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29-year-old best friend entrepreneurs want to reinvent plant-based meat with real animal fat: ‘If you add fat, it makes it taste incredible’

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As a 29-year-old on his second startup, Brice Klein has perfected the working-until-late routine, often leaving the office at 8 p.m. or later. But as he’ll willingly tell you, that demanding schedule often led to unpleasant compromises. 

Chief among them was food. Klein, an early employee at a vertical-farm company aiming to revolutionize produce, found himself eating less-than-innovative food night after night. 

“I have distinct memories of leaving the gym or my mom’s house at 9, stopping by Mollie Stones at 9:15 or 9:30, minutes later microwaving the Amy’s Vegetable Korma I’d just purchased, and then collapsing on the couch as I shoveled it down while watching an episode of The Office before bed,” Brice told Fortune.

“I didn’t feel good about my existence,” he said. “It wasn’t a particularly amazing meal. I was like, ‘this kind of gets the job done.’” It was particularly challenging since Klein was a vegetarian.

“For a long time I’d eat a block of tofu or beyond burger or half bag of Quorn or Protein+ Pasta at night, but every one of those still felt like a concession on some combination of flavor, cost, and health,” he recalled. 

These days, Klein still on the convenience kick but feels much happier about the mixes he’s throwing in a microwave or skillet. As one-half of the duo behind Choppy, Klein and his business partner and best friend, Saba Fazeli, also 29, are eating a lot of their own creations—chopped steak, pulled pork, or carne asada made of 90% plants and 10% animal parts. 

For his part, Fazeli left a job at Beyond Meat to solve what he saw as the problem in the alt-meat space: Plant-based proteins just don’t taste like the animal kind. 

Looking at the last three years of plant-based meat sales would seem to confirm that hypothesis. Plant-based proteins burst on the scene around 2018, promising to save the climate and Americans’ health, and soared high for a few years on cheap funding from venture capitalists. 

But many startups stumbled during the pandemic and have yet to recover. Unit sales of plant-based foods were flat from 2020 to 2021, and then fell in 2022. The pioneer of the space, Beyond Meat, is in “survival mode,” according to one analyst. The company’s “bleeding” veggie burger propelled it to the the highest-popping IPO in 2019, but its onetime $3.8 billion market cap has shriveled to just $450 million today. And funding for alternative proteins has collapsed to the lowest amount in nearly a decade, according to venture-capital tracker Pitchbook, which last year asked, “Have we hit peak plant-based meat?”

‘Adding meat back’

Klein and Fazeli met as freshmen at Stanford, where they quickly bonded over their shared love of board shorts and skateboarding and went on to graduate as mechanical engineers. The duo bounced around roughly 70 business ideas between them before landing on Choppy (business name: “Momentum Foods”), whose tagline is “adding meat back into plant-based meat.” They’re one of a handful of startups aiming to boost plant-based meats with the addition of something until recently unthinkable—real fat.

In San Francisco, Mission Barns is working on developing lab-grown fat to add to plant-based meatballs and burgers. In London, the startup Hoxton Farms, launched after its omnivore founders had a disappointing experience eating a plant-based burger at a pub. “We realized what it was missing, it’s fat,” co-founder Max Jamilly told Fortune. They beta-tested this idea during the pandemic by cooking plant-based burgers at home with added pork fat, and then graduated to growing pork-fat cells in a lab, on the belief that lab-grown fat would bypass the ethical issues of raising and slaughtering animals. 

The company, now with roughly 50 employees, has raised $29 million at a $50 million valuation, according to Pitchbook. And while Jamilly touts the climate benefits of lab-grown fat, but he believes its true selling point will be the taste. 

“Health and environment and animal welfare are enough to make you order something off a menu or put it in your shopping basket at the grocery store, but that will not make you eat it every week,” he said. “What makes people keep eating stuff is taste.”

And, he added, “Any chef will tell you, any day of the week, if you add fat, it makes it taste incredible.”  

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