Two Taiwanese researchers from Cornell University, Huang Jen-Yu and Michelle Lee, saw the trend of plant-based meat and became the first-ever to use the encapsulation technique to produce “alternative fat,” which enables plant meat to taste like real meat. They established Lypid and got selected by global accelerator IndieBio, and plan to go into mass production next year.
Vegetarian diets have been gaining in popularity globally. While more people are adopting vegetarian eating habits, one can now order a vegetarian burger from Beyond Meat and Impossible, and more.
Famous fast-food brands in the U.S, like Carl’s Jr., Del Taco, White Castle, and Quiznos are also serving vegetarian meals — as other big names like McDonald’s and Taco Bell are getting ready to step into the plant-based meat world, too.
Research suggests the global plant-based meat market size was worth approximately NT$92 billion (US$3.3 billion) in 2019, which is estimated to soar to US$13.8 billion in 2027, or by 19.4% at a compound annual rate of growth (CARG) within seven years. Plant-based products are winning favor from both consumers and investors.
Investors have poured money into alternative protein in the first half of 2021, seeing more than 350% more funding than the entirety of 2020. Startups that focus on improving the mouthfeel for dairy alternatives such as milk, cheese, and eggs have also drawn large investments.
However, to fully replace real meat, there has always been a major flaw for vegetarian meat — it just doesn’t taste as good. Texture and flavor are what distinguish meat from plants mostly.
Muscle tissue is highly flexible, while plant cells are more rigid. Real meat tastes buttery and chewy while vegetarian meat can taste powdery or sloppy. To solve the problem, Huang Jen-Yu, who is both an entrepreneur and a scientist studied the reasons behind this.
It turned out that “fat” is the essence of mouthfeel and taste, and in response that is why Huang asked his schoolmate Michelle Lee to found the vegan fat startup Lypid.
Fat is the essence of mouthfeel and taste, and that is why Huang Jen-Yu asked his schoolmate Michelle Lee to found the vegan fat startup Lypid. (Lypid photo)
Funded by IndieBio
Although a Ph.D. student at Cornell, Huang’s entrepreneurial talent shone way before he went to the U.S. from Taiwan.
“I have always been exploring opportunities in the market and ways to commercialize different cutting-edge technology. Frankly speaking, one of the reasons for coming to the U.S. is that I want to start my own business,” said Huang.
When he was an undergraduate student in Taiwan, Huang founded Readmix, which promoted independent bookstores. His next startup, Clipo, was chosen to enter the Plug & Play Accelerator in Sunnyvale, California.
As time went by, he started to discover more innovative business ideas. However, he found out that he wasn’t well-equipped enough with scientific and technological knowledge to evaluate the quality of those ideas.
Therefore, he decided to pursue a Ph.D. degree at Cornell University to consolidate his knowledge, a decision which led to meeting his business co-founder, Michelle Lee.
Huang Jen-Yu (right) decided to pursue a Ph.D. degree at Cornell University to consolidate his knowledge, a decision which led to meeting his business co-founder, Michelle Lee. (Lypid photo)
“Before graduation, I was contemplating my future. Since I have mastered some top technical skills, why not go out there and give it a shot?” Lee said when recalling the time Huang asked her to start a company.
Lee has a master's degree in food science and is an expert at encapsulation, a technique that puts materials like food ingredients or enzymes in small capsules. The two minds immediately clicked. As a result, two Taiwanese Cornell Ph.D. students, one with an entrepreneurial mindset, the other with remarkable technical skills, both with hands-on experience, embarked on their journey at Lypid in 2020.
Due to the great potential of Lypid’s technique and business idea, Lypid was selected inside a week by IndieBio, the largest biotech startup accelerator run by Global VC firm SOSV. Aside from the funds and equipment, IndieBio provided a network and mindset.
“The best help IndieBio brings to us is the change of mindset, from scientists to entrepreneurs,” Huang said. This has helped them include more perspectives, from technical aspects to market needs.
“They also offer valuable and various connections. We have met with more than 100 companies and investors. The people from IndieBio try everything they can to help Lypid grow,” Huang added.
IndieBio helps change the mindset, from scientists to entrepreneurs, says Huang. (Lypid photo)
Juicy vegan meat
Food scientists around the world have been looking for the best formula to mimic real meat. That was until Lypid found the secret sauce of alternative fat — water.
Traditionally, animal fat is replaced by plant-based oils, such as coconut oil, canola, and sunflower oils. However, their melting point is very low, resulting in the fat melting away in pans or a greasy piece of vegan meat that smells like plants.
Other scientists have tried to use cultivated animal fat, yet it clearly does not fit strict vegan diets. Lypid's breakthrough is the encapsulation technique.
Lee’s specialty, the encapsulation technique, in addition to some special processing technologies, allows liquid vegan oils to stand the heat of up to 165 degrees Celsius and contains more water components.
With the fat still sticking onto the meat, the sense of creaminess, chewiness, and juiciness is preserved. “If you look into animal fat, it’s not just lipid. It contains water, too. If you are always trying to imitate fat, the direction is wrong and it will never taste like real fat,” Huang explained.
Future food manufacturer
Lypid has adopted a B2B business model to sell its plant-based fat to plant-based meat providers. They have been in contact with more than 10 companies and plan to mass produce next year.
Nevertheless, they also aim to develop and sell their own products, like vegan bacon. Their main target market will be the U.S. market while Taiwan is another potential market.
“Taiwan has actually been making very tasty vegan meat. It’s just that no one is seeing it as a real industry,” Huang said. This is also one of the reasons they recently founded a lab in Taiwan and are now recruiting employees.