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(ATF) The year-long pandemic has crushed numerous industries, except that of “fake meats”.

A shortage of animal protein, worldwide lockdowns and growing health awareness have accelerated the demand for plant-based protein during the pandemic. Business has seen significant growth despite the global economic turmoil. After international firms came in to whet the appetite of the Asia market, China has become a new battleground.

“We see a triple or even quadruple growth for our Omnipork series in retails in Q3 and Q4 on a year-to-year basis,” said David Yeung, founder of Green Monday. Omnipork products, which include minced plant-based pork and frozen dim sum dumplings, are available in supermarkets and online shops in Hong Kong, e-commerce platforms like Tmall on mainland China and around the rest of Asia.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley-based Impossible Foods marched into 200 supermarkets in Hong Kong and Singapore last month with its signature Impossible Beef Made From Plants. It is available for home chefs outside of the US for the first time.

Apart from seeing increasing demand under Covid and the resulting meat shortages, the pandemic “also laid bare the fragility of the animal agriculture industry,” said Nick Halla, senior international vice president of Impossible Foods.

The pandemic hasn’t halted the company’s expansion. It launched the ground pork Impossible Sausage Made From Plants this year. According to Reuters, the $4 billion-valued company secured 500 million in its latest series F funding round from mostly Asian investors, including South Korea’s Mirae Asset Global Investments in March.

In Malaysia, fast-growing food tech start-up PHUTURE Foods changed its launch plans from Hong Kong to Singapore in the second quarter due to coronavirus travel restrictions. Co-founder Jack Yap said the company’s PHUTURE Mince has been well received and is now available in more than 60 restaurants and cafes in the lion city within various Asian fusion cuisines.

The pandemic might have given a push to the industry after 2019 was dubbed the Year of the Vegan by The Economist. Global forecasts project that plant-based alternatives might reach $27.9bn  in value by 2025, according to Market and Markets research last year. Key players’ eyes are on the Asia market after the US and Europe, especially China.

PHUTURE Foods meatballs.

Despite the strong meat culture in the country, the national nutrition advice issued in 2016 encouraged citizens to reduce meat consumption to 50%, which leaves the door wide open for plant-based meat products to flourish. Local players such as Zhenmeat launched the first plant-based meat mooncake during the Mid-Autumn Festival this year. Qishan Foods, which sells faux oyster sauce and plant-based abalone, has recently released mock sausage varieties made from pea and soy protein. Last year, it teamed up with Walmart to launch its products at stores in China. Euromonitor predicts China’s plant-based meat market would grow to $12bn by 2023 from around $10bn in 2018.

“We have taken China into account at the very early stage,” said David Yeung.

After stepping in the mainland China market at the end of last year, Yeung said Green Monday plans to sourcing more ingredients from China and build a manufacturing line in Guangdong next year to ride the “uptrend”. He also noted that the company’s “showcase” Green Common, a self-branded plant-based grocery shop and cafe, will be opening in Shanghai next month, and another in Singapore in January, debuts for both cities.

Beyond Meat

Another key US player, Beyond Meat, will be the first international brand in the industry to open a major production line in China. It signed a deal with the Zhejiang Government at the China International Import Expo on November 5. it also plans to build two plant-based meat production facilities in the province’s Jiaxing Economic & Technological Development Zone (JXEDZ) next year.

Matilda Ho, founder of Bits x Bites, China’s first food technology venture capital group, told Associated Press news agency that it saw a good opportunity to introduce consumers to plant-based alternatives to meat amid concern that there is a potential link between meat products and  the coronavirus. The industry’s biggest challenge would pricing, which tends to be higher than for other food.

Beyond Meat’s Jiaxing factory

“One key to the branding of plant-based meats could be found in promoting organic vegetables as healthier and worth the price. The big question producers of plant-based meats need to address is ‘where does this fit into an already crowded food category’?” said Ray Rudowski, managing director of Epic Communications, which has helped food producers to develop messaging strategies.

It takes longer to change culinary cultures, however. Halla at Impossible Foods found behavioural changes in Asian customers encouraging for when it expands into the region.

“We can see that consumers are open and interested in becoming more sustainably minded through their food choices and are loving Impossible’s delicious meaty taste and versatility in Chinese, Asian and Western cuisines, which is critical to achieving our mission,” he said.

Plant-based meats may be a new trend, but it might not fit everyone’s appetite. Last month, Green Monday launched a plant-based luncheon meat menu with MacDonald’s in Hong Kong and Macau but faced a backlash among local vegetarian groups, who said the product was not a healthy option.

“It depends on what you are comparing it to,” Yeung said. “If you compare it with whole food, then of course it can’t be a healthier choice. But if you compare it with original luncheon meat, you can’t even know what meat they are putting in it, then our plant-based luncheon product must be a healthier choice.

“We are just offering healthier alternatives for meat lovers,” Yeung defended.

The transition to animal-free and alternative meats is accelerating. But how will that affect the supply chain of valuable animal byproducts? Versatile, animal-derived proteins like collagen and gelatin are common-place in packaged foods, cosmetics, and even pharmaceuticals. If the plant-based revolution is to succeed beyond meats and dairy, entrepreneurs need to think broadly about reimagining the entire animal-agriculture economy.

This reimagining is what inspired the creation of Jellatech, the world’s first cell-based collagen and gelatin ingredient company. The company’s co-founders, Stephanie Michelsen and Kylie Hesp, see an unmet need to produce these indispensable industrial materials without the harmful environmental impacts or ethical issues of animal farming. Animal collagen is typically extracted by boiling animal carcasses leftover from slaughter. Jellatech’s platform avoids this messy process by culturing animal cells in a lab. Michelsen, who also serves as the company’s CEO, describes their platform as a cell farm rather than an animal one. “We don’t need to slaughter animals. [Our process] is much simpler and we can control it much better. We just harvest the collagen from the cells instead of the animals,” Michelsen says.

Collagen, and its derivative, gelatin, are extremely valuable proteins. Collagen is one of the most important biological building blocks in mammals. It’s a critical component in bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and of course, skin. But it’s also found in blood vessels, teeth, cartilage, and even the digestive tract. It’s so ubiquitous that collagen represents about a third of all proteins in the human body

To perform its many functions, collagen has developed some remarkable characteristics. The protein is fibrous, heat-stable, and very stretchy. The protein’s triple-helix structure also makes collagen incredibly strong. Type 1 collagen is gram-for-gram stronger than steel. And, perhaps most importantly, all collagen types can interact with other biomolecules. Collagen’s properties are so innately unique that Jellatech isn’t wasting time trying to reinvent the wheel. Hesp, who also serves at the company’s Head of Science, says there’s little point in developing an alternative to collagen protein. “You can’t get the same effects from other sources. There’s no substitute for collagen and gelatin,” says Hesp.

Though Jellatech isn’t looking to create entirely new proteins, the founders believe they can improve on some of collagen’s existing properties. Different animals produce different collagen, from humans to pigs to jellyfish. The ability to control production at the cellular level means the company could potentially design novel collagen types or combinations. “We have a really nice solution where we can grow [collagen], design it, modify it, and clean it in a sustainable, ethical way,” says Michelsen.

The sustainability of their platform and their product’s importance across a range of industries are driving Jellatech’s founders to get their proteins to market quickly. This sense of urgency is also why Michelsen and Hesp have decided on a cell-based approach rather than expressing collagen proteins through microbes or cell-free technology. Collagen is a very complex protein and the founders don’t want to spend extra time engineering other systems to do what cells do naturally. “Instead of trying to make a car fly, we’re taking an airplane and making it fly better and higher. If we can optimize each step of [collagen development] we can create a [greater], more functional yield of higher quality collagen and gelatin,” says Michelsen.

Higher yields and better-quality aren’t the only benefits of circumventing traditional animal agriculture. Besides the years-long lead time from birth to slaughter, animals are also prone to disease. Ultimately, these diseases aren’t passed on through collagen products. But one has only to look at the destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic to see that reducing the prevalence of animal-borne illnesses would be globally beneficial.

In many ways, Jellatech’s founding is the epitome of entrepreneurship in 2020. A biotechnologist by training, Michelsen was on a mission to disrupt animal-farming collagen. She was searching for a co-founder when she read a paper co-authored by Hesp. Both describe their first meeting as a moment of serendipity. Hesp, also a biotechnologist, had just turned in her Ph.D. thesis the day before Michelsen finally tracked her down. That was July 30th, 2020.  A mere three months later, their company is emerging from stealth mode with patents pending and their seed funding round complete. And, in another 2020 twist, the two founders have never met in person—their entire startup process has solely been through video chat.

The passion and confidence Michelsen and Hesp have for their technology are inspiring. They are driven to build a more sustainable, healthier future as fast as they can. That leaves no time to bother with the persistent sexism and misogyny that still infect the STEM fields. “We’re not really considering that. And anyone who does consider [our genders] to be something of importance, I don’t really care. That’s just dumb, in my opinion,” says Hesp. This is biotech entrepreneurship as it should be—focused on science and inspiring technology while paying no heed to severely outdated mentalities.

But there is one aspect of their gender identity that Hesp and Michelsen see as a potential bonus. “When I was in my undergrad, I was talking to girls who were very upset by the fact that there were not many women represented [in science],” says Michelsen. When one sees that kind of imbalance in the world, Michelsen and Hesp agree that there are two ways forward: bemoan it or do something about it. Clearly, the two have chosen the latter. “We’re motivated to do exciting things and build this technology. If we can inspire people, men, women, whoever they identify as, that’s great,” says Michelsen.

Now the founders are focusing on next steps—bringing in more investors and expanding their employee roster. But even with a bigger team, the founders estimate it will be another 18 months before their first commercial-grade product is ready. But once this milestone is achieved (an 18-month timeline is still fairly rapid in the startup world) the company can harvest collagen continuously, completely independent of conventional animal supply chains. “Our method is also easily scalable, so we can quickly increase the amount we produce whereas the meat industry cannot—and should not—expand much further,” says Hesp.

The founders envision a future where they can meet the increasing demand for collagen and gelatin without burdening our planet. Michelsen summed up their vision, saying, “Our goal is to get a product out there as soon as possible. We want to get as far as we can as fast as we can to really make a difference.”

The need for new technologies to accelerate innovation in the food industry has never been greater, as the world battles the interrelated crises of climate change, food insecurity and the coronavirus pandemic. The upcoming Future Food-Tech Summit taking place on December 2-3 will see some of the startups and entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of the challenge present their ideas and solutions, from upcycled food waste ingredients to sustainable food packaging. We take a look at 8 of the most promising companies and the technologies they are developing below.

1. Orbillion Bio

Source: Orbillion Bio
Xmas Article Banner

Founding date: 2019

Founder: Patricia Bubner

Headquarters: Berkeley, California, U.S.

Orbillion Bio is a startup building an advanced bioplatform for functional testing of cell lines for premium cultivated meat. On a mission to accelerate the broad availability of a variety of nutritious cultivated meat products, the startup’s first product will be bison jerky that is low-fat, low-cholesterol and high-protein. Orbillion Bio is part of Hong Kong-based accelerator Brinc’s Spring 2020 cohort and Big Idea Ventures’ latest New York cohort.

2. Paragon Pure

Source: Paragon Pure

Founding date: 2019

Founders: Christopher Gregson & Matthew Sillick

Headquarters: Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.

Paragon Pure is focused on creating natural, functional ingredients for clean label products without any synthetic additives. Working with natural ingredients and using its technology that guides traditional grain sprouting processes towards precise functional properties, the company offers a line of high-performance specialty flours that can replace conventional additives that keeps products fresh and flavourful.

3. Tait Labs

Source: Tait Labs

Founding date: 2011

Founder: Dr. Andrew Tait

Headquarters: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Tait Laboratories is a natural product company committed to modernising traditional natural medicines using scientific research and clean extraction technology, producing novel sustainable food and pharmaceutical ingredients using upcycled agri-food waste, such as mandarin orange peels. The company has so far tapped into the 4 million tons of mandarin orange peels that are wasted annually to create two products, a prebiotic and a digestive relief supplement.

4. Bevo

Source: Bevo

Founding date: 2019

Founders: Tilen Travnik, Maj Hrovat & Luka Sinček

Headquarters: Kamnik, Slovenia

Bevo is an R&D food tech developing a process to transform any plant-based protein powder into a muscle-like fibrous structure that can then be shaped into delicious steaks, and provides novel plant-based product manufacturing technologies to other companies. Their first product was a plant-based burger called Altburger, which is available in Interspar stores in Slovenia. Currently, Bevo can produce beef, pork and chicken-like steaks with a lab-scale capacity.

5. Those Vegan Cowboys

Source: Those Vegan Cowboys

Founding date: 2020

Founders: Jaap Korteweg & Niko Koffeman

Headquarters: Ghent, Belgium

Those Vegan Cowboys was started by the founding fathers of The Vegetarian Butcher. The Ghent-based startup, who recently launched a bounty hunt for the perfect fungal strain, is on a mission to speed up the development of fermentation-based dairy alternatives. Using fermentation technology, the company hopes to create animal-free dairy products that are molecularly identical to conventional dairy, but requires no cows, no-cruelty and is more environmentally-friendly.

6. The Live Green Co

Source: The Live Green Co

Founding date: 2018

Founders: Priyanka Srinivas & Sasikanth Chemalamudi

Headquarters: Santiago, Chile

The Live Green Co is on a mission to disrupt the way the world consumes food with its line of sustainable and healthy plant-based products superfood ingredients such as mung beans, moringa and tulsi. They hope to use their 100% natural plant ingredients, which undergo  minimal processing thanks to their machine learning smart tech, to replace animals and highly-processed additives in our daily foods. In addition to being vegan, their products are gluten-free, soya-free and are packaged using zero plastic.

7. Protera

Source: Protera

Founding date: 2018

Founders: Leonardo Álvarez & Francia Navarrete

Headquarters: Paris, France & Santiago, Chile

Protera is a biotech startup leveraging artificial intelligence algorithms and deep learning technology to craft functional proteins. Their process, called Natural Intelligence, is the technology behind their line of clean-label texturising and food-preserving proteins that have different properties, ranging from shelf stable and anti-fungal ingredients to high-melting plant-based point oils.

8. StenCo

Source: StenCo

Founding date: 2019

Founders: John Brown & Alexander N. Gerogiannis

Headquarters: Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.

StenCo has created a compostable oxygen barrier technology, providing a solution to extending shelf-life of products without the need for single-use packaging. The company uses solid polymer science to create cost-efficient nature-based materials, and their food contact safe product can keep food fresh better than most plastics. In addition, the material is microwavable, grease resistant and water resistant.

Lead image courtesy of The Live Green Co.

Fancy siew mai made from cell-based meat with the same taste and texture as real meat sans the animal cruelty and environmental impact?

Meet Shiok Meats (“Shiok”) which is disrupting the seafood industry — it is the first-of-its-kind clean meat company in Singapore and Southeast Asia.

‘Shiok’, which essentially means fantastic and delicious in local slang, specialises in clean and healthy seafood and meats harvested from cells instead of animals.

However, back in 2015/2016, there was a lack of opportunities in biomedical research for out-of-the-box thinkers and doers, said Dr Sandhya Sriram, CEO and co-founder of Shiok Meats.

With “the drive to innovate and disrupt, especially in the sustainability sector”, two female scientists Sandhya and co-founder Dr Ka Yi Ling set out to transform the industry.

Cultivating Cell-Based Meats

Dr Ka Yi Ling and Dr Sandhya Sriram
Dr Ka Yi Ling and Dr Sandhya Sriram / Image Credit: Shiok Meats

35-year-old Sandhya is a stem cell scientist with over 10 years of experience working with muscle, adipose, cells and stem cells.

After graduating with a PhD from Nanyang Technological University in
Singapore, Sandhya pursued her postdoc at A*STAR in Singapore. Following four years of postdoctoral work, she took up business development at a research institute.

Alongside, she co-founded two companies, Biotech In Asia and SciGlo. Sandhya has been featured on Forbes Women in Tech for her entrepreneurial ventures.

When Shiok started in August 2018, the alternative protein industry was nascent in Singapore and Shiok was the first-ever cell-based meat company in the region, so we had to face a lot of challenges to even get started and setup.

In 2018, Shiok needed to use a lab offshore because none were available in Singapore that suited our needs. We are not a spinoff from any university or institute — we are an independent company that started with just an idea and minimal angel investment — so it was hard to find lab space, funding, et cetera.

– Dr Sandhya Sriram, CEO & co-founder, Shiok Meats

Shiok Meats
Image Credit: Shiok Meats

Shiok stands out from other cell-based meat production companies because of its proprietary technology that isolates stem cells from shrimp, lobster, and crab — they are the first company to be able to do this for cell-based production.

Cell-based siew mai
Cell-based siew mai / Image Credit: Shiok Meats

Once the stem cells are harvested, the shrimp, lobster, and crab meats are grown in nutrient-rich conditions, similar to that of a greenhouse.

After four to six weeks, the cell-based seafood is exactly the same as its conventional counterpart but more sustainable, clean, and nutritious.

Shiok’s patent-pending technology can grow crustaceans four times faster than conventional production.

Raised $20.4M Funding To Date

The duo set up the company with an angel investment of $10,000 that grew to $50,000, and then closed a seed round of $4.6 million in about eight months of incorporation.

To date, Shiok has raised a total of $20.4 million in funding over three rounds.

Its most recent round of funding in September 2020, which saw them raising $12.6 million in Series A funding.

The round is led by Aqua-Spark, the first investment fund focused on sustainable aquaculture.

The funds will go towards building the first-of-its-kind commercial
pilot plant from which ‘Shiok’ plans to launch its minced shrimp product in 2022.

Shiok Meats
Image Credit: Shiok Meats

The output of Shiok’s pilot plant will be frozen cell-based shrimp meat for dumplings and other shrimp-based dishes.

Beyond cell-based shrimp, Shiok plans to launch shrimp flavouring paste and powder, fully-formed 3D shrimp, and cell-based lobster and crab products in the coming years.

Disrupting The Seafood Industry

The cell-based shrimp, which is also their flagship product, offers clean, traceable alternatives to the shrimp farming industry.

The shrimp market is worth $50 billion globally with Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and India being the major producers of shrimp.

While there are many farms and technologies improving shrimp farming, there is still work to be done.

Typically, shrimp is raised in crowded factories or farms and treated with antibiotics, chemicals, and hormones.

shrimp farming
Shrimp farming / Image Credit: The Asian Age

This conventional production method often contribute to overfishing, excessive bycatch, misrepresentation, and mislabelling as well as contamination with effluents, heavy metals, and micro plastics.

This form of production is unsustainable and the sector strain will only increase as the population grows.

Thailand shrimp farm
A Thailand shrimp farm / Image Credit: Hakai Magazine

According to Shiok, clean meat production could reduce the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by 96 per cent, energy consumption by 45 per cent, land use by 99 per cent, and water consumption by 96 per cent.

Startups and food giants are working to invent and improve alternatives to traditional meat production as consumers become more careful about nutrition and the environment.

While fake-meat companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are expanding into new markets, other startups are working on laboratory-grown alternatives who want to enjoy the meat and seafood experience without sacrificing animals.

So far, Shiok Meats shows to be highly promising in their research and development.

Featured Image Credit: Shiok Meats

NEW YORK — In Harlem, a husband-and-wife team have perfected a plant-based cheese for New York-style pizza. In San Jose, a concerned father is tackling plastic waste, one spork at a time. A pair of sisters in Minneapolis and Brooklyn, NY, created a shelf-stable oat milk that uses the entire organic, whole grain oat, resulting in more nutrition and less waste.

These entrepreneurs are among dozens selected to participate in Rabobank’s FoodBytes! virtual pitch competition, which kicked off in October. The program offers opportunities for emerging brands across the globe to network with investors and industry professionals representing some of the biggest food and agriculture corporations in the world. Hundreds of startups in the food technology, agriculture technology and consumer packaged goods sectors applied to the program. This year an expanded selection of 45 startups received one-on-one connections to investors and corporate members and will permanently join the FoodBytes! alumni network. In early December, 15 finalists will be invited to pitch to a panel of judges for a cash prize.

“We redesigned Rabobank’s FoodBytes! food and ag innovation platform for one reason: to build a powerful engine for ongoing collaboration and innovation between food and agribusiness players who want to feed the world sustainably,” said Anne Greven, head of food and agribusiness innovation at Rabobank. “We know we can’t achieve this purpose alone, which is why we’ve convened a collective of influential corporate and investor members who share our vision.”

The 2020 cohort is the most diverse in the program’s five-year history. Fifty-one percent of the startups are led or co-led by people of color, and 44% are led or co-led by women. The 45 startups come from 15 countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, Israel, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland.

“In the past we were going city to city trying to find the best and the brightest startups solving food challenges around North America and Europe,” Ms. Greven said. “Our goal this year was to go much more global because food is a global system and we’re a global institution, and we look at challenges of the food system globally.”

Innovating for good

Founders chosen for the program are developing sustainable solutions to address key challenges in the food system such as food waste, nutrition and food safety. Concepts include upcycled foods and beverages, plastic reduction, cell-based meat production, natural coatings that extend produce shelf life, and technologies that improve soil health, reduce water use and combat labor shortages and worker safety issues.

“If we’re really going to solve the food challenge globally we have to work together, and we have to work together quickly, and that can’t happen if we all remain in silos, competing in a battle for market share,” Ms. Greven said. “We have to come together to adopt what we believe should be the changes that can have a big impact for all of us in the food system and make a difference for the future.

“I have this high level mission that we want to be the beacon of food and ag innovation for all the members, and that’s why building the membership, expanding the startup base, building a program that encourages connections and community is how we believe we will have the biggest impact quickly and for the future.”

Dinesh Tadepalli, co-founder of Planeteer

One environmentally conscious entrepreneur hopes to eliminate the need for single-use plastic serve ware. Dinesh Tadepalli, co-founder of Planeteer, developed machinery to produce edible cutlery made from wheat, oats, chickpea, brown rice and corn. The first offering is a vegan, protein-rich spoon that remains sturdy in hot and cold foods. Flavors include chocolate, vanilla, black pepper, oregano chili, and Indian masala.

“The whole idea of my entrepreneurship came after my children were born, especially after my daughter was born, where I was planning their financial future, and that’s when I realized what’s the point of me saving money for them if they can’t enjoy and be safe on this planet?” Mr. Tadepalli said.

Planeteer plans to supply spoons to ice cream and frozen yogurt shops, restaurants and concert venues. In the meantime, the company is selling the product online while developing additional shapes.

“Spoons are just the beginning,” Mr. Tadepalli said. “We are working on edible straws and edible sporks… and edible chopsticks are in the pipeline.”

Several startups in the cohort are focused on plant-based product development. Kartik Dixit, co-founder and chief executive officer of Mumbai-based Evo Foods, is bringing animal-free alternatives to Indian consumers, beginning with a nutritious liquid egg replacement formulated with chickpeas, mung beans and peas.

Kartik Dixit, co-founder and CEO of Evo Foods

“Essentially we would like to be the Impossible Foods of India,” Mr. Dixit said. “We started with the egg because we saw the egg was the ideal gateway product for the Indian market… Egg comes with no religious restrictions, and the market is huge.”

The pandemic has delayed the company’s plans to partner with restaurants to build brand awareness before entering the retail market, Mr. Dixit said.

“Restaurants are in bad shape in India; things are trying to open up,” he said. “But at the same time cloud kitchens are booming, so we see that as an opportunity.”

Another plant-based solution comes from Willa’s, a company co-founded by Christina Dorr Drake and her sister, Elena Dorr Zienda, based on a grandmother’s recipe for oat milk. Both have prior experience in the food industry; Ms. Drake specializes in marketing, and Ms. Zienda has a background in chemical engineering.

Many other oat milks on the market contain additives such as gums or sugars, but Willa’s original unsweetened oat milk includes only filtered water, organic whole grain oats, organic real vanilla extract and salt. The company’s unique milling approach utilizes the whole oat. As a result, the product contains more fiber and protein and less sugar per serving than other varieties.

Willa's oat milk“We chose to name the company after our grandmother because she was real, honest and uncompromising,” Ms. Drake said.

The brand was set to launch in coffeeshops and coworking spaces this past March, but as the pandemic scrambled initial go-to market plans, the founders quickly shifted to marketing and selling the products online.

Like Evo Foods and Willa’s, many of the startups selected for the program have demonstrated resilience in adapting against the unexpected market challenges of COVID-19, Ms. Greven said.

“I’m constantly in awe of these folks who have taken herculean efforts, for example if they were going to go into the restaurant channel and had to immediately shift to direct to consumer,” she said. “The amount of energy and passion they have and belief in what they’re doing helps fuel their ability to be quite resilient and make those shifts.”

Accelerating solutions

In late October, FoodBytes! provided various sessions and mentorship opportunities to the participating startups, addressing a range of issues from fundraising to marketing to scaling. Companies involved in the program include PepsiCo, Inc., Archer Daniels Midland., Barilla and Dole Food Co.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of different incubators and accelerators over the years, and this one week of Foodbytes! blew me away,” said Kobi Regev, founder of New York-based Pleese Foods. “I was amazed by the type of people that attended and who got to speak in the panels and having the opportunity to meet some of them was just such a compliment to be part of this.”

Kobi and Abev Regev, founders of Pleese Foods

Mr. Regev and his wife, Abev, launched the business to fill a void in the plant-based cheese market for an allergen-free option. Many non-dairy cheese products available are formulated with soy, seeds, wheat or nuts. The debut product from Pleese is a pizza-style cheese made with faba bean protein, potato and coconut oil. The company initially is selling to restaurants and plans to launch a retail product next year.

“COVID has slowed things down for us but didn’t stop us,” Mr. Regev said. “What we realized is the benefit of going down the foodservice line, especially with pizza, is pizzerias were open during the entire pandemic. I think we were very lucky in that regard. We want to make sure we expand slowly and surely and smartly. There’s desire to have our product all over the country, but we need to make sure we create a very strong infrastructure and we get our word out efficiently and that we can bring together an amazing team to really grow this company.”

Another important area of innovation, particularly during a tumultuous year, is health and wellness. Moment, a brand of botanical beverages, was inspired by the practice of meditation and designed to relieve stress with minimal calories and no sugar or artificial ingredients. Aisha Chottani co-founded the business with her husband, Faheem Kajee.

Aisha Chottani and Faheem Kajee, founders of Moment

“Most people find meditation pretty intimidating; It looks difficult and takes even more discipline to perform it when you are really busy and stressed out, which is when you need it the most,” Ms. Chottani said. “We created a proprietary blend of botanicals and adaptogens, which are scientifically proven to stimulate the same brainwaves as meditation, helping you reduce stress, improve focus and enhance creativity.”

The company launched earlier this year with a direct-to-consumer business and sells the beverages in a handful of specialty stores in New York. A portion of proceeds supports a provider of mindfulness programming to schools nationwide.

“For us, it’s more than just a beverage,” Ms. Chottani said. “We started with a beverage because that was an easy way to access our customers and provide an immediate value… We are going to experiment with other types of products and experiences going forward. Seven out of 10 workers have identified COVID as the most stressful period of their lives, and even as the world is conquering how this pandemic is going to play out, there’s going to be other changes in the next few years in how we work, how we operate and how we live as a society, and people will need support.”

After watching entrepreneurs flock to California to make meat, milk, eggs and other products indoors without the customary animal, Darko Mandich decided last November to travel 6,000 miles with the hopes of doing the same with one of his favorite ingredients: honey.

Without any connections in the San Francisco area, Mandich and his wife set out on a trip from Serbia for the Golden State on what he called “a calculated risk” to suss out whether people would be willing to invest in his business and get his dream off the ground.

Before long, Mandich found his co-founder, Aaron Schaller who was finishing his Ph.D at UC Berkeley with a degree in biochemistry, connected with potential investors. Instead of heading back to Serbia as he initially planned, the 29-year-old stuck around to start his own business making honey, but without bees.

“I realized that after we make burgers without cows and we make milk without cows that we also should make honey without bees,” said Mandich, the CEO of MeliBio. “It’s a very important product that we need to think of alternative ways to produce it in order for it to be sustainable.”

Honey tops sugar

U.S. honey production totaled 37 million pounds in 2019, down from 44.5 million pounds in 2001, according to data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Despite the decline, the value of production soared 200% to $108 million during the same period. The National Honey Board estimated U.S. per capita consumption of honey is around 1.3 pounds annually.

In 2020, honey passed sugar as the most preferred sweetener in the U.S., the National Honey Board said. Much of this increase likely comes as honey has benefited from its reputation as a natural ingredient and a healthier sugar substitute rich in antioxidants that also can help lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure.

Permission granted by MeliBio

MeliBio so far has raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars since it was formed last December. Mandich and Schaller have put in $40,000 of their own money before the business was incorporated, with the rest coming later in April from Big Idea Ventures, a venture capital fund and startup accelerator in the food space. MeliBio plans to raise additional funds from a seed round in the coming weeks to increase its R&D team and lower its production cost compared to traditional honey from bees.

Much of MeliBio’s work is currently being conducted in the lab where researchers are testing out different approaches taken from biology, plant science and other industries to create honey prototypes; the best practices from each will ultimately be combined to make honey. In a recent blind taste test, individuals were unable to distinguish it from the traditional product, Mandich said.

“I realized that after we make burgers without cows and we make milk without cows that we also should make honey without bees. It’s a very important product that we need to think of alternative ways to produce it in order for it to be sustainable.” – Darko Mandich, CEO, MeliBio

The company will focus initially on making honey that mirrors the same taste, texture and nutritional qualities as what bees produce before venturing out into trying to replicate popular varieties such as Manuka honey from New Zealand or Acacia honey in Western Europe. So far, 15 food and beverage companies of various sizes have committed to using MeliBio’s honey once it’s on the market in the third quarter of 2021.

‘Clamoring for another fake product’

Mandich wouldn’t go into detail about the process MeliBio is using to create its honey in a lab, but stressed that the startup is making real honey rather than an alternative to the popular sweetener. The young entrepreneur acknowledged his company may draw skepticism from honey producers, many of whom have a long history of beekeeping in their families.

“I assume not all of them will be open to consider that the future of the product that they have been selling for a hundred years will be produced in a different way,” he said. “But some people will look at this as an opportunity for innovation, and we will definitely be open to speak to the open-minded players within the industry and exchange opinions on how everyone sees the future of honey.”

Margaret Lombard, CEO of the National Honey Board, expressed doubt that lab-produced honey will ever catch on in the marketplace. She said with food manufacturers cleaning up their ingredients list to prioritize using those that are natural and recognizable by the consumer, there is less of an appetite for another synthetic product.

“I don’t think the food world is really clamoring for another fake product,” Lombard said. “Scientists I’m sure can do [honey], or something similar, but I don’t think that it will replace or even threaten the beauty of what is honey.”

Honey fits with the growing interest by consumers in knowing where their food comes from. At the same time, it not only helps beekeepers who collect honey from their hives but thousands of agricultural producers, whose crops ranging from almonds and blueberries to avocados and apples, are pollinated by honeybees, something that cannot be fulfilled in a lab.

“I would beg people to think bigger picture about what is happening out there and … how that whole story comes into a naturally created product that is actually far superior to anything we’re going to create in a test tube in a lab,” Lombard said. “There is nothing like honey that is produced by a bee.”

Mandich underscored the advantages of making honey indoors rather than the traditional way where bees collect flower nectar, which later gets broken down into simple sugars stored inside the honeycomb.

Lab-grown honey is pure, and there is no chance of adulterants being included (unlike real honey where even if a beekeeper is honest, their honey could accidentally include chemicals if a neighbor sprayed their field.)

It’s also more humane, he said, since smoke isn’t needed to calm the insects and the wings of the queen aren’t clipped to help artificially inseminate the colonies. And finally, traditional honey production and price is largely dependent on the weather, so a reliable supply of honey will mean less volatility in price and an opportunity for more people to consume it around the world.

“We don’t know what the reaction will be, but regardless of that we really believe, this is the future,” Mandich said. Production “will probably contain some of the honey produced from beekeeping but at scale, the future of the honey industry, the future of all the food industries will be driven by science and will be coming from the lab rather than from the animal.”

Currently working in France, Nadine Bongaerts looks back with satisfaction at her student days in Delft. “The network I built up is incredibly valuable. Compared to French universities, TU Delft is really good in the practical, hands-on application of theory, which gives students very valuable skills.”

Nadine Bongaerts: “I tried to show that biology-based technology has now been developed to the stage where it can be used in all kinds of areas outside the pharmacy.”

Nadine Bongaerts studied Life Sciences and Technology (LST), the TU Delft and Leiden University joint programme. She had her Eureka moment in 2010, competing with a student team in the IGEM competition, an international synthetic biology contest. “That was at the time of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, which inspired us to create bacteria that can break down oil molecules into CO2”, she explains. “At the start, LST was all about studying biology. iGEM made me realise that we can use biology as the ultimate technical tool for sustainable development.”

Having completed her doctorate, Bongaerts now works at the start-up Gourmey, the first French company with plans to market cultivated meat. “We’re attempting to make foie gras based on stem cells. Foie gras is probably the ultimate French product, but incredibly unethical because of the way it’s produced”, she explains.

It is likely to take years before the first jar of Gourmey arrives in the supermarket. “There are so many questions that need to be answered first, some involving fundamental science. Cultivated meat is a subject at the cutting edge of numerous fields, including food science, biotechnology, stem cell technology and genetics. That’s what makes it so interesting. All of us, academic research groups and start-ups like Gourmey, are creating a totally new field.”

I hope that we can make a greener world with the help of technology

She was recently able to share her passion for synthetic biology at a DEAN event. DEAN (Dutch Engineers Alumni Network) is the alumni network for the four Dutch universities of technology. “During lockdown, I gave a Zoom presentation for a seminar especially for alumni in France. I hadn’t realised that there are so many TU alumni in France and I got to know a lot of new people. It would be great if meetings like this could be held in person again soon.”

Bongaerts highlighted some recent developments in synthetic biology. “When people think of technology, they still tend to think of robotics and AI. I tried to show that biology-based technology has now been developed to the stage where it can be used in all kinds of areas outside pharmacy.”

Spider’s silk

“You can now use DNA for data storage – a DNA molecule stays intact for a thousand years, making it ideal to store information on, better than the average hard drive. Currently, it’s still difficult to read or change the data efficiently, but there are all kinds of experiments involving the use of DNA as a means of storing important secret data”, she continues. “Biosensors are another example. They’re already being used in diagnostics: a Covid-19 test senses whether or not a specific piece of virus is present. All kinds of other applications may be possible, such as measuring toxic substances.” Innovative materials will also come from nature. “Take spider’s silk, for example, it’s light but incredibly strong. Some companies are now trying to produce it using yeasts or bacteria.”

Biosensors, cultivated meat, spider’s silk: for Bongaerts, these are all advances towards a new world, where polluting processes can hopefully be replaced by their biological alternative. “I hope that we can make a greener world with the help of technology. Biological processes are perfect for that and I would like to contribute to achieving it”, she says.

Until then, there are still some barriers to be overcome. “Currently, pollution is not taken into account in product pricing. This means that new technologies that require a lot of investment cannot compete with products that pollute and consumers are unwilling to pay for them. Technologically, it will all work out, but the major social and political challenges are much bigger. They will ultimately be the decisive factor.”

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