Mushroom-Based ‘Meats’ the Next Craze in Alt Proteins? This Chapel Hill Food Tech Startup Thinks So
Fungi-focused food companies are starting to pop up almost overnight, and this Chapel Hill startup is among those leading the charge.
Meet The Mushroom Meat Company, founded by husband-wife duo Kesha Stickland and Dan Gardner. For the last two years, they’ve worked on a patent-pending fermentation technology that transforms mushrooms and upcycled plant proteins into mushroom-based meat substitutes that mimic pulled pork, shredded chicken and beef burgers to supply the growing market for alternative proteins.
Its primary ingredient, “textured mushroom protein,” is a “whole-food alternative,” they add, to substitutes made of chemically isolated or concentrated soy, pea or wheat proteins, the most common ingredients in plant-based meat.
“We’re making it easy to eat plant based without compromising on taste, ingredients or your impact on the planet,” Stickland told the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which has launched a new Exchange Group called the North Carolina Future of Food Coalition, to support the growth of food tech statewide. The first meeting was held at the Center on Oct. 5. Stickland was a panelist at the event.
Fermenting the spores of specific mushrooms -- similar to the process used to create beer -- produces a protein-rich, flavorless mixture: microprotein. Once processed, it can be used to make a variety of meat substitutes.
Fermented fungi proteins have been in supermarkets since the 1980s, when UK brand Quorn patented its mycoprotein production processes. However, those patents have since expired. That’s opened the door to a new breed of food innovators, including Mushroom Meat Company.
Describing their food innovation as more of a “flexible ingredient platform” than a product, Stickland said they’ve developed reusable building blocks, including a base and a set of flavors, that can be used to create “multiple products.”
“It could even be sold to other food manufacturers to help them clean up labels and eliminate allergens,” she said.
The startup is already gaining traction.
At the recent World Plant-Based Conference and Expo held in New York City, it won the award for “Best Meat Alternative” for its pulled “pork” prototype. It was also selected as finalists in two other categories, including “Best Plant-based Sustainability” and “Best Plant-based Protein.”
“This is exactly the sort of product that the market is missing,” Stickland said.
As consumers become more concerned about their health and look for alternatives to meat, plant-based products are on the rise. Despite turbulent economic conditions amplified by the pandemic, supply chain issues and inflation, new data show U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 6.2% in 2021 over a record year of growth in 2020, bringing the total plant-based market value to an all-time high of $7.4 billion, according to the Plant Based Foods Association.
With a thriving agricultural economy and some of the nation’s top research universities, North Carolina is angling to play a pivotal role in the plant-based food industry.
Most recently, the Research Triangle earned a spot among the world’s best startup ecosystems for agricultural technology and new food companies, according to a comprehensive report compiled by Startup Genome.
Among its biggest draws: the North Carolina Food Innovation Lab, a program of North Carolina State University that is based in Kannapolis. Launched in 2018, it works with entrepreneurs and multinational food companies in the plant-based food space to offer new products and manufacturing methods.
“The opportunity to be innovative in food science is greater than at any time,” Bill Aimutis, NC Food Innovation Lab’s executive director, said in September. In the past two years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in food tech in North Carolina.”
The Mushroom Meat Company’s journey started more than seven years ago when Stickland was injured in a car accident that left her in constant pain and struggling with an autoimmune condition.
“I eventually discovered that by changing my diet I could heal my body,” she recalled, quickly quitting animal products in favor of plant-based alternatives. Soon she was “fermenting everything” from almond-milk ricotta to gluten-free sourdough, soy-free tempeh and more.
“We turned to mushrooms and discovered that they could satiate like meat. I began to wonder if there was a natural way to make mushrooms more closely resemble meat. After a couple years of research and development, the answer turned out to be -- yes.”
This inspired her to leave her career in software product development to become a full-time plant-based food tech entrepreneur.
Earlier this year, the startup got accepted into the Big Idea Ventures accelerator, a New York-based program focused on early stage investments in the alternative protein sector. It was also named a finalist for the Vegan Women’s Summit Pathfinder pitch competition.
Since then, it has received undisclosed investments from several angel investors.
The company is currently raising pre-seed financing for hiring and pilot production, Stickland said.
“We believe that there is a growing desire for more natural and health-focused alternative proteins,” she said. “It’s all about providing choices.”