Kennedy: Local company develops plant-based meat alternative

Ecovative Design co-founders Gavin McIntyre, left, and Eben Bayer are shown in an undated photo
Ecovative Design co-founders Gavin McIntyre, left, and Eben Bayer are shown in an undated photo

Ecovative Design, founded as a class project by two 2007 graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, made a name for itself as a “green” company that used mushroom roots and agricultural waste to create packaging material that, unlike ubiquitous Styrofoam, is biodegradable and compostable.

Dell and Ikea have used it to ship products; so have Openly Human, Seed and others.

Ecovative also discovered that mushrooms’ roots – known as mycelium – could be grown into marshmallow-like slabs that in foam form could replace polyurethane products like make-up sponges or when flattened out could become a leather-like textile for clothes and shoes.

Then, last fall, the Green Island company announced a new application: a plant-based meat alternative.

Atlast Food Co. was created as an Ecovative spinoff to fine-tune the product, an edible mycelium “scaffold” that could replicate whole cuts of meat – the holy grail of plant-based alternatives.

Most of today’s non-animal “meat” is in ground patty or sausage form. Atlast, though, wants to create structures that look like a steak or a chicken breast – mimicking the muscle tissue fibers and “mouthfeel” of the animal product, which food companies then would infuse with fats and seasonings and sell to consumers.

The Atlast spinoff comes at a time when consumer – and investor – interest in meat alternatives is high. Last summer, investment firm UBS called 2019 a “breakout year” for plant-based meats, predicting the market could grow to $85 billion by 2030 – from just under $5 billion in 2018.

Atlast’s proof of concept was to thinly slice its mycelium platform, add flavorings and fry it up as crispy bacon – which received rave reviews at limited-seating tastings held earlier this year, before the coronavirus pandemic put the events on hold.

In May, Atlast received $7 million from a group of investors, many with food company connections. A filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission put the number of investors in the group at 17.

Officials with Ecovative were not available to talk about Atlast.
A spokeswoman for the company said the goal of the May investment was to help bring the plant-based bacon to market “in the next year.” She suggested further announcements would come in the fall.

Ecovative offers a simple mantra on its website: “Support life on Earth.”

It identifies plastics and animal husbandry as “two of the biggest challenges we face” for their effects on the environment. And it posits mycelium as the answer.

“Consumers demand a reduction in plastics. They also recognize the enormous impact factory farming and mass-scale animal agriculture is having on our planet. We need a new breed of consumer goods and foods,” CEO Eben Bayer, who founded Ecovative at RPI with Gavin McIntyre, the company’s director of business development, writes on the site.

“…We are looking forward to growing a futuristic and sustainable world using the best technology available to us: mycelium.”

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].

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