WASHINGTON • A wave of Silicon Valley-style disruption is hitting the food industry.
Lab-grown meat, vegan cheese and "animal-free" milk and eggs are headed for consumers, often with backing from the tech sector and its financial allies.
These products could fill an important need, while reducing environmental problems such as energy and land use for traditional food industries, according to backers.
This new group of start-ups is hacking the food sector with new ideas and technologies about food.
Some are using plant protein to substitute for animal products, while others are producing foods biologically through so-called "cellular agriculture".
THE NEXT STEP?
Perhaps bio-fabrication is a natural evolution of manufacturing for mankind. It's environmentally responsible, efficient and humane.
MR ANDRAS FORGACS, chief executive of start-up Modern Meadow
At least US$138 million (S$185 million) in investment poured into the segment of "sustainable protein" start-ups last year, according to the research firm AgFunder.
More deals appear to be cooking, with participation from major Silicon Valley players such as Google Ventures and equity firm Andreessen Horowitz.
"I think this new industry will be disruptive," said Ms Isha Datar, executive director of the non-profit group New Harvest, which promotes cellular agriculture, or the use of stem or other cells to produce replications of animal products.
The tech sector is spearheading this effort, she says, with most of the traditional food industry stuck in "a deeply ingrained system that makes it less amenable to change".
Start-up Modern Meadow is developing an edible cultured meat prototype along with bio-engineered leather products, which do not require animal slaughter.
The company has funding from tech venture firms Sequoia Capital and Artis Ventures.
"This is bio-fabrication, where cells themselves can be used to grow biological products like tissue and organs," said Mr Andras Forgacs, chief executive of the firm, at a recent TED conference.
"Perhaps bio-fabrication is a natural evolution of manufacturing for mankind. It's environmentally responsible, efficient and humane."
In 2013, Professor Mark Post, a professor of tissue engineering at Netherlands-based Maastricht University, presented the first lab-grown hamburger. The product, backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, was derided as a "Frankenburger" but nonetheless sparked interest in lab-produced foods.
San Francisco-based Clara Foods is using a similar in-vitro technique to produce "animal-free" egg whites, while in the same city, lab-produced milk is on its way, from a start-up called Muufri.
"These products are just as versatile as the real ones," says Ms Gilonne d'Origny of New Harvest.
"An egg white (produced through cellular agriculture) can be used to make meringue... If you create a flank steak this way, it will have the cells lined up in the same way as a real flank steak, so it will be identical."
Among the prominent investors in this sector is Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who sees the industry as helping fight against a key environmental challenge.
"How can we make enough meat without destroying the planet?" Mr Gates asked on his blog.
He is "hopeful about the future of meat substitutes", adding: "I have invested in some companies working on this and am impressed with the results so far."
Mr Gates is among the backers of Hampton Creek Foods, a San Francisco start-up which makes plant-based egg substitutes for its mayonnaise and cookie dough, as well as Impossible Foods, which produces vegetable-based meat and cheese substitutes.
While meat substitutes have been around for years, today's start-ups are aiming to use technology and innovation that have worked in Silicon Valley.
California-based Beyond Meat, which uses soya and pea protein for its products, including "Swedish meatballs", says this type of food offers a more sustainable model.
"Our core mission is to seek mass market solutions to replace animal protein with plant protein," said Beyond Meat co-founder Brent Taylor, who claims the product creates the "fibre-like structures and texture or meat".
He added that new ideas are needed because "the rate of meat consumption in markets like China is rising at such a rapid clip that we can't keep up".
Yet it remains unclear if the public will accept these manufactured food substitutes.
Ms d'Origny said there are signs the public will take to the new foods. "Think of what goes into a Chicken McNugget, but people still buy them," she said.
While progress is being made, Ms d'Origny said "the engineering problems are bigger than the scientific ones. It's a question of making foods that are palatable and acceptable".
Others are sceptical.
"The people who are doing these things are evidently not foodies," said Professor Marion Nestle, who is professor of food studies at New York University. "They eat to live but do not live to eat, apparently."