Biz Stone Explains Why Twitter's Co-Founders Are Betting Big On A Vegan Meat Startup

Obvious Corporation, an incubator created by Biz Stone and Evan Williams, is backing a company that makes a plant-based meat substitute that it claims is going to make people forget that meat has to come from animals. After shaking up how we communicate, will they change how we eat?

Even the most devout vegans and vegetarians have to admit that today’s meat substitutes are no substitute for the real thing. Some of them are tasty, but none actually have the same taste and texture of a piece of chicken, a burger, or a steak. They’re not fooling anyone. That’s why most people in meat-loving countries like the U.S. haven’t traded in their steak for Tofurky, even when they have health problems that should compel them to do so, and even when they realize that livestock are responsible for approximately 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Beyond Meat, a startup that makes vegan meat analogues, is manufacturing products that purportedly taste and feel like real meat (we haven’t yet confirmed this ourselves), have a better nutrition profile (no cholesterol, no saturated fat, but lots of protein), and will eventually be available at a lower price point than the industrially farmed stuff. The company has some surprising backers, including the Obvious Corporation—a company founded by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone and former Twitter VP of Product Jason Goldman—and venture capitalist powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. Why is Beyond Meat garnering so much interest?

The Obvious Corporation generally works with web-centric companies like Neighborland, Pinwheel, and Lift. But Biz Stone has been a vegan for over a decade, and he’s acutely aware of the potential health and sustainability gains of a world that eats less meat. Stone first learned about Beyond Meat when one of the partners at Kleiner Perkins mentioned that they were considering an investment in the company. He was intrigued.

"These guys are coming at the meat analogue industry not as a novelty kind of thing or hippy dippy," says Stone."They were coming at it from this big science, super practical, scalable angle. They were saying, 'We want to get into the multi-billion-dollar meat industry with a plant-based meat.'" When it came time for Beyond Meat to raise a round of funding, the guys at Obvious jumped at the chance.

Kleiner, too, was impressed with the company’s potential. "Being able to change the game in terms of how we deliver protein to the growing human population is probably the single biggest thing anybody could do," says Amol Deshpande, a partner at the firm.

Obvious just announced its involvement in Beyond Meat last week (they will help with marketing in addition to funding), but the meat analogue company’s beginnings can be traced back to 2009, when it began collaborating with researchers at the University of Missouri who were working on a product with the taste and texture of chicken.

Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown has a background in clean energy, but realized at a certain point that the energy sector could only be a part of solving the climate change problem. "What fascinated me that we’d be sitting around in these alternative energy conferences, these big hotels with fancy speakers, and at the end of the day you’d sit down and have steak," he says. "There’s a misallocation of focus. People haven’t focused on this area. So many greenhouse gas emissions are because of livestock."

Not every vegetarian or vegan will love Beyond Meat. In fact, says Stone, "For people who are actually repulsed by meat, they’re not going to like this." It’s just too real-tasting. But for anyone who craves the flavor and feel of meat, this might be the first legitimate substitute.

"The first reaction I had was, I know this is a meat analogue but if someone were to serve this to me in a restaurant I would have said 'I think this is a mistake,'" explains Stone. "There’s something about the mouth-feel, the fattiness. It feels fatty and muscly and like it’s not good for you when you’re chewing it. For a long-time vegan, it’s a little bit freaky."

Beyond Meat’s first product is Veggie Chicken Strips. After that will come a beef crumble. The chicken strips do contain soy—a somewhat contentious ingredient because of its possible health risks and connection to industrial agriculture—but the beef crumble features pea protein. In the future, Beyond Meat hopes to move beyond soy, too. "We want to expand the use of alternatives and the number of alternative proteins available," says Brown. "Instead of just relying on soy, we want to use lupin, mustard seed protein, and barley to give consumers a broad range of plant-based proteins."

LikeMeat, an EU-backed project that aims to create a respectable meat analogue, is also looking at alternatives to soy. The big difference: Beyond Meat’s chicken strips are already on sale, starting at Whole Foods in Northern California and landing at grocery stores throughout the Western U.S. in the summer and fall. Stores in the Eastern U.S. will come soon after. LikeMeat, on the other hand, is still in the process of perfecting the taste of its products.

Right now, Beyond Meat ships wholesale for less than the cost of natural meat. It’s still more expensive than factory-farmed meat, but that will change as the company scales up. Stone is optimistic that if Beyond Meat takes off, it can have a real impact on meat consumption—and in turn, our health and the environment. "You have to stay committed and get to a certain size before you can start seeing results," he says. "You can’t [make change] on a boutique level. It gets way less expensive the more product you have, but we won’t get there unless we can cross the long scary divide towards scalability."

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  • Fernando Parra

    No cholesterol, no saturated fats?? Those are essential to our own cells, and our body cannot produce them.

  • John van den Broek

    I am consumeing very little meat because of the horribe way these factory farms operate.

  • Fred K

    It's a niche market. Vegetarians and vegans won't eat that. Real meat eaters neither, except those with environmental sensibilities. And still, they'd have to not mind the idea of eating super processed Star Trek-like food, amid a global trend towards the less processed, closer to nature type of food.

    Not worth venture investment.

  • Benjamin "balupton" Lupton

    Unless it was served to carnists without them knowing, which seems to be underlying tone. Use case would be deals with restaurants that care about the future of this planet, but still cater to carnists.

  • bfaaaansta

    "Even the most devout vegans and vegetarians have to admit that today’s
    meat substitutes are no substitute for the real thing. Some of them are
    tasty, but none actually have the same taste and texture of a piece of
    chicken, a burger, or a steak. They’re not fooling anyone."

    That's an assuming and false premise. I've tested Linda McCartney sausages on a meat eating friends, and they had no idea. Also many veg burgers taste more like meat than McDonalds patties, for sure.

    Otherwise interesting.

  • Jeannineu

     I have definitely found some meat substitutes that have even fooled meat eaters. Gardein is the best I've found so far. Just wish they were organic.

  • Gabrielle Cimon

    Good Transition idea for big meat eaters. But I agree that on the long run it is an other processed food and definitely aim to eat unprocessed fruits and vegetables.

  • theperfectnose

    Actually fake meat (soy based) and fake fish are pretty massive in Asia (check out any vegan food hawker in Hong Kong/ Singapore). It's so realistic that a lot of tourists turn it down for being too meat-like.

  • FarmerGreen

    Sustainability in Upstate NY, just north of NYC means livestock and dairy.  The Northeast is rich in grasslands, millions of acres of grasslands capable of producing beautiful meat and dairy to feed the Northeast Corridor.  The farms often serve as bastions against subdivisions and host extensive wildlife.  Read Audubon's report on grassland birds that links the plummeting grassland bird populations of the northeast to the driving out of the dairy farmers with low milk prices.  Also, Cornell has tallied some 3,000,000 acres of abandoned grasslands suitable for livestock and dairy in their report called "Green Grass, Green Jobs"  To blindly condemn meat as bad for the environment is downright foolhardy if you have ever driven outside of NYC.  Why in the world would NYC want to destroy the farms closest to it?  For the sake of food security of future generations, think about what you are doing and go out and see the working countryside of the Northeast for yourself.

  • Greg P

    I don't think the market for homestead grown real meat will ever disappear. In fact, I think it will be enriched: people will eat fake meat for the majority of their meals, and actually appreciate the real meat they do eat.

    Real meat, on the scale currently produced *is* bad in terms of resource allocation: we get far less nutrition per unit land*water*energy with meat than with non-meat products.

    I personally like meat a lot, so I am looking forward to being able to be more environmentally conscious while satisfying my desires.

  • Oldmanyellin'

    Farmer, the protein in these meat "analogues" have to come from someplace don't they? You have to face the facts. More people are becoming aware that dairy and livestock herds, in the numbers needed to sustain current demand is in fact a poor use of the land. While I'm neither vegan nor vegetarian I can't wait to try this product. 

  • Lucy Garrod

    This is a great idea! There are many people who find it hard to change their dietary habits and live with the guilt of inhumane farming practices. I would definitely recommend it to all my friends :)

  • Pete

    What happened to vegitarians and vegans being happy with just eating vegetables? Soy is evil! The whole ideal of meat substitute veggie products is so western culturesque and gross! Want meat?, eat meat! Want veg, eat veg! We are omnivores.

  • Jkir74

    You are correct, we are omnivores.  Because of that I choose to be veg but would like to sometimes have a good barbecue chicken without having to KILL something.  This is a great alternative!  I eat a large amount of vegetables and feel this would be a great item for "special occasions".  It is nice to have a variety of foods and to try new things.  This is why most people like pizza and burgers and seafood and salad and barbecue and sub sandwiches and chinese etc... It is wrong to think that vegetarians do not have a variety of tastes just like everyone else.

  • Maskedhysteria

    Why Mr Pete what a small outlook you have. Vegans and vegetarians do not concern themselves with wanting meat-like substitutes, I don't understand where you get that theory from. This product (as clearly stated in the article, if you cared to read it properly) is aimed at people who eat meat and are looking for a humane guilt free alternative. Industrial factory farming is wrong, for anyone to agree with it after knowing the facts of what goes on, would be completely ignorant indeed. So, carry on eating your meat. And you are horrendously wrong, meat substitutes are not western at all, do you think tofu and seitan are western products? Really? Please inform yourself before posting such ill informed comments. People like you with such a simple minded approach to problems are exactly why this planet is messed up. 

  • Jpj

     I want to eat meat. I like the taste. I can't do it because of ethical concerns. There are many like me. And the numbers are growing. This would be a win-win situation for humans and the animals that are killed.

  • Benjamin "balupton" Lupton

    For what it's worth, the TED talk "The Pleasure Trap" (also a book available with the same name) showcases the reason why some people love the taste of meat, and can't give it up, even for ethical concerns.

  • Frederaa

    wow..good to know! I am excited to try it..I've tried many meat substitutes but haven't come across one that is tasty and considerably healthy. I do know that these are processed foods, but I have given up meat and crave for it sometimes. 

  • Mike

    Man, terrible.  

    How can they not understand that processed foods are not sustainable.  I'm not a vegetarian, but if I was I'd be more into pushing proper vegetable farming, not frankenfoods.  

    Also, as Joel Salatin said in his NYT reponse, wetlands produce 95% of the methane in the atmosphere......The methane that cows contribute to the atmosphere is a mere trifle.