On Thursday night, I organized an event on behalf of the Food Startups group focused on innovation in protein. We featured a panel of entrepreneurs and investors working on both plant-based and insect-based protein sources. Wade Roush from Xconomy did a stellar job moderating. The panel comprised:
- Joshua Tetrick, Founder & CEO, Hampton Creek Foods
- Amol Deshpande, Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, investor in Beyond Meat (and sits on their board)
- Scott Nolan, Principal, The Founders Fund, investor in Hampton Creek Foods
- Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, Co-Founder, Tiny Farms
- Gabi Lewis, Co-Founder, Exo
My highlights from the panel:
It was truly a treat to listen to Josh talk about his strategy for Hampton Creek. I didn’t know much about the company before the event and now I’m smitten. His mission is to take down the battery-cage egg industry by creating a plant-based egg substitute. However he’s approaching it from an angle that doesn’t require consumer behavior change (which is hard): for products which contain eggs as an ingredient, he’s partnering with manufacturers to replace the egg with a cheaper, more sustainable, more humane substitute. Because consumers aren’t buying cookies for the egg itself, they likely won’t care if the egg becomes an egg substitute, particularly if the price comes down. What’s so appealing about Hampton Creek is that it’s not focusing on the niche coastal foodie market. According to Josh, “we solve the problem when get at people who aren’t thinking about these issues.” His barometer for success is “when we’re dominating the Piggly Wiggly in Birmingham, Alabama,” which is where he grew up. Hampton Creek can dominate the Piggly Wiggly because it’s able to be 20% more affordable than battery-cage eggs with a 50% margin. Pretty impressive.
Josh also shared some of Hampton Creek’s upcoming innovations: Just Mayo, a mayonnaise made with an egg substitute which will hit the stores next month in the prepared foods section of Whole Foods, and Just Scramble, a plant-based product which scrambles in the same way eggs do, is ~6 months away. Josh did acknowledge that the scramble product represents a bigger challenge on the consumer front because the egg is the main dish, not just an ingredient. However the product should also be ~20% more affordable than eggs. I’ll be curious to hear how Just Scramble does at the Birmingham Piggly Wiggly.
I’m also really intrigued by entomophagy (eating bugs) and its potential to meet our growing calorie demands worldwide. Both Gabi and Dan talked about the potential for edible insects. In terms of behavior change, globally the hurdle isn’t as high: almost 100 countries already rely on insects as a food source. Within the US, popular acceptance is not right around the corner. But Gabi offered a great parallel with sushi: in the 1960s, most Americans considered raw fish to be disgusting. However when a chef in LA reconfigured sushi into the California roll, it caught on. I think it’s fair to say that by now sushi has entered the mainstream in the US. Gabi and Greg are hoping their exo bar will do the same for insect protein (for more on Exo see previous post). Dan also expressed that the trend is being driven from the top as high-end chefs and restaurants are incorporating insects into haute cuisine (e.g., two Michelin star Noma in Copenhagen).
On the investor side, both Scott and Amol shared their rationale for investing in alternative proteins. For Founders Fund, the Hampton Creek investment was attractive because of the company’s potential to make a big impact on the food system without confronting consumers directly and by achieving a lower price point than eggs themselves. Amol from KPCB shared that his motivation for changing the food system stems from his past experience working at Cargill and witnessing firsthand the inefficiency of animal-based protein. He has led Kleiner’s investment in Beyond Meat and has a few other food and agriculture investments in the works.
Wade closed the panel by asking each panelist for their one piece of advice for food entrepreneurs; running down the list:
- Gabi: Go to market with testing as soon as possible (don’t spend long trying to get the product perfect; i.e., embrace the minimum viable product)
- Dan: Along similar lines, start moving soon; food companies take much longer to build than a software company (chemistry, cooking, supply chains, “de-bugging…”) so don’t drag your heels
- Scott: Figure out what your technology is, and what makes you better equipped to do it than others
- Amol: Resist the temptation to think small; focus on global impact
- Josh: Pursue the goal of taking down animal agriculture; “there so much room for innovation and disruption, and animal agriculture is liked to fostering so many of today’s problems”
- BisonBison – meatballs made with ground bison (pre-order via their indiegogo campaign)
- Chirp – banana muffins made with cricket flour
- Exo – cacao nut protein bar made with cricket flour (pre-order via their kickstarter)
- Hampton Creek Foods – chocolate chip cookies made with Beyond Eggs plant-based egg substitute
- Tiny Farms – mealworm brittle
Special thanks as well to our event sponsor: Dice, and to SoMa Central for hosting us. And thanks to everyone who attended and participated!