Alternative Protein: What’s the buzz inside a plant-based Start-Up?

Hosted by

Clare Nasir

Podcast manager

Guest Speakers

Martin Habfast


In this new series of Cultivating Conversations, we begin by delving into the world of a plant-based start-up and their quest of the ultimate plant-based whole cut chicken breast. 

UmiAmi is a French tech start-up company located in Paris that boasts the world’s first plant-based whole cut chicken breast. In this show, Clare Nasir talks to co-founder Martin Habfast about their journey from prototype to product. The conversation gives great insight into why there is so much buzz around the meatless meat market currently. 

Globally the chicken-less chicken has seen significant growth during 2021, and whilst companies are delivering nuggets, patties, chicken sausages and kebabs to the supermarket shelves, UmiAmI are a smaller part of this emerging sector that have raised the game further. 

Clare and Martin discuss what makes a great tasting piece of meatless chicken and the emphasis of clean and minimal ingredients. Martin talks candidly about the agony of trialling many variations on a theme, and the ecstasy of that moment when he tasted his ultimate product. The challenges of scaling up are discussed with a clear realism – however, Martin's view on the future of this market is brimming with optimism. It’s an energised listen that captures succinctly what’s happening right now in the world of plant-based start-ups. 

What's Discussed?

  • Why the meatless meat market is important?
  • The motivations of why Martin Habfast created the company UmiAmi.
  • Martin discusses why there is so much more to plant-based chicken than nuggets. 
  • The importance of minimal and clean ingredients. 
  • Is this product a processed food? 
  • How is the texture and taste of plant-based chicken created?
  • Why hasn’t anyone created this product before?
  • The rise and benefits of pea protein products.
  • The issues of scaling up, from supply to production. 
  • Why this sector is evolving so quickly?
  • The future costs of whole cut plant-based chicken.

The Full Conversation

Clare [00:00:01] Hello. I'm Clare Nasir. Welcome to Cultivating Conversations, a podcast series looking at the latest agricultural advances brought to you by Chaseman Global. I spent all of my career working in the field of weather, climate and environmental science, writing books, presenting network TV documentaries, reporting on extreme weather and producing science podcasts on climate change and impacts. It's a mammoth conversation that needs to be aired, and like many, I'm thirsty for solutions that map towards a better future for all. That's why it's great to be teaming up with Chaseman Global on this set of   We're all in the business for a better future as the global population continues to rise, so too, the demand for food. It's estimated that by 2050, the global population will have reached $9.3 billion. That's a lot of mouths to feed. So how can AgTech help food and farming meet these growing environmental challenges? In the first of this new podcast series, we explore the rise and rise of alternative protein, starting with the quest for the ultimate Plant-Based chicken breast. There's a real excitement right now around the next best thing in plant-based meatless meats. We're talking here, the whole cuts chicken. Until recently, chicken substitutes were the poor man's meat-free choice, always being trumped by perhaps the tastier vegan beef or pork. But a combination of things have primed the market. There's been incredible advances in cell and fermentation-based technology, which in turn have driven down costs and production time. This, in part, has led to a surge in plant-based start-ups. Also, supply chain issues in poultry during COVID has perhaps rerouted demand to chicken alternatives. Some may now suggest plant-based chicken has found its wings but does it hit the mark on meaty taste and texture? And another big question is how do these smaller businesses plan to scale up to meet future demand? Today, we get the insider's perspective from one particular. Start-Up UmiAmi have recently been making waves in the world of meatless chicken. A recent article in the Vegan Business magazine showcased their greatest achievement to date. The whole cut chicken breast. 

Martin [00:03:04] My name is Martin Habfast. First, I'm a Co-Founder and head of sales at UmiAmi, a French tech company. 

Clare [00:03:11] Tell me a little bit of your background. How did you get into food tech? 

Martin [00:03:15] I don't have actually a food science background. I have a sales background, so I went to a business school in France called HSE.. And after that, I had various sales experiences. What happened when I was a student is that I did those tests that everyone can do online to understand, you know, your environmental footprint. And I realised two things. First thing is that I was polluting back then three times as much as what the planet could actually absorb for one person like me. The second thing I realised was that well. A third of my CO2 footprint was due to meat consumption. Another third to me taking the plane and a third was basically everything else. So I thought, Well, you're definitely not very responsible, but at least it's very clear what you can do to have a better footprint. And I decided to quit eating meat, quit eating fish. I also quit taking the plane, at least as a tourist. And what happened back then is that I was working for one of the biggest polluters on this planet, actually, a huge company, which has a very negative impact on the environment. And it just didn't make any sense to me because I was, you know, I was vegetarian. I stopped taking the plane. But here it was every day going to work and contributing to something that wasn't positive, at least from an environmental perspective. So I decided to quit and instead of reapplying to another company, which would probably have had the same impact. I decided to create a company which would have a much better impact and specifically a much better environmental impact. And since I was a vegetarian and made a lot of sense to me to create something that would allow people to reduce their meat consumption. 

Clare [00:05:07] And this company is Umiami. So what were the first products that you created? 

Martin [00:05:14] At first, you know, when we came to this space, the first initial idea was to create a plant-based company like there are many others right, selling burger patties, maybe sausages, small chicken chunks. But actually, we soon came to realise that many companies are actually offering that. And actually, there is one thing that no one is offering currently is whole cuts. And no one is offering them. And that's actually really weird when you think of it, because those represent those big, large, unprocessed pieces, They represent more than half of the meat that we actually consume in the western world, right? And we were like, Well, how come, how can it be possible that more than half of the meat that we consume are those large, unprocessed pieces? But no one actually ever managed to create the plant-based alternatives to those, right? So instead of offering the standard burger patties, we thought, well, we're just going to think out of the box and we're going to offer something that people would actually want to eat. And it happens to be those larger pieces and those are actually those on which we focused first on, starting with whole chicken breast, which really mimics that texture and the fibrous structure of a chicken breast. 

Clare [00:06:33] Tell me about your timeline from when you had the inception of this idea to where you are now. 

Martin [00:06:41] So we first had the idea, I guess, two years ago. Back then I was doing a second masters degree. And, you know, my co-founder and I really were not food scientists. I mean, he was an engineer. I had more of a sales background, so we created a prototype. Back then it was a chicken nugget and it wasn't, you know, fantastic. But it was good enough to convince people that there was something you know to….we needed to dig deeper into, you know, this technology and to what we've created. 

Clare [00:07:13] Can you tell me about the chicken nuggets and what it was made or how you created that your prototype? 

Martin [00:07:20] It was actually fairly easy. We took very simple ingredients, you know, things like water, soy, protein, some, you know, natural flavours, yeasts, and we basically texturised it using our process. And that allowed us to create that plant-based chicken nugget. And it had, you know, it was unique in the way that it was an extremely clean label. So typically, if you look at plant-based products, you'll have plenty of gums, stabilizers, materials that cellulose agents. And we had none of those right, only seven ingredients. Now to give you some data here, the average in the UK is 25 and some go, even above 50 ingredients and it was even, even from a nutritional point of view. It was very good because it was a nutrition score, which for those who are not in the food industry, is a score, that scores on whether or not a product is good nutritionally speaking. 

Clare [00:08:18] So that was an amazing platform to start, and we'll discuss later that whole issue of plant-based meatless meats and when is it defined as processed? Which is an interesting topic because there's almost a dark cloud that hangs over-processed food in Britain. I'm sure it's the same in France and elsewhere. So two years ago, you created this prototype. What was lacking in it, then that you wanted to push forward into something which was more of a whole cut I presume.? 

Martin What was lacking is that it's great to have a clean product. However, it was still a plant-based nugget and that already exists, right? And the entire idea was to create something that's much more complex, texture-wise. And typically something that has, you know, those long fibres that really complex fibrous structure and texture. As I mentioned, we were not food scientists. So of course, we went and looked for a third co-founder who is a food scientist with quite some experience in food science and had developed products, had developed technological platforms. We found one, and then we went even further by raising funds to hire an entire team. And today it's an entire team of food scientists that are working on that project. 

Clare [00:09:31] So let's fast forward to the present day and I saw on LinkedIn just the other day, the ‘before and after’ picture. Really, this is what it looked like or maybe a project similar. And this is what we have created. And you've created whole cut chicken fillets. I presume it is. Tell me, first of all, how does it taste? 

Martin [00:09:54] Well, actually, it's you know, you'd be pretty surprised, right? So, you know, when you look at taste, it's actually several things, right? It's texture, its flavour. But it's actually also what it looks like because that actually has an influence on your perception when you actually eat it right? And so visually, it's actually almost impossible to make a difference between our product and an animal chicken breast. Texture-wise. We're also actually very, very close because you have all those long fibres which are nicely aligned and which really mimic the texture of meat and now flavour wise. We worked with a very well known flavour house, which has agreed to develop tailor-made products, tailor-made flavours. So we basically developed with them a very nice flavour signature that really is basically chicken, right? You couldn’t even make the difference. So all in all, when you take all that together, if you ask me what it tastes like, well it just tastes like a chicken breast. That's it. Basically, it's as simple as that. 

Clare [00:11:00] That sounds amazing, and I can't wait to taste it before we learn more about where it's going next with your chicken breast. Could you maybe in a nutshell, in the simplest terms for people like myself? Explain how you created the taste and the texture and the look and everything that makes your chicken breast taste like a chicken breast. 

Martin [00:11:23] Well, it’s actually it fairly easy. I mean, we start with water, proteins and you know, some additional reasons, depending on what you're trying to achieve. So, of course, salt natural flavours, right to, you know, give that chicken flavour, some sort of fats, right? So it can be oil can be another type of that. And what we do is that we mix all that together and then we apply mechanical forces on this water and that protein so as to create the long fibres of meat. Right, so in the end, it's a pretty natural process, right? We're not using any chemical reactions of some sort, some dark, obscure magic. It's really all about applying mechanical forces in an intelligent way on proteins so as to have them behave in a way that replicates the texture of meat. 

Clare [00:12:19] Does it need to be refrigerated to the same level as meat? And does it last longer? How long does it last? Because I'm just thinking about your project say going in to say India, where refrigeration in some places is a real issue. 

Martin [00:12:34] Yeah, absolutely. So you know, our products, they intend to be sold as fresh. And you know, the good thing about plant-based meat, in general, is that since you actually master how it's made, you can actually tweak it so as to get the kind of product we want. So, for instance, get a longer shelf life and it's not as easy with meat, animal meat. Now your question, you know, regarding India, definitely, you know, we are exploring many options and you know, during our discussion, one of them was to get a shelf-stable product. So today there are techniques to actually create products that don't need to be refrigerated and without using any additional additives, right? And those kinds of ways we are currently exploring. 

Clare [00:13:26] How about the nutritional profile of your plant-based chicken to a normal piece of chicken in terms of amino acids and all those sorts of essential minerals, et cetera, 

Martin [00:13:40] compared to animal meat? You can, you know, tweak it, you can change it, you can add whatever you want to it, right? And in the end, you can get a product that's actually better for your health because you have designed it because you designed it to be better for your health? 

Clare [00:13:55] Why haven't other companies done this? There's more production of chicken and poultry than beef. Is that correct? Am I correct that? 

Martin [00:14:03] Well, you know, the chicken is a huge market and the reason why no one has created it until now, I believe it's simply because our industry is still quite young and there is still so much to discover, so much to invent, right? I could basically compare this to what the internet looked like at the end of the 90s, right? There was so much to invent just because it was brand new. And today that's exactly what's happening. And it's making this so exciting is that everything needs to be invented. Everything needs to be created and everything is possible, right? And we just need to define that together, both the industry and the consumers. And it's extremely exciting. 

Clare [00:14:48] Let's talk about your chicken breast. You say that there's a very small number of ingredients, which is fantastic, and we discussed earlier that whole issue about processed food. 

Martin [00:14:59] Well, you know, first of all, I think the whole discussion about, you know, processed foods. I mean, it's legit. However, one should not forget that eating too much meat is unhealthy. You know, I live in France, on average in France. People eat more than three times what the World Health Organisation recommends. They eat on average 1.6 kilograms of meat a week. The World Health Organisation recommends 500 grams, right? And in the end, people just totally underestimate the impact that has on our health. Here again, in France, cardiovascular diseases, which are often caused by too high cholesterol levels, are the number one reason why people die at all. Right. So definitely there is a topic around processed foods. But in the end, the question is, is it already better than meat? And surely the answer is yes. Now, when we look at our technologies specifically, it's even better than what exists out there already, because as I mentioned, we're not using all those additives or ??? which you often find in comparable products and so on and so forth. 

Clare [00:16:14] OK, before we talk about market share and scalability, let's discuss you talk about the chicken tastes like a chicken in the near future. Is there scope to create products that perhaps don't taste like anything you've ever tasted before? Because it's but it's still tantalising, it's still very delicious. Is that the way forward? Rather than trying to mimic something which is out by creating something which is just fresh for the taste buds? 

Martin [00:16:41] Well, why not? Why not? Actually, some companies are actually working on that. You know, the big question there is will the consumer actually buy it? And will he keep buying it right? You know, depending on the country you're in, or depending on other factors, consumers, have more or less neophobia, meaning that they actually enjoy discovering new products or they don't. And that's the old question, right? If you create something that's brand new that doesn't taste like meat, that's just totally different. Will people actually buy it and keep buying it? Now, today what we've noticed is that consumers, they tend to want to find that look and feel and taste that they like. They want to find it in meat substitutes, right? So they want to have that same taste and texture and look as meat because they're kind of addicted to it, right? And understand them. It's just that it just tastes good, right? But with time, who knows what's going to happen? Still, to come, meat is available almost everywhere, and at quite low prices as well. So we're competing against that. It's one of the main challenges of our industry. Things are moving so fast. Never in the food industry. Have things moved as fast as there currently are moving in the plant-based meat sector? Our strategy is that it consists in finding those brands partnering with them and say, Well, you know what, let's do that together, right? We focus on technology. You focus on marketing. And together we're going to have that. Impact. 

Clare [00:18:14] one key ingredient that is increasingly used in plant-based meat is pea protein from food tech companies like Beyond Meat that supply McDonald's to big players such as Tyson and Nestlé. Peas are becoming the fastest-growing category of crop in food companies since 2014. Pea protein products have risen by over 500%. This translates to 300000 tons produced in 2020, with a projected figure of close to 500000 by 2025. So why is this crop so desirable? On the one hand, it's all about its nutritional value. There are nine essential amino acids that the human body needs, but cannot create animal protein such as meat, eggs and milk or complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine. On the contrary, plant protein sources such as beans, lentils and nuts are considered to be incomplete, lacking one or more essential amino acids. Cue the pea, it is a powerhouse when it comes to amino acids containing all nine, making it a complete protein. And there's more, from a sustainability standpoint. Peas do everything wheat, corn and soy don't. Their cultivation requires less water. Fewer nitrogen fertilisers are needed because they take nitrogen gas from the air and store it in their roots, and that makes them an ideal candidate for crop rotation. Worried about GMO peas, they don't exist outside the lab. Want to avoid allergens? They're probably good there, too. Allergies are rare. Another reason why peas are leaving soy behind. Yet this hardy crop, like most others, is still vulnerable to extreme weather. The severe drought in Canada during 2021 has led to soaring crop prices as pea availability has been challenged. In fact, the prices of peas have more than doubled. Europe has also suffered low yields, due this time to torrential rains and flood damage. And with future climate change impacts predicted to bring a higher frequency of extremes, such as heatwaves and storms. Availability may continue to be a real issue and a stumbling block for this market, especially as more start-ups look towards scalability and mass production. Let's now head back to our conversation with Martin. Habfast. 

Clare [00:20:37] So the next thing is, Martin, when does this product go to market and from then, how do you accommodate for the consumer needs? The key thing is about current agricultural produce is that they do it so well. Mass production means there's always meat on the shelves. 

Martin [00:20:56] It's a good point, right? We're here. We're competing in the end with an industry that's existed for such a long time and everything. You know, the entire supply chain is organised in such a way that, as you mentioned, meat is available almost everywhere and it's quite low prices as well. So we're competing against that. And definitely, it's one of the main challenges of our industry, which is to provide those substitutes, you know, everywhere and at an adequate price as well. Now regarding Umiami, we're currently scaling the technology. We're actually in the process of opening up our first factory and we expect to have those products launched in Q2 2022. So it's actually fairly soon and it's just really the time we need to build that factory. 

Clare [00:21:46] Do you think you could get caught in similar traps to, say, current production with a monoculture using big firms to provide you with your raw materials to create your chicken breasts? I mean, there are all these things which come with scaling up, I presume, which means that we are where we are now, in the future, because if there's a huge demand, then you're having to actually scale up in such a way that you're utilising one particular crop massively. 

Martin [00:22:17] Well, it's true. You know, if if you want to have the same quality throughout your, you know, your entire production, then you're going to use one crop. But in our case, it's actually quite different because we're in the B2B business. We work with different companies and, you know, they don't all have the same expectations. And that results in us using different crops, right? Because different crops result in different end products. And in the end, you know, we can use quite a variety of crops depending on what our customer wants. And this also results for the consumer in so many different products. And that's what makes it exciting. 

Clare [00:22:53] From my point of view, eating something which was a start-up and has become a successful company is about buying local in a way that healthy. 

Martin [00:23:02] And you know, that's probably one of the reasons why anyone should want to create a Start-Up Right is to have that positive impact and to reimagine the way people do a certain specific thing. And you know, in our case, it's about how people actually consume foods and the kind of impact that they have through what they eat. And, you know, typically you mentioned sourcing, right? We have the chance here in France to be in a country which produces already quite a huge variety of different crops and you can find pretty much any kind of crops in France. 

Clare [00:23:39] Do you feel like you've found your passion? You know, are you excited about 2022? Now things are opening up again? 

Martin [00:23:47] Things are moving so fast. Never in the food industry. And things moved as fast as they currently are moving in the plant-based meat sector. So things are extremely exciting. Everyone wants to break things wants to move fast. Wants to have that huge impact, and it's extremely exciting. And even from a scientific point of view, you know, in the end, what we're trying to do here, it comes down to solving scientific problems. And that is very stimulating and exciting. 

Clare [00:24:21] Let me just go back to the texture thing again because I find it fascinating how you can create these sorts of strings of plant-based texture which tastes and feels like meat in your mouth. Was there a lot of trial and error trying to get that right? How did you create that? I mean, I mean,

Martin I just I tried…. It's such a long process and it's never-ending too, right? I mean, I cannot imagine that one day will stop. You mentioned trial and error. Well, actually, you know, our R&D team. Trial and error. That's like what they do on a daily basis. And they have all those complex equipment which allows them to analyse not only by trying what they actually know produce but really to, you know, to measure the texture, you know, to measure what you obtained. And you know, typically if tomorrow I walk into the lab, I could expect to have maybe five or 10 different samples that were produced by playing on different variables. 

Clare [00:25:26] And so when you've tasted that, it was like, Oh, that's the taste. 

Martin [00:25:29] Exactly. And you know, the funny thing is, it's not just about taste. I said, you know, taste comes out to so many different things. And sometimes you're just trying to improve one of them right. So typically it could be the direction of fires and suddenly you get that right. Or it could be about, you know, the fat that you use and whether or not that fat content actually mimics the fat of chicken pretty well. And you can, you know, do those trial and error until you come to the point where you say, we got it. And then you're proud of yourself. 

Clare [00:26:02] What do you think your next project will be? Do you think your attempt to do the same thing with, say, pork or, I don't know, venison? 

Martin [00:26:11] Well, you know, it all depends where we can have most impact right in the end. And you know, that's what the company is about. It's about having the most impact, whether it be on the environment, you know, best impact of the environment on, you know, health, people's health or on animals and animal welfare. So depending on the kind of substitutes that are already on the market and whether or not there's a demand that satisfied and depending on the kind of impact that we can actually have, we decide what kind of product it will be. But the good thing is that our technology, it's really a technological platform. We can master know both the thickness of the product, the direction of the fibres, the juice and as fat content, the succulence and the flavours, of course. And in the end, when you combine all those, all of those variables, you can really get a very wide range of products. So it's really about us deciding, where is it that we really want to have an impact next? 

Clare [00:27:07] Where do you visualise or where do you see your product going 

Martin [00:27:11] in the end? You know, the only thing that really matters is that the product is everywhere because that's the only way that we can actually have an impact, right? If you produce three chicken breasts, well, that's nice, right? But you’ve wasted your time. And environmentally speaking, you've done almost nothing. So it only matters if your aim is to have the product absolutely everywhere. Now there are already around the world, quite a few brands which are very strong, well-established and which could help us have that huge impact. And our strategy exactly consists in finding those brands, partnering with them and saying, Well, you know what, let's do that together, right? We focus on technology. You focus on marketing. And together we're going to have that impact. 

Clare [00:28:02] Let's talk about cost per unit where you've come from and where and what your projections are. 

Martin [00:28:09] I mean, definitely with time, everyone will need to be competitive compared to chicken, right? Meat itself is already quite expensive. You know, many people all around the world cannot afford to eat meat. So as fast as possible, it is needed to match that price, if not to be cheaper right. The day it is cheaper, the day plant based meat alternatives are cheaper. There will be no reason, no single reason to actually eat animal meat ever again because it will be better for you, will be better for the environment, will be better for animals, will be maybe better in taste and it will be cheaper. 

Clare [00:28:55] Where do you sit with your product and the techniques to create it? Is it something that you would like to share eventually with other companies so that there is more of that product on the shelves? 

Martin [00:29:12] Well, I mean, definitely, we already have that collaborative way of thinking, right, because we're not just keeping that product to ourselves. We're already partnering with companies all around the world, actually throughout Europe, but also in North America. We are having ongoing discussions in Asia. I just had actually two hours ago, a call with a company in India, for instance, and we're actually creating all these partnerships around the world to have this massive impact and sell the product everywhere. So definitely it's not, you know, it's a product that we're just going to keep to ourselves. You know, just here in France, it's something that through other brands, we're going to roll out everywhere. 

Clare [00:29:50] Where do you think current agricultural produce sits within this new sector of alternative protein? 

Martin [00:29:58] No, I know that, for instance, Tyson Foods has invested in Beyond Meat, for instance, right? And those kind of examples are now everywhere in the world. And sometimes, you know, we already had discussions with those meat producers and sometimes they want that shift to happen because they know it's the good thing to do. And it's, you know, it's about leaving a better world to our children. Sometimes they don't want the shift to happen, but they're still exploring it because they're scared of it. And sometimes they're very reluctant, right? And I think that's a mistake. No. When you look at meat consumption in Western world, you see that it's definitely decreasing. You know, it's now or never there. We're still at the very beginning of something that's going to be big. They should invest in it right now. And if they don't, well, you know, they're going to miss something. 

Clare [00:30:56] Can I just ask you, Martin? The cell-based whole cuts you. You talk about your chicken as a whole cut. And then there's this other technique, which is far more expensive at the moment and quite exclusive to just a few companies. And that's the 3-D printing cell-based whole cut is a completely different way of producing a similar end product. 

Martin [00:31:19] It is very different, right? I mean, when you look at plant based meat and then you, what we're all doing is that we're looking at existing technologies that are being used in the food industry and using them in such a way as to create plant based meats. Now what they are actually doing in the cell industry is that they're looking at what's being done in the pharma industry, what's being done to create, you know, tissues, for instance, tissue engineering, and they actually using those techniques to create their products. So I would say the starting point, technologically speaking, is very different. 

Clare [00:32:00] It's going to be fascinating to see how these products develop, how much they're going to cost. So congratulations. 

Martin [00:32:07] Well, thank you very much. I hope that you get to try some soon. 

Clare [00:32:14] My sincere thanks to Martin HabFast, co-founder of UmiAmi, for his time and open conversation. We hope you enjoyed the show. Please connect by commenting and subscribing. I'm Claire Nasir and you've been listening to cultivating conversations. For more on what Chaseman Global are doing in the exciting world of Ag tech.