Chris Bryson noticed a pattern with plant-based meat startups: All of the products are made the same way.
Startups looking for funding often rush to create prototypes so that they can give something tangible to potential investors, Bryson said. They tend to lean on extrusion. While extrusion, which has been in wide use in the food business for more than a century, is good technology, Bryson said focusing on that method for creating more meat-like plant proteins narrows the possibilities for potential products.
Bryson’s New School Foods, based in Toronto, has created a whole-cut plant-based salmon, by ignoring the existing playbook. The company uses freezing technology, scaffolding and R&D to create a fish analog that not only has the look and texture of actual seafood, but also starts out looking raw, made of uncooked plant-based proteins like potatoes or peas that change as they cook.
Because most other plant-based meat products are extruded — a process that uses heat and pressure to transform the appearance — they start out cooked, Bryson said. And a fully cooked-looking plant analog with a relatively tough extruded texture may quickly turn flexitarian consumers away.
“What's the consumer experience going to be at the shelf?” Bryson asked. “You don't sample it first, you buy with your eyes. So if it doesn't look like raw meat, and doesn't look like the product you're trying to substitute, we're gonna have a problem. It's only going to be the vegan audience that wants it.”
New School Foods, which is emerging from stealth, just closed a $12 million seed investment round with funders including Lever VC, Hatch, Good Startup and Blue Horizon Ventures. The funds will help build the company’s team, work toward the build out of a pilot plant, and move New School toward a restaurant launch in 2024.
While in stealth, New School was one of 25 companies named as a semifinalist in the XPrize Feed the Next Billion competition.
Diving deep into R&D
Bryson first got into the plant-based meat space as an investor. After selling Unata, a grocery e-commerce company he founded to Instacart, he started putting funds toward plant-based meat companies.
As he realized the depth of the technical limitations plant-based meat companies faced, Bryson decided to take another approach. He looked at research projects at universities, and funded six that he thought could lead to technology to do something new in the plant-based meat space.
“The whole idea was, why don't we do a portfolio play around R&D?” Bryson said. “Let's do this moonshot kind of stuff that lets us create a whole new production technology that can create whole cuts of meat.”
One of the research projects led to its patented seaweed-based scaffold that makes New School Foods’ products unique.
Basically, Bryson said, a base gel of seaweed-derived hydrocolloids is placed on an extremely cold surface, which has been chilled to a temperature below freezing. The gel and its colder base are placed in a freezing chamber, which is cold enough for the gel to freeze, but not as cold as the base surface. In this setup, the water in the gel freezes essentially from the bottom up, in an arrangement of orderly and straight lines.
Thawing the frozen gel to remove the water leaves behind a scaffold of straight lines, Bryson said. When that scaffold is filled with plant proteins, it looks, feels, flakes and tears like a whole cut of meat, he said, demonstrating on a test piece.
“When we're talking about whole cuts, …if you don't have fibers, it might as well be tofu,” he said.
After creating the scaffold, New School Foods turns it into a filet.
They add plant proteins to the scaffold, which can range from canola to pea and potato, and are chosen used for their appearance, nutrition and relatively neutral taste.
What Bryson is also looking for are proteins that bring the product a similar look, cooking behavior, texture and nutritional profile as the actual fish. For New School’s salmon, he said, they want proteins that will cook in the oven at the same rate as a filet of the fish — about 12 to 15 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
The cooking look and behavior are critical, Bryson said. After all, two of the most successful products in the plant-based space — Just Egg and Impossible Burger — are able to replicate the same cooking experience a consumer sees in their animal-derived counterparts.
Bryson said New School Foods made salmon its first product for three reasons. One is because salmon can really show off the cooking functionality that the company has created. And the other was to bring more awareness (and possibly make a difference) to the problem of overfishing.
“When we're talking about whole cuts, …if you don't have fibers, it might as well be tofu.”
CEO and founder, New School Foods
But making something that looks like salmon is hard. Salmon tends to have white lines of albumin protein running through them, and it gets flaky when cooked.
“We felt that if we were able to prove out that this technology could address salmon, then it could almost inevitably be extended to all other applications out there,” he said.
The flavoring of New School Foods’ salmon is also unique. Instead of going to a flavor house and getting that company to make something that tastes like fish, New School makes its own salmon flavor.
Part of the money from New School Foods’ seed round will go toward a pilot facility. Bryson said that a location has been selected. They just need to break ground and begin construction.
Because their technology is based on freezing, Bryson said it’s relatively easy to scale. Unlike other food tech including fermentation and cell-based meat, working with a larger amount doesn’t impact the procedure and end product.
Much of the equipment they use is also off-the-shelf, and already used for freezing meats and other food products, making it easier to obtain than custom-designed pieces.
For now, Bryson is looking at launching New School Foods’ salmon as a branded consumer offering, which he said is important to raise awareness of the company and its production method.
New School Foods may get into the B2B business by licensing its scaffold technology. And the company is eyeing different meat items to recreate from plants and commercialize.
“It all comes back to muscle fibers,” Bryson said. “All animals have muscle tissue. And that's really the essence of meat.”