The future of meat
At the start of each semester, research director Ricardo San Martin of Berkeley Engineering’s Alt: Meat Lab poses a fundamental question to his 40 students, two-thirds of whom are undergraduates majoring in one of the sciences: “Why are you here?”
It’s a clarifying query for San Martin, who founded the lab in 2017. Five years later, at a time when plant-based meat substitutes ranging from hamburger patties to faux tofurky have helped carve out a rapidly growing share of the American meat industry, understanding student motivations is as important as divining alt meat consumer habits.
The students answer in near unanimity.
“It’s not so much veganism or animal welfare,” San Martin notes, “but sustainability.”
Students come into the program aware of the urgency to develop food innovations and protein alternatives. The United Nations reports that the meat production emits “significant” amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute to deforestation, water stress, environmental degradation and coastal dead zones.
The impact on the environment helps explain the program’s esteem among students and the food industry alike. The lab’s core tenets in addition to sustainability — affordability, minimal processing and a sensitivity to cultural fare — resonate with students’ values, and
the food industry has latched onto sustainability to whip up fortunes in alternative proteins.
It makes the Alt: Meat Lab, housed at Berkeley Engineering’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, one of a kind in the United States and beyond. It’s the only food science program anywhere, San Martin says, to pair scientific innovation with entrepreneurship through classroom instruction and novel collaborations with industry.
As the lab gets underway, students are organized into 10 four-member teams. They take on challenges from food behemoths such as Nestlé, which has at times puzzled over the texture of some of its plant-based meats. Another business, Miyoko’s Creamery in Sonoma, asked students to improve their fermentation processes for its nut-based “cheese.”
“Every semester before we start, we ask the companies, ‘What challenges would you like the students to tackle?’” says San Martin, who teaches a course called Product Design of Plant-Based Foods. “The topic has to be entrepreneurial, like it has to lead to a real startup. It has to be very specific, and that’s where the action starts.”
Other projects, those created by students and that are not tethered to a business, are limited only by team members’ imaginations. Projects need not focus on alt meat, but on any alternative to animal-derived food, including dairy, eggs and fish. In February, one team proposed using rejected and wasted fruits and vegetables to create “ugly milk”; another team presented research on developing an egg alternative using atypical protein sources such as fava, chickpeas, quinoa, potatoes and oats.
San Martin calls the lab rigorous and students “very motivated.” Of the 10 teams, two on average launch their own businesses, with entrepreneurs often hiring classmates. Still others go on to complete internships with industry leaders, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, before taking full-time work with the companies.
Into the marketplace
The alternative protein market continues to surge. By 2035, it is forecast to be a $290 billion global industry, with one in 10 meals around the world expected to be made from alternative proteins, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
Entrepreneurs include Kimberlie Le, co-founder (with classmate Josh Nixon) and CEO of Berkeley-based Prime Roots. The pair use koji, a Japanese fungus, to create ham, turkey and bacon. In February, the company introduced its new alt meat line of pates, pepperoni and foie gras. Le started developing her company as a member of the Alt: Meat Lab’s inaugural class.
It was during her time in the lab that she started working with the thready fungus to replicate meat. (“It was a lot of throwing stuff against the wall for a long time,” she says.) Koji only takes two to three days to grow and produces no byproducts. Other plant proteins — such as soy, pea and gluten — must be isolated, modified and processed to approximate meat.
Le still proclaims herself a “proud meat eater.” She studied microbiology at Berkeley, where she first learned of the climate perils wrought by meat production. The lab allowed her to pull all of her expertise together “to find a solution that will benefit humanity as a whole.”
“I call myself a flexitarian, which is a growing movement of people who are trying to eat more sustainably and make options as we see fit,” says Le, whose mother is a professional chef in Canada. “I love food through and through, and that’s really what got me thinking about how it can help to solve a lot of the large climate and sustainability challenges that we have.”
Another entrepreneur to come through the Alt: Meat Lab is Jessica Schwabach, co-founder (with lab mate Siwen Deng) of Albany, California-based Sundial Foods. The company makes vegan chicken wings, complete with plant-based skin, muscle and bone. The wings are expected to be available in U.S. restaurants sometime this spring.
Sundial uses proprietary technology to simulate a whole piece of chicken. It’s made of eight ingredients, including water, chickpeas and sunflower oil. The company has raised $4.25 million to date from investors that include Nestlé, Food Labs and Clear Current Capital.
Schwabach enrolled at Berkeley as a pre-med major, becoming a vegan her freshman year “because it was a very Berkeley thing to do, I suppose.” She enrolled in the lab for fun, and then quickly became enthused at the entrepreneurial possibilities after working with San Martin.
“From the very first day, he brought in industry representatives to speak to the class from all angles,” Schwabach says. “He brought in protein specialists and flavor scientists to talk about the different aspects of formulating plant-based meat products. And he brought in people from the business and entrepreneurial side, who taught us how we could build a financial model for a startup. This wasn’t just a class where we were going to learn theoretical things. It was very applied.”
An uncommon approach
The lab started in 2017, not as a whole-cloth program, but as a course: the Alt: Meat Challenge Lab, designed to consider alternative proteins, with students doing much of their experimentation at home. There was no funding and no ties to food companies. The Sutardja Center’s mission is to explore topics that can be relevant to society, and plant-based meats were making regular headlines. Ikhlaq Sidhu, the center’s chief scientist and faculty director, approached San Martin, whose background is in chemical engineering biotechnology, about expanding the course into something more.
“There were no alt meat labs anywhere, so I said yes, and it was a good decision,” San Martin says. “Companies were very attracted to the quality of the students, their ideas and their enthusiasm.”
Dollars have followed. The Open Philanthropy foundation recently donated $1.1 million to cover the 2022–23 academic year. The state of California threw in $1 million from its most recent budget. What the future holds for the lab is anybody’s guess. These days, alt meat producers are confined to 10 or so raw materials — each limited to conversion into alt meat by their own biological structures. But farmers could turn up new ingredients if they make economic sense, according to San Martin.
Students typically take two semester-long courses through the lab, which for the moment is borrowed space in the chemical engineering department; San Martin says funding will allow him to open dedicated research facilities later this year. The center also works closely with industry experts, entrepreneurs and investors, who give lectures as well as provide direct feedback on projects.
Students who take at least three classes from the Sutardja Center earn a certificate in entrepreneurship and innovation. While there are other programs in the country researching plant-based foods, they focus only on science and don’t offer students business perspectives, such as the cost scalability of bringing a product to market.
The Berkeley program isn’t just preeminent in the United States. Plant-based programs in Europe also hew solely to food science, and they aren’t known for creating new spaces within the industry, San Martin says.
The research facilities have been closed due to COVID-19, but there are hopes they will reopen in coming months. In the meantime, students have been working on their experiments, or prototypes, in their kitchens or dorm rooms, reporting findings via Zoom. The pace is frenetic: students present results to investors and industry leaders four times per semester.
Behind-the-scenes experiments might be construed as weird science. Students use specialized machines to check the texture and “flowability” of their alt meats and other creations. They make and test emulsions needed to incorporate fats into plant-based foods. They analyze physical properties. Are their meat creations too elastic, like chewing gum? Or, conversely, crunchy like a protein bar?
Some lab participants aren’t willing to let machinery have the final say.
“There are always a couple of guys who can eat anything,” San Martin says. “They smell it and taste it and say, ‘oh, yummy.’ It’s a very subjective appreciation.”
Not all of them are science majors; each team usually includes a business student. This year’s crop of students includes a design major and a sociology major. “We always have room for a nonscientist,” San Martin says.
“The only agenda we have is with plants and helping with food sustainability,” he says. “And because of that, we try to instill in our students a critical understanding of the space: Is it environmentally friendly? And is it as healthy as the companies say, or is it just marketing, and can we do better?”
Creating plant-based foods isn’t without seemingly intractable challenges. Meats have varying fiber structures, while plants do not share a like biological diversity. “There are limits on how much you can process stuff to look like other stuff,” San Martin says.
There also are wild cards at play. Plants, to protect themselves from insects, develop substances known as secondary metabolites, organic molecules that serve no purpose when it comes to growth, development and reproduction. But they do serve one critical function: to give off a foul astringency, the kind of bitterness to keep bugs — and, by extension, humans — far away.
San Martin describes his role as that of mentor. He works with Alt: Meat Lab co-director Celia Homyak, who most recently led a research team at Ripple Foods, a Berkeley food and beverage company. There, she worked on plant-based food innovation and managed collaborations with universities and industry partners.
At the lab, she is helping to create additional coursework in plant-based food and ingredient technology and in plant-based food entrepreneurship.
“The alt protein space is relatively new, making the candidate pool for these companies quite small,” Homyak says. “Businesses are typically looking for people with a proven ability and desire to solve new challenges. We have gotten direct feedback from our partners saying they greatly appreciate how our students have a more technical mindset tackling new alt protein challenges, while still presenting themselves as entrepreneurs.”
San Martin, meanwhile, compares the lab’s role in the rise of the alt meat industry to the advent of the personal computer. Apple founder Steve Jobs “wasn’t an MBA guy,” in the same way that his students aren’t business mavens.
“Although our program touches on business, it’s not a business approach,” he says. “It’s more about understanding the science behind the solution that you’re coming up with, and then teaching them how that can be profitable going forward.”