires large amounts of land, water and crops to produce, backers say.

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, CEO Josh Tetrick holds a species of yellow pea used to make Just Mayo, a plant-based mayonnaise, at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco. Can plants replace eggs? A San Francisco startup backed by Bill Gates believes they can. Hampton Creek Foods is scouring the planet for plants that can replace chicken eggs in everything from cookies to omelets to French toast. Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors, the upstart seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

It could also benefit people's health, especially in heavy meat-eating countries like the U.S., and reduce outbreaks of diseases such as avian flu, they say.

"The biggest challenge is that people who consume a lot of meat really like meat, and to convince them to try something different may be extremely difficult," said Claire Kremen, faculty co-director of the Berkeley Food Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, CEO Josh Tetrick holds a species of yellow pea used to make Just Mayo, a plant-based mayonnaise, at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco. Can plants replace eggs? A San Francisco startup backed by Bill Gates believes they can. Hampton Creek Foods is scouring the planet for plants that can replace chicken eggs in everything from cookies to omelets to French toast. Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors, the upstart seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The American Egg Board, which represents U.S. producers, said eggs can't be replaced.

"Our customers have said they're not interested in egg substitutes. They want real, natural eggs with their familiar ingredients," Mitch Kanter, executive director of the board-funded Egg Nutrition Center, said in a statement.

The industry has reduced its water use and greenhouse gas emissions, and hens are living longer due to better health and nutrition, he said.

Hampton Creek's quest to replace the ubiquitous chicken egg is also backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Khosla Ventures, a venture capital fund started by Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla.

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, CEO Josh Tetrick, left, watches as research and development chef Trevor Niekowal, right, makes a plant-based scrambled egg at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco. Can plants replace eggs? A San Francisco startup backed by Bill Gates believes they can. Hampton Creek Foods is scouring the planet for plants that can replace chicken eggs in everything from cookies to omelets to French toast. Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors, the upstart seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

In its food lab, biochemists grind up beans and peer through microscopes to study their molecular structure, looking for plants that can fulfill the culinary functions of eggs. So far, the company has analyzed some 1,500 types of plants from more than 60 countries.

The research has resulted in 11 "hits," said Josh Tetrick, the company's CEO.

"Our approach is to use plants that are much more sustainable—less greenhouse gas emissions, less water, no animal involved and a whole lot more affordable—to create a better food system," said the former linebacker on West Virginia University's football team.

The company's first product—the mayonnaise—is sold for roughly the same price as the traditional variety. It soon hopes to start selling cookie dough and a batter that scrambles like eggs when fried in a pan.

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, with pictures of backers Bill Gates, left, and Tony Blair, right, in the background, research associate Camilla Hall measures a protein isolate at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco. Can plants replace eggs? A San Francisco startup backed by Bill Gates believes they can. Hampton Creek Foods is scouring the planet for plants that can replace chicken eggs in everything from cookies to omelets to French toast. Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors, the upstart seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

"The egg is a miracle, so one of the hardest parts of replacing it is all the functions that it can do," said Chris Jones, the company's culinary director of innovations and a former contestant on Bravo TV's "Top Chef."

While Hampton Creek takes aim at the egg, another Gates-backed company is targeting the chicken itself.

Beyond Meat, located in Southern California, sells "chicken-free strips," which have the taste and stringy texture of poultry but are made from plant protein. It is sold at Whole Foods and natural food stores. It's also working on a product that mimics beef.

Inside its test kitchen in El Segundo, Caitlin Grady, the company's culinary ambassador, stir-fried the strips with broccoli, onion, peppers and sesame oil. "I cooked it just like a regular stir-fry, but I don't have to worry about the meat being raw," Grady said.

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, are a few of the 1500 plant seeds tested in the making of plant-based foods at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco. Can plants replace eggs? A San Francisco startup backed by Bill Gates believes they can. Hampton Creek Foods is scouring the planet for plants that can replace chicken eggs in everything from cookies to omelets to French toast. Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors, the upstart seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The company is also funded by Obvious Corp., a startup incubator founded by Twitter's founders, and Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley's premier venture capital firms.

"It can fit in a vegan's diet. It can fit in a carnivore's diet," said Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown. "We're trying to appeal to the full range of consumers that are making some shift toward healthier protein."

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Vviper
not rated yet Dec 08, 2013
I really wonder how unhealthy this is...I wish they would figure out a way to have real food in food products rather than a list of chemicals.
alfie_null
1 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2013
Regarding avian flu: that's people and livestock in close proximity, yes? Not simply lots of livestock. That's why these outbreaks often start in places like China and Southeast Asia.

I'd guess that committed carnivores will always find fault in meat substitutes, once they understand they are eating a substitute. To them it's a meat-and-potatoes (burgers and fries) world.
mzso
1 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2013
Gah. You can't replace meat with plant based artificial food. I have doubts even eggs can be replaced.

@alfie_null
"I'd guess that committed carnivores will always find fault in meat substitutes, "
Sure, because they're all incomplete garbage, not real substitutes.
shavera
not rated yet Dec 09, 2013
believe it or not, Vviper, there are... gasp... chemicals in food. And in you. Everything around you is made of... chemicals! There's nothing much magic about "real" chemicals vs "fake" chemicals. Now considering the conditions many egg-laying chickens are kept in, it could be very (ethically) beneficial if we could replace the protein matrix of an egg (or even just the egg whites) with a plant-based replacement.

Consider something like soy lecithin. Lecithin was initially from egg yolks (lekithos being greek for egg yolk). And it's extremely useful as an emulsifier (mayonnaise, other salad dressings that use an egg as a binder? Lecithin.) But if we can extract it from soy plants, why not? Better than growing crops to feed to chickens who will produce some eggs some component of which is lecithin.
krundoloss
not rated yet Dec 09, 2013
Shavera is correct. The idea here is not to necessarily replace the egg in your bacon egg and cheese biscuit, but rather to replace the egg functions in cakes and other goods, where its not the Flavor of the egg that is important, it is its function as an ingredient (leavening). We should not fight any change that leads to more efficient food production. What if food could be printed in a 3D Printer using a plant based "food ink"? What if artificial food advances to the point that a chili cheeseburger tastes exactly the same as a real one and has no fat or carbohydrates? How would you feel about it then? I wouldn't care how you felt about it if it kept me healthy and in shape, while still enjoying the flavors and textures of someone who is consuming unhealthy "real" food.

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