This story is part of our series on the future of cultured and plant-based meat. Learn more here.
Consumers were clear: when it came to plant-based protein alternatives, they preferred ahi tuna sashimi which is a darker shade of red than you might find in real life. So Jacek Prus and his co-founder of Kuleana, food scientist Sònia Hurtado, increased the red coloring derived from radish. When consumers wanted a more fishy taste, they seasoned their bamboo fiber and potato starch ahi with seaweed oil and finished it off with a splash of fermented koji.
Like all alternative proteins, Kuleana tuna’s nutrients can be calibrated, and Prus and Hurtado have increased the iron content to 100% of the daily requirement to give it a health benefit. The resulting product from the San Francisco-based company is available in $12 tuna rolls at select California Erewhon markets and $14 tuna bowls at select Poké Bar outlets. Kuleana’s next product? Salmon.
Although the alternative protein movement is famous for replacing beef in burgers, there are now plant-based products that mimic a growing variety of fish, as well as chicken and pork. Around $2.6 billion has been invested in plant-based meat companies worldwide over a six-year period ending September 2021, and young innovators are driving the movement forward.
(To keep pace with the new kids, alternative protein standard bearers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods continue to launch new and improved iterations of their burgers and sausages. Both recently launched new chicken bites.)
As an undergraduate — and first-time vegan — at the University of Texas at Austin, Prus helped with an overhaul of the university’s food service that put vegan offerings in some cafeterias. “It was cool to do,” he says.
After earning his MBA from UT, Prus traveled to Berlin to help establish ProVeg, a German business incubator that nurtures alternative protein startups (including Kuleana). A subsequent spin through Y Combinator, the granddaddy of all Silicon Valley tech incubators, led to investments totaling $6.5 million from sources like co-founder Kyle Vogt of Cruise Automation, a driverless car company, and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
In three years, Prus, 28, has become a leader in plant-based seafood products. Today, Kuleana is manufacturing at a “pilot production level”, according to the company, but Prus says its production facility under construction in San Francisco will be able to produce 200,000 pounds of plant-based fish per month from here spring 2022.
Hong Kong-based OmniFoods’ plant-based pork arrived in Los Angeles – its first US market – in July. It is sold at Sprouts and Whole Foods markets.
David Yeung, founder of the alternative protein powerhouse, echoes the words of nearly every alternative protein entrepreneur. Factory animal farming is an environmental and health issue, he says, adding, “We’re trying to really wake people up in terms of what they eat when they eat meat.”
He plans to launch an OmniFoods plant-based seafood line here next year. “LA is the epicenter of herbal penetration,” says Yeung. “A lot of people are health conscious, progressive, very concerned about climate change and the environment.”
His plant-based pork uses non-GMO soy, mushrooms and rice, “all natural ingredients,” he says. “It’s not just a transaction. It’s about impact.
Like so many entrepreneurs in this movement, Prus and Yeung are mission-driven vegans. But Big Meat is also in the game.
Tyson Foods, which is one of the world’s largest producers of processed meat and had sales of $43.2 billion in 2020, is optimistic about alternative proteins, according to David Ervin, vice president of “emerging proteins” . These proteins include Tyson’s Raised & Rooted Plant-Based Pea Burger ($5 for an 8-ounce packet at Ralphs) and Plant-Based Chicken Nuggets ($5 for an 8-ounce packet at Target).
Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson is also launching alt-protein versions of its meat brands. “Jimmy Dean has a plant-based breakfast sandwich,” Ervin says, adding, “Tyson follows the consumer. We aim to be the leader in all proteins.
Andrew Ive is the founder of Big Idea Ventures, which manages alternative protein investment funds with hundreds of millions of dollars and operates startup incubators in New York, Paris and Singapore. From the start, Ive says, the alternative protein movement has been led by a group of venture capitalists concerned about animal welfare and climate change. But he has seen Big Meat increase its involvement both by funding companies and developing in-house brands of alternative proteins.
The investment funds come from both “Tyson Foods and those who are trying to end Tyson,” Ive says. “Eventually, the winners will be acquired.” Big companies, he notes, “have the marketing, the scale, and the distribution.”