The Pacific Northwest has the ingredients and the recipes for innovation in animal-free meats and proteins—but entrepreneurs and investors here have yet to don the chef’s toque.
An event at the University of Washington’s CoMotion innovation transfer arm on Monday seeks to gauge interest among would-be innovators in the clean meat and plant-based protein. Advocates have touted the growing industry’s myriad benefits for human and animal health and well being.
Co-sponsored by advocacy group the Good Food Institute, the evening panel discussion will help CoMotion determine whether food innovation should be an area of emphasis, alongside its more mature efforts to support startup companies in industries such as virtual and augmented reality, life sciences and medical devices, and software and IT.
CoMotion sees its role here as convening the community and exposing interested people to experts in the field, says Elizabeth Scallon, associate director of CoMotion Labs. “We think there’s a lot of potential social impact that can come from this, as well as economic development for our region,” she says.
The question is whether entrepreneurs will respond.
“What is the appetite in our community here in Seattle to dive into this nascent industry?” Scallon says. “And at that point we could re-evaluate what services and what effort we could put behind it.”
Christie Lagally is a senior scientist with the Good Food Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes a shift away from animal agriculture—factory farming in particular—and toward clean meat and plant-based proteins through policy advocacy, market development, and entrepreneurship support.
Lagally, a former Boeing engineer, is based in Seattle and joins Hampton Creek Foods co-founder Josh Balk, New Crop Capital partner Chris Kerr, and Amy Webster of the Forward Food Program at the event Monday.
Lagally is well-versed in the necessary ingredients for innovation in clean meat and plant-based meats. She says Seattle, and Washington state more broadly, have them in spades.
For clean meat, which is animal tissue grown outside of an animal, the requisite skills include cell biology, tissue engineering, tissue culturing. University of Washington’s School of Medicine and Bioengineering Department are a source of people with these skills, Lagally notes. But the region has another important strength: manufacturing and scale-up expertise. She cites companies such as Boeing and its suppliers, as well as Amazon, with its network of enormous fulfillment centers.
“What we’re looking for in the food industry, as opposed to previous applications of bioengineering or biomedical research, is volume,” Lagally says.
To manufacture clean meat or plant-based proteins at a volume sufficient to get noticed in the enormous food industry, innovators will have to combine manufacturing-at-scale—with a heavy automation component, no doubt—with the wet work of tissue engineering.
The San Francisco Bay Area has this expertise, too, and has parlayed it into a growing, well-funded cluster of startups developing and marketing clean meat and plant-based proteins.
Washington, however, has something the Bay Area doesn’t, Lagally says. The state is a major producer of pulses—dry beans, dry peas, lentils, and chickpeas—which are key ingredients in plant-based protein products. Washington is the national leader in chickpea production and farmers here are expected to plant 150,000 acres of chickpeas, up 39 percent from last year, as people seek out hummus and other food products made from pulses for their nutritional benefits, according to National Agricultural Statistics Services data provided by the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.
All that said, Lagally can point to only one example of a local company innovating in this industry—and it’s been doing it for 20 years. The Field Roast Grain Meat Company was founded in Seattle in 1997 by brothers David and Richard Lee, starting with three varieties of vegetarian grain “meat” loaves.
The company’s meat-free Frankfurters made their debut at Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners, in 2011, and can now be found in ballparks around the country. This baseball season, Safeco began selling another alternative to traditional meat protein: Oaxacan chapulines—fried grasshoppers from Seattle Mexican restaurant Poquitos—and they’ve been a hit.
The willingness of eaters here to experiment is perhaps another reason this could be a receptive market for meat-free food innovations—or an indication that Seattle sports fans are willing to try anything to distract themselves from what’s happening on the diamond.