When Christophe Chantre and fellow scientists at Harvard University published a paper on using gelatin to create scaffolding for cell-based meat in 2019, it immediately attracted a lot of attention.
It generated thoughtful discussion within the industry about the need for an edible and indiscernible structure in which to grow the cells for cultured meat. And Chantre found himself fielding some unexpected calls. While the research solely dealt with cell-based meat, he was hearing from plant-based meat makers — both at startups and Big Food. These companies wanted to know if something similar could be done for plant-based meat, since attempts to make something more structural for plant-based whole cuts had failed.
"We thought it was potentially possible, but I think getting all this interest from these billion-dollar companies as opposed to a cash-constrained startup was very exciting for us," Chantre said. "And we decided essentially to slightly pivot to first focus on plant based."
With that pivot, Tender was born. Chantre became CEO and his research partners Grant Gonzalez, Kevin Kit Parker and Luke MacQueen also took founding positions.
Since then, the company has been focused on perfecting its technology, gaining exposure at industry pitch events and raising funds. Today, Tender announced it closed a $12 million seed round led by Lowercarbon Capital. Other investors include its pre-seed round leader Rhapsody Venture Partners, actress Natalie Portman, Safar Partners, Bread and Butter Ventures, MCJ Collective and Unovis.
A tricky problem to solve
As Chantre started the company and refocused its aims, he clearly knew the problem he was trying to solve.
What he didn't know was how, exactly to solve it. After all, cell-based and plant-based meats are two very different things. While cell-based meat is formed by growing living cells in bioreactors, plant-based meat usually starts with extruded plant proteins. Extrusion, a process by which ingredients are reformed into different shapes and textures, was first invented in the 1930s and has been widely used in food processing in general. And while extrusion has undergone significant technical improvements, especially as the plant-based meat space has taken off, the process still results in a physical ingredient.
Chantre said he and his team spent about a year looking for solutions. They developed a process similar to the one they had used to create cell-based meat scaffolding out of gelatin.
"Essentially, we've developed fiber manufacturing platforms," Chantre said. "They kind of look like a cotton candy machine, and so they allow us to create fibers."
What Tender does is take plant protein mixes — including soy proteins, dietary fibers or other carbohydrates — and mix them into a solution. This solution then is spun at rapid speed into hair-width fibers. These fibers are then organized like a fibrous muscle tissue, on which fats and flavoring can be added. Basically, he said, the company is making the same sorts of fibers it created for scaffolding, but is using them as muscle fibers instead of a structure for growth.
The end result from this technology is a whole cut that behaves much more like meat than others on the market. Tender has a video it readily shares of someone digging their fingers into a plant-based pork tender the company created, audibly amazed at the realistic fibers.
The prototypes that Tender is creating are similar to some of the next-generation whole-cut plant-based meat on the market today, but not quite the same. Products currently on the market from MorningStar Farms, Ozo and Gardein use high-moisture extrusion.
Other manufacturers' product "resembles a dense protein kind of slab," Chantre said. "...Muscle or meat, it's independent fibers, muscle fibers that are kind of bundled together. Whereas there [in other manufacturers' products], it's kind of the opposite. You have like a chunk of of pea protein that has some kind of striations in it, and maybe when you peel it apart, that does look a little bit fibrous. It's not enough, honestly."
The road to products
While Tender has been actively showing off its technology at pitch events at major industry conferences, the company currently has no partnerships with Big Food or any other plant-based companies.
"We realized that it was probably just easier at this point to launch products ourselves first. To get some consumer feedback and a couple things to improve," Chantre said. "...I think we realized that [other companies are] not going to do this work for us. They're interested — and we've talked to all these companies — but they kind of want to see you scale and have some kind of consumer traction before you go into meaningful discussions."
Chantre said Tender is looking at a few pilot tests in restaurants at the end of this year, and a more formalized launch in 2023. The company's current capacity is several pounds per hour, he said, but it is only working in R&D-sized facilities at this point.
Plant-based is an exciting area in which to work, with much faster product development and iteration, Chantre said. There is no waiting for cells to grow in order to see how well a particular solution has worked. The scientific equipment is also less expensive — there are no bioreactors, culture media or cells required. Chantre described working in plant-based meat as a material science problem, where the challenges have more to do with what kinds of inputs and ingredients lead to the best outputs.
"We make solutions in the morning, and we're making products in the afternoon, and we can just taste it in the evening, and then we can start over the next day."
However, Chantre said, he is willing for the company to eventually pivot back to the cell-based meat segment. Tender has received a $256,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop gelatin scaffolding for cell-based meat. Chantre said mastering the concept of fiber creation can make it easy for the company to do both somewhere down the line.
"It's more just a matter of changing the fiber size," Chantre said. "So if we want to make a scaffold for cell-based, we just make smaller fibers and cells will grow into it. If we want to do plant-based, we just make the fiber the size of the actual muscle fiber."
Correction: A previous version of this article provided an incorrect description of Tender's final product, compared to other plant-based whole cuts on the market.