Why you should care

She’s a lean, green meat machine!

With an $8.35 billion market in 2016, estimated to hit $14.22 billion by 2022, the plant-based protein space is blowing up. For most venture capitalists, that means setting up shop in hot spots like Silicon Valley and New York. But Lisa Feria took the opposite approach by moving her family to Kansas City, Missouri, where she heads Stray Dog Capital, a venture firm launched in 2013 and focused on funding alternatives to animal products. For her, starting local is necessary to generate real change. “To convince Californians to try a new veggie burger is easy, but to convince Kansas I have to bring out the big guns,” she says.

The market for meat alternatives has taken off in the past few years, and there’s a budding clean-meat market (aka meat grown in a lab). Take startup unicorn Just (formerly Hampton Creek), which says it’ll release an affordable lab-grown meat product by the end of 2018 that’s 100 percent animal protein and 100 percent PETA-approved. And it’s not just ethics spurring this growth — the current rate of energy use for meat production is unsustainable, and new food sources must be found to stave off long-term shortages. Enter a world of animal substitutes, such as Terramino, which creates salmon caviar from fungi and algae; Just, which produces egg-free scrambles and mayo from plant protein; and the Impossible Burger, the first veggie burger that “bleeds.”

“Millennials are three times more likely to be vegetarian than any other generation,” Feria says. “We’re in a massive health crisis, and the emergence of the plant-based movement is a reasonable and alternative way to eat.” But to reach market saturation, Feria emphasizes these food innovations have to appeal to more than the 1 percent. “It needs to be priced accordingly, so it’s not a huge sacrifice to eat,” she says.

To get to that price point, David Welch, director of science and technology at the Good Food Institute, says that the clean-meat creation process needs refining, as the proteins that create the cell cultures are currently too expensive. But with this emerging field attracting a diverse range of scientists, entrepreneurs and technologists, he believes they’ll find a solution. Growth wise, Welch says the market is exploding and he’s regularly consulted by startups and investors keen to get into this space early.

Feria would be the first to admit she’s an accidental animal activist. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she played with the animals on her grandmother’s farm — and ate them on a regular basis. With a B.S. in chemical engineering and an MBA from the University of Chicago, her career veered toward food management after stints at General Mills and Procter & Gamble. But then she came across an 11-minute video that changed her life. “Meet Your Meat, produced by PETA and narrated by Alec Baldwin, showed animals writhing in pain, bleating in distress — it was messy, gory and grim. She’d assumed (mistakenly) that advances in tech had translated to advances in slaughter. She turned vegetarian, then vegan, spearheading the first vegan menu in P&G’s Cincinnati offices.

In 2015, when she heard of an animal activist VC firm looking for a CEO, she jumped at the chance — the fact that it was in the Midwest only sweetened the deal. “You have to be in the community to help people think differently,” she says. “We are in an agricultural-focused state, and this is the best place for us.”

A few years in, she’s already noticing a difference. There are more meat alternatives on grocery shelves and more vegan-friendly restaurants in her neighborhood. Google Trends shows a 270 percent rise in searches for Kansas vegan restaurants from 2013 to 2018. “This didn’t used to be a sexy [space],” Feria says — but with names like Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio investing in plant-based protein startup Beyond Meat, attitudes are beginning to shift.

The question remains: Can you really turn meat-loving Americans into plant-protein purchasers?

This year Stray Dog Capital is the lead investor in a $3 million seed round for SuperMeat, a company creating lab-grown meat; Feria’s portfolio also includes Beyond Meat (raised $55 million), Memphis Meats (raised more than $20 million), Purple Carrot (a vegetarian meal kit company) and Nutpods dairy-free creamer.

Feria’s work has affected her personal life too; today her husband and two sons follow a vegan lifestyle, by choice. She explains how her 6-year-old son refused to go on a school trip to the zoo, telling the teacher that he doesn’t believe animals should be kept in captivity. The teacher was so impressed that she asked him to speak to the class. Her (rare) free time is spent hanging out with her family, playing with her four dogs and helping to amplify the voices of women and people of color in the workplace.

Still, the question remains: Can you really turn meat-loving Americans into plant-protein purchasers — and overcome their “yuck” response to laboratory meat?

“I think it is too early to know where all these developments will lead,” says Ricardo San Martin, research director at the UC Berkeley Alternative Meat Lab. “There are important cultural aspects related to meat eating, and it is not clear that people across different racial, economic or geographic areas of the U.S. will adopt lab-grown meat.” However, he points to the strong interest from Silicon Valley investors — and, by implication, the creation of his own lab — as signifiers that this process is underway. But scaling up is costly, and could cause investors to lose patience. “No one can predict how long this economic support will last, [as] the return on these investments may take longer than typical investments in digital technologies,” Martin says.

Feria knows it’s a long shot, but feels the inroads she’s making are already changing things for the better, globally. “If I die 10 years from now and I’ve helped bring plant-based meat to every supermarket,” she says, “I will die with a smile on my face.”

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