GDR’s new Innovation Researcher Charlie Lloyd surveys the innovators who are challenging the very idea of ‘authenticity.’
When products are referred to as ‘natural’ it is usually intended as a compliment. From organic food to natural skincare, countless brands are promoting the natural origins of their products to consumers increasingly mindful about the provenance of what they buy.
What about the opposite approach?
In recent years, a new wave of companies has emerged that create ersatz versions of food and other products in laboratories. Seeking out areas where natural provenances raise certain ecological and social questions or are simply too expensive, these companies are using cutting-edge technology and scientific techniques to provide alternatives.
Some of these companies include:
Founded in 2015, Ava Winery is a San Francisco-based startup that uses analytical chemistry techniques to recreate fine wines by deconstructing them, then building replicas using various proteins and flavour molecules. The reason for providing a synthetic alternative to high-quality wine is price. By selling replicas of $10,000 wines at a far cheaper price point, Ava Winery hopes, somewhat optimistically, that Silicon Valley can usurp Napa Valley’s status as the home of US wine. While Ava Winery is promoting its wines as identical to those that it replicates, it communicates their inherent difference its design language. With a logo very much resembling an app’s and a mobile-first website adorned with chemical formulas rather than sunny vineyards, Ava Winery is making it clear that it considers itself the future of fine wine – and putting blue water between their image and traditional representations of wine-making.
Meat and dairy are areas of particular focus for this new breed of producer. One of the early trailblazers here is Impossible Foods, which has developed a burger it claims smells and tastes exactly like minced beef but is 100% plant-based. Vegetarian meat substitutes are nothing new, but what makes Impossible Foods and others stand out is how they create alternatives that are chemically similar to meat. Impossible Foods creates its ‘meat’ by cultivating heme from yeast. Heme, a non-protein chemical compound, is present in all organisms, but is found in high quantities in animal muscle and is a key factor in the colour and taste of meat.
The Not Company
Chilean food-tech start up The Not Company is making use of the rapidly increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence to create vegan substitutes for meat and dairy products. Giuseppe, the startup’s machine-learning AI technology, identifies similar structures in plants and animal products so that the former can be used to make products that taste very similar to meat and dairy – breaking down both to find ‘echoes’ in their basic chemical structures that ultimately lead to similarities in flavour. Like Impossible Foods, The Not Company’s is using some of the latest technology to create ‘meat’ that doesn’t harm animals and carries a fraction of the carbon footprint of industrial agriculture.
The Good Food Institute and ‘Clean Meat’
Some startups are taking the concept of lab-grown meat one step further. The Good Food Institute is a US non-profit supporting young companies producing ‘clean meat’ and introducing them to investors. Rather than creating meat substitutes from plants, clean meat startups are actually cultivating real meat in laboratories with actual animal cells. The first clean meat burger was unveiled in London in 2013 by Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University, and his company Mosa Meats, along with San Francisco-based rivals Memphis Meats, are leading the way in bringing cleaner meat to the mass market in the US. In addition to being friendlier to both animals and the environment, producers claim their meat is completely free of contamination and the antibiotics used in traditional farming.
Demonstrating that this wave of lab-created products is not limited to food and drink, Brilliant Earth is creating diamonds instead of mining them. The carbon in the process takes the form of methane, which is then heated with other chemicals in a microwave reactor. The end product, Brilliant Earth claims, offers the same sparkle. With so many conflict or ‘blood diamonds’ on the market, Brilliant Earth’s diamonds guarantee to the consumer that no suffering was involved in procurement.
But will consumers embrace these lab-grown substitutes? Data shows that they already are. According to Bloomberg Intelligence, global sales of plant-based substitute meat have increased by 8% a year since 2010, while research by NPD suggests that in the US market, lab-grown diamonds constituted 1.6% of the US market in July 2016, up from 0.25% in January 2015.
As illustrated by the Good Food Institute, investors are interested in this revolutionary new method of food production and clearly believe there is potential for growth. These startups are small-scale for now, but they have plans for that to change. While Impossible is only selling its burgers in a handful of US restaurants, it has plans for international expansion in the coming years and has successfully produced other meats, fish and yoghurt in its lab.
Of course, the extent to which these products will disrupt their markets is far from certain. The market’s appetite for clean meat is still unknown, and on a global level restrictions on GM foods in significant markets like Germany will provide serious obstacles for plant-based meat. For diamonds, their status-based appeal lies in their natural scarcity, so it remains to be seen how many consumers will be willing to make the switch, or how much they will be willing to pay. What is certain is that these startups are on the rise and intend to bring about a radical shift in the provenances of everyday and luxury items.
If your company is exploring new manufacturing techniques (for prestige products or otherwise), do get in touch with Charlie at firstname.lastname@example.org