If you’ve flirted with vegetarianism like I have, then you’re probably aware of a range of meat substitutes, all of which pale in comparison to the real thing. But now Beyond Meat CEO and founder Ethan Brown says that mock meat is about 80 percent of the way to being able to sub in for the real thing without anyone being the wiser, in terms of taste, texture and appearance.
Brown made that claim on stage today at the WIRED Business Conference, where he was discussing the role of proteins in our diet in general and how Silicon Valley investment-backed startups like his own are trying to shake up perhaps one of the oldest and most entrenched industries: the meat market.
Beyond Meat grabbed headlines as an unlikely target for investment by Obvious Corp., the investment vehicle/incubator/idea factory co-founded by Biz Stone and Evan Williams of Twitter fame. In a blog post from August, Stone outlined exactly why Obvious felt that Beyond Meat was a prime investment target, and how it aligned with the Obvious vision.
Beyond Meat will become the market leader in the development and introduction of new plant protein products. Together, we are focused on perfectly replacing animal protein with plant protein where doing so creates nutritional value at lower cost. Aside from the fact that the products are healthy, sustainable, kind, and delicious, we are involved because with one company, we have an impact on climate change, resource scarcity, human health, animal welfare, and more. With this company, we can move into new territory while staying true to Obvious’ mission.
The Obvious goal is to “build systems that help people work together to make the world a better place,” and Beyond Meat definitely fits within that broad aim. On stage, Brown talked about the time saved in raising non-meat protein versus that which comes from animal sources, which is a comparison of minutes for his company’s products to days for even the fastest-grown animal protein, which doesn’t even begin to get into ethical concerns.
For Brown, a big part of winning the war with the consumer over meat alternatives is convincing them to try it to begin with, and that starts with giving them a recognizable product. Already, he says people find it challenging to identify Beyond Meat’s own chicken substitute as something other than chicken, except when it’s placed side-by-side with the real thing. But the key to wide adoption, and winning over a much bigger percentage of the roughly $177 billion annual animal protein market that exists today, will be achieving full verisimilitude. And part of that means getting equal billing with the red and bloody stuff.
“The meat counter for me is about an unlevelled playing field,” Brown explained on stage at the Wired event today. “They should be selling protein, not meat and meat alternatives. So when you go back to that section in the store it should be about protein, because often when you go back and are looking for a meat alternative, those products are off in a penalty box in the corner.”
Many vegetarians claim not to want meat substitutes that look, feel and taste like the real thing, but there’s an even larger market of people who are trying to limit their meat intake for health purposes but don’t want to leave the satisfaction of biting into a chicken breast or flank steak behind. That’s what has helped Beyond Meat’s business grow at a rate of 60 percent this past quarter, and 30 percent in the last month alone, according to Brown.
Solving the meat eater’s dilemma is a tech problem, and so it makes sense that investors like Obvious Corp., Vinod Khosla, and many others are interested in the space. But will we ever really get to a singularity point where we can’t tell our turkey from our Tofurky? Or will we all fall down in the uncanny valley just short of finding a perfect copy? Either way, it’s bound to be an exciting space to watch.