Even while working as an aerospace engineer, Christie Lagally always cared for animals. Every morning on her drive to Boeing, she would come face to face with chickens heading for slaughter, and each time she would ask herself why the plant-based movement wasn't getting closer to success. After conducting research of her own, she realised the problem at hand: we were unable to scale and make plant-based meat affordable, because we had been using the wrong manufacturing technology to make it. Deciding to be the change she wished to see in the world, she founded Rebellyous Foods, a startup focussed on giving manufacturing a makeover in a way that would allow us to overcome this obstacle and make the production of plant-based meat cheaper for all. In this episode Christie shares more about the technology she is pioneering, as well as the inefficiencies with our current production processes. We also talk about the impact that COVID has had on the business, with her team having to pivot overnight and adapt to a new market, as well as her experience with gender inequality and what we need to do about it.
Both Simon and I were incredibly excited to sit down and chat to Christie. With an incredible background we were fascinated to know how she made the decision to leave her career at Boeing, focussing in and doing research within the plant-based space.
Christie: 'I've always cared deeply for animals. And what we do to them in animal agriculture is horrific, and I wanted to find a way to do something about it.'
For a lot of us that looks like adopting a vegan diet, maybe engaging in animal activism and encouraging others to make lifestyle changes too. But for Christie, it didn't seem like it was going to be enough to make the differences we wanted to see.
Christie: 'My realisation was essentially that why there wasn't more plant based meat available to people, and the reason we weren't scaling plant-based meat, was we simply had a production technology problem. We simply don't have the equipment necessary to make plant-based meat on a large-scale, and cost-effectively.'
Now if you're anything like me, with no background in technology, this might strike you as confusing. What exactly are the inefficiencies that exist?
Christie: 'The vast majority of plant-based meat is made via mix and form methodologies, which are the methods by which we essentially take a bunch of ingredients and mix them together, hoping it tastes and looks like meat.'
The benefits of this technology are that it's readily available, and as a result most companies, if not all, end up making plant-based meat using this off the shelf meat processing equipment.
Christie: 'The problem is, you're fundamentally dealing with two different types of manufacturing.'
The manufacturing of meat is called
1. Subtractive manufacturing, where similar to a carver, you're subtracting the material to get something good on the inside.
For plant based meat however, it's a process known as
2. Additive manufacturing, where you're bringing ingredients together, and under certain conditions creating a product
It makes sense then that meat production technology which is optimised for subtractive manufacturing wouldn't be suitable for the production of plant-based meat products, and yet we use it anyway.
So why are others not doing much about it?
Essentially, people have been willing to pay the premium of plant-based meat, and so not much pressure has been put on big business to drive down the costs to those of animal products.
The other driving factor is what Christie and her team are doing is hard.
Christie: 'If you're Impossible Foods and have spent millions of dollars on developing heme for a new burger, you have done your R&D work for this product.'
Christie: 'The product in this case, is more important than the process. And since people will pay more for it anyway, there's less of a desire to bring down the cost.'
So what are Christie and her team aiming to do?
Christie: 'Most plant-based meat can bottom down at $2.50 per pound to produce, which is considerably more than what it costs to produce a chicken nugget which is closer to $1.60 a pound. We're not bringing the cost down to less than $3 a pound. What we're going after is trying to reduce it from $2.50 to $1.50, and that's where the manufacturing technology opportunity exists.'
And in the three years that Rebellyous Foods (Seattle Food Tech) have been around they've been working on doing just that through the development of custom, novel production equipment that appropriately processes plant-based meat ingredients in a much more efficient way. Starting off with chicken nuggets, their plan was to sell their products into food service, as a way of learning more about the major bottlenecks of production. However, all of that came to a head when the coronavirus hit in March.
Christie: 'We at Rebellyous foods literally lost almost every customer we had developed over the last previous 2 years overnight.'
With a warehouse full of 'chicken', there was only one solution.
Christie: 'Over 6-8 weeks we redesigned the product, we designed a package and literally over the course of two months we completely pivoted our product into the CPG market.'
Christie: 'A lot of people said no, and that it wasn't even possible, certainly not during a pandemic.'
At the same time, she mentioned the soaring demand she's witnessed for plant-based products and the importance of pushing through and filling up the shelves of supermarkets with meat-free foods.
Christie: 'I think more people are coming to terms with the fact that we need address meat. For climate change reasons, for pandemic reasons. As a result, as we got further into this pandemic, instead of cooling the market for plant-based meat, it only made it more ravenous.'
Christie also stands as one of the few leading female CEOs in the plant-based space. As a young woman myself, I wanted to hear if she thought gender inequality existed in the space.
Christie: 'It pops up every once in a while, especially since we have an unusual take on the industry.'
Christie: 'Sometimes people just feel more comfortable hearing it from an authority figure, which in our society are naturally men.'
It's also a problem in fundraising too.
Christie: 'I can't tell you how many investor meetings I've been in who took one look at me and said 'we love the idea, we're just not sure you're the right person to fill the CEO role'.'
That, despite her 20 years of experience in manufacturing technology, two degrees in mechanical engineering and 5 patents on manufacturing technology.
Christie: 'If those were the credentials of men, it would be a no brainer that I'd be the right person to lead a manufacturing technology company.'
And I think this is a really important point. To acknowledge just how hard women have to work to prove themselves as capable, and have their accomplishments recognised when compared to men. As a movement it highlights the work we have to do, but it's something we shouldn't be afraid to bring up and talk about together.
If you enjoyed this week's episode and want to stay updated with Christie and Rebellyous' journey, you can head to their website www.rebellyous.com, as well as check them out @rebellyous on Instagram, Linkedin and Facebook.
Thanks for tuning in, have a great week & don't forget to #biteforwhatsright!