The alt-protein segment is bursting with startups hoping to capture growing consumer and investor interest in the space. There’s an ever-growing number of meatless options at the supermarket and on restaurant menus. For Boulder, Colorado-based Meati, fungi and fermentation are key to standing out amid all this noise.
“There’s a lot [of plant-based options] but they’re all the same,” argues the startup’s co-founder and CEO Tyler Huggins. “They’re all the same ingredient list, just rearranged in different ways and hyper-processed. We have a fundamentally new category of food.”
Earlier this month, Meati closed what it described as a “significantly oversubscribed” $50 million Series B round co-led by new investor BOND and existing backer Acre Venture Partners. They were joined by other earlier investors, including Congruent Ventures, Prelude Ventures, and Tao Capital.
Oversubscribed rounds can become cutthroat for investors, as a highly sought-after startup decides who will make the cut and who won’t.
“[The round] was definitely a knock-down, drag-out, which is an extremely flattering position to be in,” Huggins tells AFN. “The deciding factor had to be, ‘Are you willing to lean in and help, have you in the past?’ […] Can you really be a value add beyond just capital?'”
“I’m a firm believer in rewarding true believers.”
Meati is using mycelium — the thread-like vegetative ‘root’ structure of fungi — to create fermentation-based analogs of whole-cut meats like chicken breast, steak, and jerky. The startup says these products are in the final stages of development and will be available to consumers in the US at some point next year.
Mycelium is an “infinite, self-replenishing food source,” according to the startup, which uses a proprietary process to cultivate a particularly fast-growing strain of the stuff that can be formed into shapes resembling meat whole cuts.
Meati also claims that its single-ingredient protein offers a better nutrition profile compared to conventional meat. A 128-gram serving of its steak provides 25 grams of complete protein, plus around one-third of daily fiber needs – along with essential vitamins and minerals.
Huggins says that, at scale, Meati will be able to “produce the equivalent of 4,500 cows overnight” while using less than 1% of the water and land that conventional meat production requires.
However, achieving that kind of commercial scale is the major challenge facing alt-protein startups depending on fermentation facilities — which typically take up lots of space and capital — to create their products.
As for Meati, it’s using a process which the Good Food Institute defines as submerged biomass fermentation. The equipment required to perform this process at large scale are closest in nature to those used in beer brewing and cheesemaking, Huggins explains – allowing the startup to cut some of the setup costs.
“We have invented an entirely novel process for growing Meati that’s never been done before. We’re doing this by both repurposing equipment from adjacent industries and creating our own equipment and processes,” he says.
Another competitive advantage, in Huggins’ view, is Meati’s reliance on a single ingredient – as opposed to its plant-based rivals who need to source multiple inputs.
“That means Meati is vertically integrated, and our supply chain is quite simple and extremely efficient,” he says.
Will consumers choose fungi over the alternatives?
Nevertheless, as Meati looks to scale, infrastructure still poses the primary challenge. Due to its proprietary production process, the startup believes it needs to construct its facilities in-house. It also needs to produce a serious quantity of its protein alternative to compete with traditional meat, which totals hundreds of millions of pounds of demand, according to Huggins.
Educating consumers about what makes Meati different may also be a tough task, Huggins admits.
“For the broader population, that’s something we will have to work on. When is the last time that a whole new category of food was created?” he says.
“It’s going to take some education but that is something we want to do. I don’t want this to just be for one demographic. Our goal here is to feed everyone.”
Huggins’ parents operate a bison ranch in Nebraska, which provides him with a ready-made testing ground for his meat alternatives. Reaching the average meat-eating consumer and convincing them to swap their burgers, steaks, and chicken for a fungi-based alternative may be a challenging proposition – but he’s confident in Meati’s appeal.
“I want this product to be served in small diners in small towns as well [as big-city restaurants] because they recognize the value that we bring around nutrition and obviously flavor. That’s going to take time, listening, and bringing people to the table to have a conversation. Nothing this groundbreaking was created overnight.”
Other startups taking fungi-flavored approaches to alt-protein include New York-based Atlast, which is also focused on whole-cut meat swaps. It raised a $40 million for its Series A round earlier this year. Germany’s Mushlabs, which scored $10 million in Series A funding last year, is working on mycelium-based protein.