The startup upcycles food waste and byproducts into a new kind of high-protein, high-fiber, vegan meat. Unlike most products in the crowded alt-protein market, it has achieved both great taste and price parity.
Food-upcycling startup Planetarians is on to something big. The ambition: to disrupt not only the $1 trillion meat market, but all of conventional animal agriculture, by turning wasted food byproducts into new foods.
The San Francisco-based business upcycles byproducts and solid food waste into high-protein, high-fiber ingredients that food companies can use to make tasty products. Sustainable Brands® has been tracking the firm for the last few years as its sterilization technology has gained traction with a host of customers, partners and investors. An early Planetarians signature ingredient was its protein flour made from upcycled, defatted sunflower seeds. It gained plenty of attention given that it had three times the protein and twice the fiber of wheat flour, at the same cost.
More recently, the company found its “magic pairing” — combining spent beans and spent yeast to make whole cuts of carbon-negative vegan meat. By taking spent yeast from commercial fermentation facilities such as breweries, and native plant proteins — such as soy flakes left over from vegetable oil extraction — the company can reproduce the flavor and chewy texture of meat, but with a much cleaner health profile. In fact, it has near-zero fat content.
Unlike most products in the crowded alternative-protein market, Planetarians has managed to hit price parity with conventional meat.
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“Many good companies try to reverse climate change by making alternative meat,” co-founder and CEO Aleh Manchuliantsau told SB. “But they all fall short of price parity with animal meat because of expensive ingredients and/or equipment.”
Understanding that customers are price-sensitive first and environmentally conscious second, Manchuliantsau knew he had to come up with a solution. “Because we’re making meat from animal feed, we’ve made it cheap,” he adds — pointing to the difference in cost between animal feed at $300 per ton and protein isolates at $3,000 per. Not only that, but Planetarians’ new product is much less carbon intensive. “The lifecycle assessment shows that our carbon emissions are 50 times lower than producing meat from animals — and nine times lower than any other plant-based meat.”
It has taken Manchuliantsau and his team seven years to arrive at this point. Thanks to the ongoing support of partners such as Techstars, SOSV and AB InBev, Planetarians has developed and patented its technology, launched a pilot plant to prove that the commercials stack up, and proved the market is ready — with billions of dollars in repeat purchases.
Oh, and its meat substitute tastes great too. “Our NPS score is twice as good as Beyond Meat,” Manchuliantsau says proudly.
In February, Planetarians announced it had raised a $6 million seed II round of funding that included commercial support from ZX Ventures — the corporate venture arm of AB InBev, one of the world’s biggest brewers.
Speaking to SB from his base in the Bay Area, Manchuliantsau is in a reflective mood. Ten years ago, he awoke from a dream that his kids asked him what he had done with his life. “Spinning around in bed, I came to the conclusion that the businesses I had built before might have been good cash machines, but it wasn’t something that would break new ground,” he says.
Not long after, he left his home in Belarus and relocated to the US — a move that would eventually lead to establishing Planetarians along with co-founder and chef Max Barnthouse. “My North Star is my three boys. I’m working to be a role model to them. ‘Just copy what I’m doing.’”
Today, Manchuliantsau still considers his firm to be a “fast-scaling, startup food-technology business,” as opposed to an alternative-meat business. “On our journey, we’ve created multiple products. We started with chips, then pasta, then burgers and now meat. The products may change, but we have always worked with byproducts,” he says proudly.
It’s because Planetarians uses food waste that he can claim to be nine times better for the climate than the likes of Beyond or Impossible — fermented meats that still need crops to be grown before production can begin: “We take what’s already grown, what’s already processed. Somebody else got that main product, and we take what’s left — the part that represents up to one-third of the whole agricultural system.”
The key to Planetarians’ success now and in the future is its ability to develop, evolve and maintain partnerships. As global companies such as AB InBev start to realise what’s possible, he hopes many more partners will join the company’s mission: “Companies have a chance to valorize the cost center of their byproducts and turn it into a profit center, without much investment on either side.”
Something of a startup veteran, Manchuliantsau says he has constantly been thinking about repeat purchases among his client base. He had to find a way to keep them coming back for a second, third, tenth purchase — something he now has achieved through Planetarians’ latest, tastiest and most price-competitive iteration. “Once we started seeing companies come back three, four or five times and buying the same meat, we knew we could scale and justify our pilot plant. And now, we are shipping truck loads.”