From Lab to Table, China’s Vesta Food Lab Steps Forward to Commercialization

(Source: Vesta Food Lab)

Vesta Food Lab, China’s first venture-capital-backed food tech startup focusing on plant-based food, is set to launch its local brand “HUICUI” and introduce their meatless spaghetti with Ramen Talk in April 2020.

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Founded in 2019, Vesta is on a mission to revolutionize how Chinese consumers access and consume protein. The company is run by serial entrepreneur Zihan Xie, leading a team of a three-starred Michelin chef, a macromolecular research chemist, and a food engineering scientist.

“We have other co-branding campaigns under negotiation and a new product waiting to be released,” Xie told Pandaily, as his company is racing for market share and mapping out their business goals.

Plant-based Meat Suits China

Usually made from extracted plant protein or whey protein, spices and binding ingredients, plant-based meat is typically higher in sodium and similar to real meat in calories and has more fiber and less cholesterol.

Leading companies producing plant-based meat, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in America, are experts at making alternative meat patties for frying and grilling uses. Whereas in China, a country of contrasting cooking techniques ranging from steaming to stewing, Vesta has to invent new technology to meet these demands.

“We tried many methods to enhance the cooking resistance of our product since texturized vegetable proteins quickly absorb moisture when exposed to hot water, and then lose their chewy structure,” Xie explained. “To solve this problem, our team invented Nanofascia technology which uses the principle of micro-encapsulation. The technique pumps a thin layer of gel into the microstructure of criss-cross texturized vegetable proteins.”

“With the Nanofascia technology, Vesta’s product has at least 14 times better cooking resistance than commercially available products,” he added.

China has witnessed an ascent of investment in plant-based meat in recent years and according to Xue Yan, secretary general of the Plant Based Foods Alliance of China, there have been newly registered companies since Beyond Meat went public in May last year, mainly located in Beijing, Shanghai and other large cities. However, most of these new players are startups and the market is far from mature.

(Source: Vesta Food Lab)

Changing Attitudes

Though for many consumers, plant-based meat is no longer a concept only existing in the news, as various products are already available in numerous retailers. A positive prospect of a surge in sales is hard to predict as the majority of Chinese consumers are carefully picking natural ingredients to cook with and some are even showing obsessions with live animals.

“The translation of our product is not consumer-friendly. If you say ‘artificial meat’, people will regard it as a chemical. In fact, it is natural,” said Xie. “We also see opportunities in this challenge since people’s attitudes are constantly changing and young people are willing to welcome new things.”

Adverse publicity in China’s meat market, such as the Africa Swine Fever and Mad Cow Disease in recent years, have also driven people to rethink what a healthy diet is and the unexpected global crisis (COVID-19) once again shed light on the security of food.

A Product, Not Artwork

For startups like Vesta, surviving in the ferocious competition of the trillion-dollar meat market requires an effective commercial transition from laboratory to market.

“The development and upgrade of products need time,” Xie said. “In this situation, I think the commercialization process of plant-based meat will keep a mild pace, not in an explosive way.”

Vesta currently operates a B2B model and collaborates with many brands to ramp up commercial exposure. It will not directly reach the end consumers in the short term as its production costs are relatively high at this stage. Xie told Pandaily that the cost could be reduced in the future and that Vesta would price their products rationally to meet consumers’ needs.

“It makes no sense if your product is too expensive, it can’t just be an artwork in a laboratory,” he said.