Vegetarian “meats” have become big business, and Boulder-based Emergy Foods is working to join the wave.
CU engineering Ph. D. students Tyler Huggins and Justin Whiteley founded Emergy Foods in 2016 to create a sustainable protein that could replicate meat while reducing our overall consumer footprint, and do so overnight. The company makes its alternative meat brand Meati Foods at its headquarters at 6880 Winchester Circle.
The company makes its meat-alternative from a nutrient-dense protein that comes from mycelium, the vegetative part of fungi that for centuries has made its way to foods like tempeh and other fungi-based proteins. As opposed to mushrooms, the flowering bodies of some fungi, mycelium grows beneath the surface of the ground in a fibrous network structure that we don’t normally see.
By putting a special type of mycelium into a brew tank and feeding it sugar and nutrients, the mycelium fibers grow to fill the tank forming a matrix that provides structure and texture. Emergy then harvests the protein by straining out the sugars and waters and forms it into its final product.
With a proprietary process that stands out from other meatless brands like Morningstar Farms and Beyond Meat, Emergy’s method of growing and harvests its protein from scratch compares a little more to Prime Roots’s meatless seafood products that use Koji, a Japanese superfood bacteria, and U.K.-based Quorn which uses single-cell mycoprotein derived from mycelium.
After spending two years in Chicago’s Argonne National Lab upon graduation developing Emergy’s core technology, Tyler and Justin returned to their Boulder roots where their significant others lived and where they saw incredible opportunities in both business and the outdoors.
Last July, Emergy secured a $4.8 million venture capital funding round and opened its Boulder headquarters, where it produces everything in-house, and has gained support from investors all over the country and even abroad. Since then, it has obtained an additional $1.2 million in grant funds and currently has 14 employees, from material scientists to chefs, microbiologists, engineers and marketing and business pros.
Emergy’s investors include Hong Kong-based The March Fund, Joyance Partners, with multiple locations in the U.S. and abroad, Austin’s Trust Ventures, Oakland’s Better Ventures, D.C’s New Crop Capital, and San Francisco’s Congruent Ventures, Fifty Years, and Prelude Ventures.
While its mycelium-based meat alternative has not yet hit public markets, Emergy’s Meati Foods brand launched a beta trial at the end of 2019 to test its product in several U.S. restaurants, including Boulder’s SALT. Seeing what it can execute and how the chefs work with it, the brand hopes to launch officially by the end of summer
Spencer, a server at Salt, tells BLDRfly that the “Bahn Meati,” a sandwich that plays off of the popular Vietnamese Bahn Mi, has seen popularity since it recently joined Salt’s to-go menu.
Early on, Tyler, who studied civil and environmental engineering, and Justin, a mechanical engineer, decided the best way to address environmental and social issues they felt passionate about would come through entrepreneurship.
Justin and Tyler had already experimented with using fungi to produce battery electrodes, discovering that they could reduce the resources required and nearly neutralize the energy, water and emissions of the process by using leftovers from beer brewing as the only raw material input.
Their battery electrodes could outperform conventional flaked graphite in lithium ion batteries, but they felt they could make more of an impact by focusing on food, specifically meat consumption. Tyler’s father had bought a bison farm, and as a meat lover, Tyler felt “torn between his identities as an environmentalist and a meat-eater.” Meat-lovers themselves, they dreamed of creating a way where people wouldn’t have to choose between taste, health, and the environment.
“You have all the protein, iron and zinc, and vitamin B you find in meat,” says co-founder Tyler, “but also fiber (for digestive health) and all the vitamins and minerals you find in vegetables. It’s like an awesome hybrid between plants and animals.”
The product’s beauty lies in the fact that it can grow quickly and affordably, transforming to protein overnight in Emergy’s grow tanks, and replicate the texture, taste and nutrition of meat such as steak and chicken breasts.
“Really the power of what we’re able to do is scale,” Tyler, Meati’s CEO tells BLDRfly.
The company claims that through its mycelium-based protein, it can grow the equivalent of 4,200 cows overnight. Emergy’s process does not take up a lot of space or use fancy equipment, allowing it to quickly and economically scale up “virtually anywhere.”
Boulder as a grow tank
Living and growing in Boulder has provided the company a fertile ground for talent and play.
“It’s a great place to get out and clear our heads,” says Tyler. “We have a culture of work hard, play hard. Things are challenging right now, and a startup by nature can have a very high-paced stressful environment. It’s important to hit a hiking trail and clear your mind, then come back refreshed and with creative ideas.”
Tyler told BLDRfly that eventually Emergy hopes to scale up to produce hundreds of millions of pounds of its product, including adding pork chops and fish to its offerings and become a go-to protein for people to eat daily while saving real meat for special occasions.
It also hopes to build a stronger relationship with CU, taking on interns and bringing on younger minds. Currently it has a couple of inters, including one business student that came on before Covid-19 hit.
Header Image: Meati Foods replicates meat nearly identically to the eye. Image: Emergy Foods.