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Sept. 13, 2012 Volume 34, No. 4

University of Missouri research leads to innovation, commercial product, local jobs

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COLUMBIA JOBS Ethan Brown, head of Savage River Inc., spoke Aug. 7 at Stony Creek Inn about his soy-based chicken company’s opening a factory in Columbia this fall. The faux chicken was invented by Mizzou scientists. Photo by Nicholas Benner


The Beyond Meat factory will be in central Columbia

factory creating a chicken alternative invented at the University of Missouri will open this fall in Columbia, city officials announced Aug. 7. In coming months, the factory will hire about 20 mid-Missourians, and over the next five years, 60 positions will be filled.

“Here we have a cutting-edge company that is using local research and innovative technology to establish a local plant,” Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid, MD ’72, said. This is “an example of leveraging intellectual property from the university to create jobs and awareness that Columbia is an exciting place to do business.”

Plans are to have the central Columbia factory, 1714 Commerce Court, Suite B, handle most of the production, said Ethan Brown, head of Savage River Inc., the Maryland-based company selling the Chicken-free Strips under the brand Beyond Meat. At 16,000 square feet, the local plant will eventually replace the much smaller Maryland factory. The Columbia extruder, a complex machine that turns soy protein and mix into fake chicken, will be twice as big as the one operated in Maryland. 

The Chicken-free Strips hit the marketplace June 11 at 36 Whole Foods in Northern California. By summer 2013, the product is expected to be nationwide.

The strips were created by Fu-hung Hsieh, an MU biological engineering and food science professor, and Harold Huff, head of the Food Engineering Lab in the Agriculture Engineering building. Hsieh and Huff share the patent.

“A lot of researchers dream of having their work in the laboratory become commercial,” Hsieh said in an interview this summer. “This is all very exciting.”

Practically every major food company has dabbled in the vegan kitchen of faux meat. Yet America remains a meat-and-potatoes nation. Only 12 percent of households buy meat alternatives, generating $340 million in annual sales in 2011, according to Mintel, a market research firm that tracks the food industry. Meat sales, by contrast, are in the tens of billions of dollars each year. 

Even so, alternative meat purchases are slowly ticking upward; Mintel reports nearly a 5 percent yearly increase in the American market. 

Since the late 1980s, Hsieh and Huff have worked to perfect the soy-based chicken. The challenge is not so much the taste, which is rather nondescript, but the texture that feels right to the palate. “It’s never about taste,” Huff said. “It always about fibrous structure. Mouthfeel is everything.” 

By the late 2000s, Hsieh and Huff’s product looked and chewed like real chicken. But taking it from a cement-floored MU lab to a bustling market seemed a world away. 

Things changed in 2009 when Brown founded Savage River Inc. to introduce and develop plant-based protein products. His exploration of university research on chicken alternatives revealed promising projects, but they were still off the mark, he said. The MU project was a bull’s-eye.

On Oct. 22, 2010, MU entered into a royalty-based licensing agreement with Savage River Inc. Among those slated to receive a portion of potential profits are Mizzou, the inventors, the departments of biological engineering and food science, and the University of Missouri System, said Harriet Francis, MU director of program development. MU also received a small ownership stake in the company. 

Within the agreement was the provision that Savage River must make a capital investment in Missouri within five years.

Mike Brooks, president of the Regional Economic Development Inc., said MU research is important as a job creator for mid-Missouri. 

“Beyond Meat demonstrates how intellectual property generated in a lab can be commercialized,” he said.