CEO and founder of the alternative protein company Sunfed, Shama Sukul Lee, had a troubled relationship with meat. Initially it was because of her love of animals which was compounded by a growing awareness of environmental and sustainability impacts of traditional animal farming.
In her 2016 Ted talk, she likened it to a bad relationship with a traumatic break-up, followed by a few one night stands that always came with “shame after the pleasure, self torture and introspection”.
In 2012, Lee’s growing commitment to ‘never ever getting back together’ with meat coincided with her starting to question the very foundations of her life. From being a grade A student, to ticking all the boxes on the high expectations, succeeding at life scale, Lee said she could no longer ignore feelings of being empty, lost, and unfulfilled. So she quit her job and went into a self-imposed solitude.
“I shed all the unconscious identities I had collected through my life, and then those I had consciously chosen off the shelf. I had go connect with what was most meaningful to me, my deeper truths. It was tumultuous, messy, non linear. Out of that introspection, I began to build the real me. With a story that felt right, and a mission.”
And this is where Lee’s path differs slightly from many others, who come from such a process and take up bike riding, paddle boarding, running marathons or fast cars.
Lee told Food & Drink Business that she realised she had limited time and energy on the planet, so what was she going to do with it. With her troubled meat relationship, she “felt strongly there was no good option for someone who really liked meat, who wanted a meaty experience, but didn’t want to eat the animal.”
She read “everything I could get my hands on” about making meat without the animal but at that stage, everything was still in the very early stages of R&D and would take years before it was commercially viable.
For Lee, there were some core, non-negotiable features that had to be achieved. It had to be as “clean” as possible, with minimal additional ingredients. To its core, the product had to be healthy. It also had to deliver a “meaty” experience.
With the bar set so high, Lee said she could see the potential but still didn’t know if it was going to be possible. “It was so risky I had to self fund it. Back then, there wasn’t the awareness of meat alternatives we have now.”
Have good engineering, change the world
The industry was in such infancy, Sunfed had to develop not just a product but how to make it. Creating a clean “meaty experience” meant building machines that could do that. Lee told F&DB there was “nothing off the shelf” they could use.
Lee had been a software engineer, she was used to a world where you needed “a laptop and a coffee”. “The learning curve was steep. The good thing about engineering is that engineers make it happen. One good engineer can change the world – Henry Ford, Leonardo di Vinci, Nicola Tesla – but the difficult thing for a start-up is, with engineering, that hardware needs a lot of capital upfront.
“With every prototype we built we learnt a lot, but it takes money to build a prototype. I developed a new appreciation for hardware and manufacturing and real world infrastructure. If you want to create something real in the world you have to do engineering.”
R&D is in the DNA of Sunfed, Lee said. The initial phase lasted two to three years and saw some “really big breakthroughs” involving all different types of protein. But they weren’t at the manufacturing stage, “we were just trying to get the base of the product right”.
The biggest moment came when they could replicate the “long meaty protein strands”. For Lee, R&D can be accelerated when you are engineering the product as opposed to a laboratory setting because you control the design of all aspects of a product.
“If you look at all the products in the global market, Sunfed is the only ones that have been able to create the long succulent fibres, and that’s why we are able to offer a bold product like Chicken Free Chicken. It’s completely naked. It doesn’t hide behind sauces or flavours, and it’s big whole pieces, not pre-form pieces like a pattie or nugget.
“If you get that base right, then you can do a lot more.”
The three phases of growth
Last year, Lee raised $9.4 million from local venture capital firm Blackbird Ventures, Quadrant Private Equity founder Chris Hadley and New Zealand Venture Investment Fund.
In June, Sunfed launched in Australia through Coles supermarkets. Lee told F&DB sales are increasing week on week and has broken all projections and forecasts for the company and for Coles. “Scaling our infrastructure was the whole game in entering the Australian market, and we’ve proven that. That was phase two of our growth plan.
Phase three is global expansion focussed on large western markets. Lee said Sunfed’s market is consumers who are more aware about what they’re eating and shifting away from traditional forms of meat. They are looking for a very clean, healthy form of protein that still offers a meaty experience, she said.
“It is clear to us that in the Western markets people want to eat more protein but more and more they don’t want it to come from an animal, but they also don’t want tofu or soy/wheat based products.
The macro trends show that the only meat segment growing in western developed countries is chicken, Lee said. People moving away from red meat are substituting it with chicken because people are perceiving chicken as the healthiest meat option.
“But food is also an experience, so you can’t just eat cardboard. The trend is to healthy, clean food that tastes delicious no matter what that is.”
“We are here saying, here is a new protein option for you. We can’t determine what a human being can do if the option is not in front of them. If there’s no choice then they will just keep doing what they know,” she said.
Barclay Investment Bank’s I can’t believe it’s not meat research report found the alternative meat market is worth US$14 billion — or one per cent of the global meat industry — today, but in the next decade will carve out 10 per cent, or US$140 billion of the market by 2029.
Lee said: “The market is massive. It’s not a meat alternative market, it’s a protein market. There’s not that many players – Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods out of the US focus on red meat and patties, and then there’s us.
“The reason I put the three of us in the same category is because it truly is a new generation. None of us are doing soy or wheat based products.
“All of us are targeting the meat eater and all of us are driving rapid innovation. We have our Chicken Free Chicken product now but every day that is being iterated. It will only get better and better and traditional meat companies can’t compete with that. You can’t have rapid iteration with cows and chickens.”
Ultimately the consumer decides and that’s our strongest indicator we’re here to say, she said.
Being a ‘real solution’ for consumers
Led said the core goal of Sunfed is to be “a real solution” that empowers consumers with new options.
Lee was determined to launch in mainstream supermarkets, but experienced “strong pushback”. It was an experiment, she said, with the product not looking like chicken (it is a golden yellow from its yellow peas base). “But it works like chicken, it performs like chicken and it gives them what they’re looking for in chicken. And then we launched and we couldn’t keep up with demand.
“If there’s no choice, there’s no magic. As soon as there’s choice, you have to make a decision, and when that happens you have to evaluate, and that’s when your consciousness rises.
“You’ve got to do it, you’ve got to try it and then you go from there.”
Shama Sukul Lee will be delivering a keynote address at Global Table on Thursday, 5 September.