It's one thing to make a plant-based burger that tastes like the real thing.
But making a viable alternative to yogurt and cheese — prized for their delicate mouth-feel, smooth texture, and consistency — is a trickier task.
Jasmin Hume, the founder of a new food startup called Shiru, just raised $3.5 million to tackle that mission. The funding round was led by venture firm Lux Capital, known for backing high-tech startups with lofty ambitions that may take years to materialize. In addition to hiring a foundational team, Shiru will start piloting its first protein product: an ingredient that could be used in alternatives for cheese, yogurt, milk, eggs, or even meat, Hume said.
Protein startups are hot these days, evidence perhaps of a new and more agnostic approach emerging in the plant-based industry that involves focusing on one ingredient (protein) instead of one type of food (meat or cheese).
In February, a startup called Sustainable Bioproducts launched with a focus on leveraging a "super protein" discovered in Yellowstone's volcanic hot springs. A few months later, another protein-focused venture called Emergy Foods said it had closed a $4.8 million funding round to turn fungi into filets.
Also participating in Shiru's funding round is food venture firm S2G, which backed the newly-public plant-based burger company Beyond Meat and a protein startup called MycoTechnology. The venture firm CPT Capital, backers of the plant-based meat company Impossible Foods and the protein startup Motif Foodworks, and also participated.
Hume previously served as the director of food chemistry for Just, one of the best-funded plant-based food startups in Silicon Valley (and formerly known as Hampton Creek). Deena Shakir, who joined Lux as its newest investment partner in August, is joining Shiru's board.
'Focusing on function first'
Shiru will build a database of unique proteins that can be readily swapped into various animal-based foods, Hume said. The company launched publicly at the tech-startup accelerator Y Combinator in August.
The idea is to identify non-animal proteins that are perfectly suited to fit into a recipe for a given food product.
"We're focusing on function first: for example, why are you using that protein in that particular product," Hume said.
That's the opposite approach to the one taken by the majority of today's dominant food startups, which mostly plug in various plant or fungi ingredients into traditional dairy, egg, or meat-based recipes and then iterate from there.
Because Shiru isn't putting a stake in one particular kind of food, it has the potential to disrupt an entire class of animal-based products.
The plant-based milk market alone is worth $18 billion globally, according to a report from analytics firm CB Insights. Meat is a roughly $200 billion industry, the North American Meat Institute says, and cheese is worth nearly $17 billion, according to market research company IMARC.
Hume knows the alternative food space better than most, having spent 2.5 years at Just and a year as a consultant to other food startups. Hume also has a doctorate in protein engineering from New York University and a master's degree in materials engineering from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. Additionally, she spent a summer as an intern at Lux.
Taking a page from the drug development playbook
In the next six months, Hume aims for Shiru to develop its first food product: something Hume would only identify as an "extremely versatile" ingredient that could be used in alternatives for dairy, eggs, or meat.
To do it, she's taking a page from the drug discovery playbook — where a drug company might use its computational tools to pinpoint new molecules whose structure makes them well-suited to a potential new drug, Shiru is using the same approach to find molecules whose structure makes them well-suited to a potential new food.
When it comes to taste and nutrition, plant-based cheeses and yogurts have lagged behind their meat-like counterparts. Meat-free ground beef has existed for decades; more recently, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have broken ground with ready-to-eat fast-food patties available at places like Burger King and Carl's Jr.
Hume said that spending time at several existing food startups helped her see a potential reason for this. While many companies succeed at making large quantities of high-quality plant- or fungi-based proteins, they encounter difficulties when it comes to turning those proteins into scramble-ready eggs or meltable cheese.
"Pea protein isn't designed to behave like an egg protein," Hume said.
Hume, who is vegetarian, said she'd like to completely eliminate animal-based products from her diet and go vegan. But she's waiting on viable cheese and yogurt alternatives to make the switch, which is part of the reason she started Shiru.
"What I'm interested in is unlocking the actual chemistry of how and why proteins behave," Hume said.