Andre Menezes first tried plant-based food in 2017 in Singapore, when he was getting his teeth into the famous plant-based vegetarian “meat” burger by Impossible Foods. That was a bite to remember, he told KrASIA.
As a meat-eater, he was highly impressed not only by the crunchy savory flavor of the faux beef burger but also by the sustainability aspect of plant-based meat. Plants require way less clean water and land to flourish than animals do.
He clearly knew that, as he spent six years working as sales and operation planning manager for BRF, one of the world’s largest poultry exporters, in his home country Brazil.
“The poultry export is an extremely challenging business from the perspective that it is highly inefficient. It needs a lot of work and resources, including water, land, and time for the animals to grow to the state that they’re ready to slaughter. Animals are not raised to be farmed at that massive scale, the meat business is not sustainable,” Menezes told KrASIA.
Total annual greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture were about 14.5% of all human emissions in 2013, based on a study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Beef contributed to 41% of these emissions.
In 2016, Menezes moved to Singapore to work for a joint venture (JV) between BRF and Singapore’s biggest meat importer, distributor, and processor, SATS. The JV focused on innovative and sustainable food solutions, and after only one year and a half at the firm, Menezes was given the CEO role to make the business profitable but also “well-dressed for the future.”
Menezes began to explore plant-based meat products in the US and Europe, which allowed him to meet Timo Recker, the founder of Germany alternative meat producer LikeMeat, in late 2019. The like-minded two businessmen clicked instantly and started to talk about doing a plant-based meat business together.
“I am so passionate about plant-based food and believe that it will be the future, but at the same time, I was managing a company where 95% of the businesses involved meat,” said Menezes.
However, things quickly changed. In September 2019, SATS acquired BRF’s 49% stake in the JV for SGD 17 million (USD 12.7 million) and rebranded the company as Country Foods. In March 2020, Menezes decided to resign from his CEO position at Country Foods. A little before Menezes’ resignation, In February 2020, Recker sold a 51% share of LikeMeat to Foods United, later rebranded as Livekindly.
Menezes and Recker decided to partner in October to introduce a brand new plant-based project, Next Gen. “I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” said Menezes.
The startup was launched with a capitalization of USD 2.2 million, supplied through Recker’s exits from LikeMeat. Within four months of operations, however, the firm collected USD 10 million in seed funding from investors including Temasek, K3 Ventures, NX-Food, FEBE Ventures, Blue Horizon, and EDB New Ventures, the investment arm of Singapore’s Economic Development Board.
Plant-based chicken, a versatile ingredient
Next Gen made its foray into the market with TiNDLE, a plant-based alternative to chicken thighs. The product is made of water, soy, wheat, oat fiber, coconut oil, and methylcellulose, a culinary binder for the plant-based patty, as well as Lipi, an in-house plant-developed fat that helps to imitate the smell and browning of the chicken.
The plant-based chicken will be available in selected restaurants in Singapore, including Three Buns Quayside, The Prive Group, 28 HongKong Street, Bayswater Kitchen, and The Goodburger, among others, from March 18. The firm is also looking to introduce its products to supermarkets soon, while it plans to expand to two undisclosed neighboring Asian cities, according to Menezes.
He believes that versatility and cookability are the keys to make plant-based chicken stand out from the crowd. “From a consumer point of view, chicken is a combination of three things — fiber, taste, and aroma. This is why chicken thighs taste much better than a chicken breast.”
To obtain the right taste, aroma, and texture, Next Gen applies two technologies, Menezes explained. The first is a processing technique called extrusion, which gives plant-based meats their texture. The other technology allows the Maillard reaction, or also called the “browning reaction,” through a blend of Lipi and other elements from plants.
“The right proportion of fat can connect to the fiber, which then makes the full culmination of experience,” Menezes said.
Although Next Gen is a late entrant to the plant-based market, a sector currently dominated by US makers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, the sector is still immature and holds great potential. The global plant-based meat market size is expected to hit USD 35.4 billion by 2027, with a compound annual growth rate of 15.8% from 2020 to 2027, as per data by Polaris Market Research.
Menezes thinks that plant-based chicken, in particular, will be the preferred ingredient for people implementing a plant-based diet. “People are more curious about trying a new recipe for chicken, which is very different from cooking a beef steak where consumers could only choose the degree of doneness. Plant-based Chicken, instead, could be cooked in whatever styles people want, be it Chinese, chicken stir-fry, or Indian chicken curry,” he said.
Next Gen aims to close a Series A funding round within 2022, which will help the firm on its expansion plans to other markets including the US, China, Brazil, and Europe.
“Our biggest competitor is chicken. The biggest challenge is to prove to consumers that their individual choice of food can have a hugely significant impact, and to make them understand that the sustainability angle is so important and relevant,” Menezes said.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.