Lab Meat, Not Just Plants, Is Protein's Future, Startup Says

A stock image of cell-cultured, lab grown meat. ( David Parry/PA Wire via AP Photo )

Food startup Just Inc., re-branded from Hampton Creek, doesn’t think the alternative for meat is just in plants -- but in meat itself.

After creating plant-based products such as mayo made from peas and an eggless scramble from beans, the company is planning another round of fundraising ahead of an initial public offering to help raise money as it diversifies its business into growing chicken, beef and pork in a lab.

“The best way to do meat is not to do plant-based, but a meat-based approach,” Chief Executive Officer Josh Tetrick said of the new business strategy in an interview.

His pitch is not to the vegetarian. Rather, he says, raising conventional meat is not environmentally sustainable. For many people, meat made from plants is no substitute. “Meat is part of our culture and identity, the way men and women think of themselves,” he said.

The push to raise capital is emerging from a new battleground in food, where supermarket sales in alternative meat surged 19.2 percent to $878 million in 2018, according to data from Nielsen. Food giants including Tyson Foods Inc. have invested in cultured meat, and Beyond Meat Inc., the maker of vegan chicken and beef substitutes, is seeking to raise as much as $184 million in an IPO that values it at about $1.2 billion.

Tetrick is rebranding from Hampton Creek as he attempts to reset the San Francisco company after facing probes by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department for possible securities violations and criminal fraud, which were later dropped. He also faced a lawsuit over a trademark dispute and, in 2017, the loss of both business from retail giant Target Corp. and his entire board, which has since been replaced with other directors.

Tetrick said Thursday Just is worth $1.1 billion -- a similar estimate for the valuation of Hampton Creek before the investigations. For Just, he said, the metric of its success will also come from its main product, Just Egg. The liquid made from mung beans to replicate the texture of eggs is available at burger chain Bareburger and Mid-Atlantic chain Silver Diner, as well as U.S. grocery stores. Sales of that product will set the stage for the next round of fundraising, he said.