Hacking the food chain, Silicon Valley style By Rob Lever

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 startups is essentially hacking the food sector with new ideas and technologies about food and with strong ties to Silicon Valley.

Some are using plant protein to substitute for animal products while others are producing foods biologically through so-called “cellular agriculture.”

At least $138 million in investment poured into the segment of “sustainable protein” startups in 2014, according to the research firm AgFunder. Another research firm, CB Insights, calculates at least $221 million invested in the sector over the past 18 months.

More deals appear to be cooking, with participation from major Silicon Valley players like Google Ventures and equity firm Andreessen Horowitz.

– ‘Disrupting’ food –

“I think this new industry will be disruptive,” said Isha Datar, executive director of the nonprofit 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, Datar says, with most of the traditional food industry stuck in “a deeply ingrained system that makes it less amenable to change.”

Brooklyn-based startup Modern Meadow is developing an edible cultured meat prototype along with bioengineered 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 tissues and organs,” said Andras Forgacs, chief executive of the firm, at a recent TED conference.

“Perhaps biofabrication is a natural evolution of manufacturing for mankind. It’s environmentally responsible, efficient and humane.”

In 2013, Mark Post, a professor of tissue engineering at Netherlands-based Maastricht University presented the first lab-grown hamburger.

Read more