Seattle Food Tech looks to replace the chicken nugget with a plant-based copycat

Christie Lagally spent half of a decade working on planes as an aerospace engineer — but now she’s trying to attack the food industry head-on with a hopeful attempt to change the way we eat chicken.

That’s the aim of Seattle Food Tech, which looks to create what effectively looks and feels like a chicken nugget out of plant-based food. That means trying to mimic it all the way down to the puff it gets in an oven, and while some companies like Impossible Foods go after the look and feel of a burger, Lagally wants to focus on the much lower-hanging fruit of more processed food — which makes up a significant chunk of chicken consumption. The company is coming out of Y Combinator’s 2018 summer class this year.

“We’ve continued to develop all sorts of systems to support [meat as a staple of the diet], with funding for farmers to support the meat industry, for food groups that push dairy and meat, and to support all that we developed the concept of factory farming,” Lagally said. “Chicken is very efficient, but I saw a lot of the direct impact of abuse of animals. In Washington State I saw chickens go up and down the highway every morning to my trip to Boeing. As someone who cared about animals, I felt that I needed to do something. We’ve never really been able to control the meat industry in terms of pollution runoff, and we’re barely making inroads on health claims.”

The first product is a processed chicken nugget equivalent which Seattle Food Tech tries to sell to larger food services companies (think something like Aramark). That’s the market that’s most useful given that a significant portion of the chicken consumed by the population comes through food services. There are other advantages to creating a breaded chicken nugget equivalent, such as not having to worry so much about the color change in the same way that raw chicken does when it’s cooked. But the plant-based nugget still has to plump up, get juicy, and feel like a normal piece of processed chicken would feel like if it’s going to compete.

The company also, to that end, has to target municipalities if it’s going to actually get the kinds of operations rolling to start producing those plant-based substitutes. That’s an argument that happens at the level of a local community, and Lagally says that the production facility itself is as much the product as the actual end-nugget that might end up in the hands of someone picking up lunch from an office cafeteria. The nugget is a wheat-based product which is designed to perform like a Tyson chicken nugget.

“We can go to a municipality and say, we have a processing facility that won’t require you to raise taxes, we can offer similar or more jobs [than competitors], we can put out 1.3 million pounds of meat per month, which is huge,” she said. “We’ll be a really good economic booster of the area and be able to use plant-based proteins from local farmers. Our waste is almost nothing other than normal waste water from a facility, and we end up being a much more attractive addition to a small town in Nebraska or New Jersey.”

It’s certainly going to be an interesting space, especially given that a key ingredient for Impossible Foods got the OK from the FDA, which could make it more attractive as a burger patty substitute. So, there will be an interesting race to see which foods companies will end up taking over a key part of the consumption. Companies like Seattle Food Tech will also inevitably run into pushback from the same industries that they are trying to capture market share. But Lagally said that there should be plenty of room for a company like Seattle Food Tech to maneuver its way to success.

“The truth of the matter is most of these issues are decided at the state and local level,” Lagally said. “You can put a lot of money into lobbying in D.C., and money is influence at every level at the government. But when those come down to community choices, those are made at the council level. Farmers understand that they have to be a part of their community. A wheat farmer who processes our wheat into a wheat protein can sell to me for money money than selling it at a really low commodity cost.”