- Hampton Creek received a patent on Tuesday for its method of combining robotics, proprietary plant databases, artificial intelligence and predictive modeling to scan and identify useful plant proteins.
- The system, internally called "Blackbird," automates the system for researching plant proteins by breaking them down to the molecular level and searching for desirable properties — like emulsification, protein content and thermal stability.
- "The platform is not only a game-changer for us because it helps Hampton Creek dramatically increase our discovery hit rate and our ability to bring healthier, diversified plant based products to market, but it can also help some of the largest food companies in the world (several of whom have already signed or are in the process of signing term sheets) make their products better for consumers and the planet," the company said in a statement emailed to Food Dive.
Hampton Creek is a unique company in many ways — and this patent is more proof. The company, which is currently best known for its vegan condiments and cookies, uses a one-of-a-kind process to find useful plant proteins that can become ingredients. Hampton Creek's processes are a fusion between the work done at pharmaceutical companies, chemistry research labs, and food manufacturing research and development facilities.
"If you walked in, you would see a whole bunch of things you normally wouldn't see together," CEO Josh Tetrick told Food Dive in an interview last month. "Try to imagine if we were flying around the world and I took you to Merck pharmaceutical company, and I looked at their screening platform, and I grabbed elements of the screening platform out … and you went to a large protein processor somewhere that's doing potato protein, and then we got some of their equipment. … Then we went to Genentech into their analytical chemistry lab and I said, 'All right, let's bring that over here.' Then we went to a Michelin star restaurant — let's bring some of that equipment and some of those benches over here. Then we went to Nestle and took some of the food scientists and the food scientists’ equipment and we put it in there. Then we went to the Carnegie Institute at Stanford, the home of some of our computational biologists that work for us. They look at all this data and find meaningful relationships in it."
Receiving a patent for this system puts an official stamp of approval on its uniqueness and usefulness. It also presents Hampton Creek with greater opportunities to play a bigger role in future discoveries and ingredient marketing. Company officials have long talked about their willingness to share ingredients and combinations it finds with other manufacturers. (Hampton Creek has made an egg replacement for General Mills.) With a patent on this quick method of finding capabilities and nutritive value, Hampton Creek is putting itself in a position to make more new food discoveries faster than its competitors — giving it more innovations to make available to other manufacturers.
The patent also cements Hampton Creek as a one-of-a-kind company. While many of Hampton Creek's products have individually been duplicated by other manufacturers, no single company has tackled the breadth of what the San Francisco-based manufacturer — which is also working on lab-grown "clean meat" — is doing. While news reports of upheaval among the company's top officials and board of directors may make the company seem to be a drama-filled workplace, this kind of recognition shows it is also an innovative center of food science and research and development. This sort of reputation can help Hampton Creek continue to draw top scientific talent, which the company needs if it's going to be successful in its ambition to create relatively inexpensive, mass-produced "clean meat," as well as taking on other challenges in revamping the food system.