GeekWire Awards Preview: How plant-based meat startup Rebellyous Foods pivoted in the pandemic

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Rebellyous Foods CEO Christie Lagally speaks at the 2019 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire / Dan DeLong)

Before the first-known U.S. coronavirus cases emerged in Rebellyous Foods’ hometown, Seattle, the startup was catering to the food services industry, targeting its its line of plant-based chicken products to cafeterias, schools, and other institutions.

Then those institutions started shutting down indefinitely.

Rebellyous pivoted, accelerating development of a consumer product it could sell at grocery stores. Today that product is available at 14 mom-and-pop markets throughout the Seattle area.

“We really started to re-strategize about who was going to be our customers and who was going to be Rebellyous in a world where we don’t go to ballparks and stadiums and even to school for a very long time,” said Rebellyous CEO Christie Lagally, a former Boeing engineer. “It was dawning on us pretty quickly there that we had to do something different, and probably for the best. Sometimes these are really, really hard situations but they put us in a better position to be able to offer our products in the future.”

In September, Rebellyous plans to retire the plant-based chicken product that it has been temporarily selling in Seattle-area stores to make room for a new suite of items. The startup plans to sell a new Rebellyous chicken nugget, chicken tender, and a chicken patty all made entirely from plant products.

The pivot is fueled by a $6 million investment Rebellyous secured in April. The startup distinguishes itself from other plant-based meat companies, like Beyond Meat and Impossible, by engineering its manufacturing equipment in-house.

We caught up with Lagally to learn more about Rebellyous Foods in the first installment of a special GeekWire Podcast series catching up with some of the finalists for the upcoming GeekWire Awards, a live virtual event at 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 23. Rebellyous is one of five finalists for Innovation of the Year. You can register here to watch the awards for free.

Listen below and continue reading for excerpts from our conversation.

Pandemic pain: “Prior to COVID-19, Rebellyous Foods was primarily, in fact almost entirely, a food service, food production company. We sold to stadiums, hospitals, corporate cafeterias, ballparks, and K-12 school districts. Every single thing that was shut down when COVID really started to spread in Seattle. And as a result, I won’t lie, Rebellyous got hit hard. We got hard and we got hit fast … we had to quickly divert our efforts into a new market that was open and that is the grocery store. As a result of an enormous amount of teamwork, ingenuity, and quick thinking, our team set to work to revise the product, change the production line, and to create a new package.”

Plant-based meat’s unique challenge: “We design new production equipment that is custom made to do the material and food processing that plant-based meat really needs to have done. Most plant-based meat, like other plant-based burgers and even other plant-based chicken products, are made in off-the-shelf meat processing equipment like bowl choppers and tumblers and things like that. Those tools were designed originally for deconstructing an animal’s carcass and bringing it down to its elements of meat, and then chopping up the meat further, and essentially it’s a subtractive manufacturing operation … the equipment is not designed to do what we want it to do, because making plant-based meat is, instead of a subtractive manufacturing concept, it’s actually an additive manufacturing concept.”

Rebellyous Foods’ secret weapon: Using this off-the-shelf meat processing equipment usually requires more labor when you’re using it to make plant-based meat and also requires more energy, more water, longer sanitation cycles. As a result, and most consumers will understand this, most plant-based meat … tends to be two to three times, sometimes as much as five times the cost. What we do at Rebellyous is we went back to the drawing board, started from first principles of physics, and said what would the equipment look like if it was uniquely designed for bringing together the proteins and the materials for plant-based meat? We designed those pieces of equipment. We’re now in the process of patenting those pieces of equipment … and that Mach One system will actually be able to make plant-based meat at much higher volumes, at much lower cost, and at a higher quality of good consistency that is not possible elsewhere in the industry right now.”

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