As healthy eating habits take off rapidly across Asia, several startups in The Arts category on this year’s 30 Under 30 list are seeking to capitalize on the trend by bringing alternative protein-based food to consumers in metropolises from Seoul to Shanghai.
Take, for example, China’s Hong Chichi. Pork has long been a staple of the Chinese diet, but to Hong it’s high time for a change. Less than a year after launching in Shanghai, Hong’s plant-based meat startup Hey Maet has already found a niche among young, health-conscious urban consumers with products like dumplings and steamed buns that use proteins from rice and soybeans. Hong, 26, won’t disclose sales figures but predicts 500% revenue growth this year. “China could be faster than the West to accept plant-based meat,” she says. “I hope to promote such products to mass-market consumers in the next three years.”
“China could be faster than the West to accept plant-based meat.”
Hong has ample reason to be optimistic. African swine fever has wiped out roughly half of China’s hog population since surfacing in 2018, causing a shortage of supplies and sparking food-security concerns. Meanwhile, consumers in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are increasingly willing to pay more for safer, protein-rich food produced in an environmentally friendly way, according to Jason Yu, Shanghai-based general manager of consultancy Kantar Worldpanel. China’s market for meat substitutes stood at $11 billion last year, up 35% growth from $8 billion in 2015. Consultancy Euromonitor International projects that it will grow another 30% by 2025, to $14 billion.
Hey Maet isn’t Hong’s first venture. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Canada’s Simon Fraser University, Hong got a job as an investor in the Silicon Valley office of Hong Kong-based venture capital firm Ausvic Capital. She spent the next two years investing in startups developing everything from artificial intelligence to consumer goods.
But the urge to start her own business gradually took over. A vegetarian for ten years, Hong in 2019 set her sights on developing plant-based meat. Interest in China was still limited to a small group of avant-garde consumers, but the successful listing of Beyond Meat had triggered a hunt by local investors for a China-based alternative.
Hong’s first foray was with Zhen Meat, a venture she cofounded in Beijing in 2019. Differences with her cofounders over R&D and strategy prompted her to leave, however, tapping her own connections to cobble together a team of food scientists and launch Hey Maet in April last year. (Maet is an intentional misspelling of “meat” designed to emphasize how the company is helping redefine the foodstuff.)
Hong’s isn’t the only company looking to tap China’s growing taste for meat substitutes. Starbucks, for example, already sells pasta dishes at its China locations made with a beef substitute from Nasdaq-listed plant-based meat company Beyond Meat. Hey Maet is aiming for the local palate: one of its bestsellers is plant-based zongzi—sticky rice dumplings—made with snack company Bai Cao Wei using Hey Maet’s pork substitute for filling. Another recent collaboration is with 7 HongKong Style Cuisine, a restaurant chain established by Hong Kong singer Jordan Chan that sells beef noodles made with Hey Maet’s beef substitute.
“It takes time to cultivate a new consumption habit, but we’ll do more collaborations with other companies and keep exploring.”
Investors can taste the potential. Hong has so far raised an undisclosed amount from Tiantu Capital, UpHonest Capital founder Guo Wei and Shanghai-listed Shuangta Food, among others. The bulk of the proceeds has gone to R&D, as Hong hopes to keep improving the texture and taste of her products.
Hey Maet and its peers face challenges to expansion, says Daisy Li, a Shanghai-based associate director at consultancy Mintel. Foremost among them is that plant-based meat is still often more expensive than meat in China, which puts it off the menu for many cost-conscious diners. Hong says she is working on a mass-market product—possibly a snack. “We are testing our new products step by step,” she says. “It takes time to cultivate a new consumption habit, but we’ll do more collaborations with other companies and keep exploring.”
Vegan Eggs and Crickets
Meanwhile in India, Kartik Dixit and Shraddha Bhansali are also capitalizing on the country’s growing market for alternative protein. Their two-year-old Mumbai-based foodtech startup, EVO Foods, produces plant-based egg alternatives made from protein-rich legumes and are cholesterol- and antibiotic-free. Last year, the company received an undisclosed amount of funding from New York-based VegInvest and Sandhya Sriram, CEO of Singaporean cell-based seafood startup Shiok Meats. So far, more than 20 restaurant brands in India use EVO Foods’ eggs.
“India produces over 100 billion eggs per year amounting to widespread antibiotics use, intensive animal breeding and greenhouse gases emissions,” Dixit says. “Being an environmental vegan since four years [ago], I envision that by 2030, humans won’t need to eat anything coming from an animal.”
“Being an environmental vegan since four years [ago], I envision that by 2030, humans won’t need to eat anything coming from an animal.”
Investors have also seen potential in South Korea’s Yongmin Lee and Hyungsu Park foodtech startup Devotionfoods, which makes non-genetically modified plant-based meat alternatives with similar nutritional value, taste, appearance, smell and texture as real meat. So far, it has raised $4.6 million, including $3 million in a series A investment round led by Kakao Investment, backed by Korean messaging app Kakao. Devotionfoods is currently working with Korean conglomerate CJ and retailer GS Retail to expand its business.
Malaysia’s Kevin Wu is another entrepreneur who wants to introduce consumers to alternative protein—this time from insects through his startup Ento. Founded in 2018, Ento farms crickets, which are used to make edible products like roasted crickets and cookies made with cricket powder. Crickets and other insects are high in protein, vitamins and minerals, as well as low in fat. They are also easier and more sustainable to farm than livestock, and produce less waste. The startup graduated from Malaysian conglomerate Sunway’s accelerator program, called Sunway iLabs Super Accelerator, in October.
To see the full Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list in The Arts, click here.