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Planted gets $72M to put whole cuts of vegan chicken on Europe’s menu



Planted, a Swiss startup that’s cooking up alternative proteins using biostructuring and fermentation to serve “clean” cuts of vegan meat — such as the plant-based chicken breast plated up above — has raised again, nabbing CHF 70 million (~$72M) in Series B funding after a $21M pre-B round a year ago.

The Series B was led by consumer-focused private equity firm, L Catterton, the private equity arm of LVMH — the Paris, France based multinational corp and conglomerate with a focus on luxury consumer goods. So it’s presumably bought into a vision of the well-heeled being persuaded to abandon bloody filets mignons to bite down on guilt-free vegan cutlets.

The 2019-founded Zurich-based foodtech startup says the new funding will be used to launch its new whole-cut line of products, such as the above chicken breast (or ‘chicken’t’ as one colleague wittily dubbed it) — expanding out from its current range of smaller faux chicken pieces, mock pulled pork and kebab meat, and breaded schnitzel, which can so far be found in some 4,200 retailers and 3,000+ restaurants across three regional markets.

Further international expansion (within Europe) is on the cards now. Planted tells TechCrunch it has the Benelux markets (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) in its sights, using the Series B funds to build on its early focus on German-speaking markets (Germany, Austria and Switzerland).

Funding will also go on boosting its production capacity as it works to optimize its processes to shrink the price gap between actual animal flesh and its pea-protein-based vegan chicken alternative. (It also uses oat and sunflower protein in other mock meats in its range.)

For its vegan chicken, its website lists just four ingredients: Pea protein, pea fiber, canola oil and water (it also adds vitamin B12) — hence the “clean” claim, with its marketing further emphasizing: “We do not use any flavouring or preservatives, chemical additives, soy, gluten, lactose or GMO ingredients.” (Some may quibble over the healthiness of canola oil, which has faced some popular controversy in recent years — although it’s less clear whether the concern is merited.)

Alternative proteins face several barriers to mass adoption — a major one being price, as they do not enjoy the same kind of subsidies typically ploughed into traditional food production, meaning it’s not a level playing field when it comes to competing with meat. Often buying actual meat is cheaper than a plant-based alternative, despite the vastly higher environmental costs attached to traditional meat production (not to mention the animal welfare harms). So the economics are a challenge.

Planted says its current product price vs actual chicken varies depending on the market — sitting between the price of free range and organic chicken as it stands. Though, as it scales production, it envisages being able to shrink this gap, pointing to a doubling of production volume it achieved in May which enabled it to reduce prices. (A set of three of its current faux meat products, each weighing 400g, can cost around €25 for the bundle.)

“One of the main challenges to be solved is the cutting of unsustainable subsidies to the animal industry that currently are the main reason for the low prices of animal protein (also depending on the market) that we have on the market today,” Planted argues. “Price matters when it comes to food — as with everything else. Subsidies into various sectors along the animal protein value chain are maintaining this unequal equilibrium — at our own cost. We must change that to get closer to the true cost of our protein consumption.”

There can also be concern among consumers about how much processing (and potentially preservatives) go into making mock meat. Hence Planted’s focus on minimizing the ingredients used to produce its products — and on transparency around its production methods. No ‘secret blend of herbs & spices’ here.

“What we do is structuring of plant-based protein but then we have a fermentation process run over it so essentially we’re combining the two approaches… What this allows us is to have a very clean formulation,” says co-founder, Christoph Jenny, in a phone call with TechCrunch. “So we don’t have any additives whatsoever — and that seems to be the key message that resonates with consumers. We only have proteins, fibers, water and vegetable oil.”

If you’re wondering what biostructuring is, Planted’s website details the “wet extrusion” production process it uses to convert extracted plant proteins, which are spherical in shape, into “the fibrous, elongated shape of animal muscle fibre proteins” — aka, to mimic meat.

“The ingredients in the extruder are heated and put under pressure by means of two rotating screws, while simultaneously under high shear similar to a pasta maker. This creates a dough that is pressed through a nozzle and cooled,” it explains. “In this way, we can convert plant material to the fibrous structure of meat by applying nothing more than heat, pressure and shear. The best raw materials and the right parameters are chosen for our unique setup in this innovative process without requiring chemical additives.”

“Currently pretty much everything you see in the market has additives in one way or the other. And we feel that is one of the key things — besides the price equation — that holds consumers back. And I do understand it,” Jenny adds. “That’s why we founded the company as we wanted to be able to eat something clean, that’s good for you health. That becomes more and more important — and that’s the angle or the differentiation we focus on.”

Planted also produces all its products under a glass-house production facility in Kemptthal, Switzerland — which it bills as “the first transparent meat production open to the public”. (And you certainly won’t find open-door slaughter houses — but, hey, maybe that should be a policy mandate as a ‘hard truths’ tool to educate consumers on what actual meat is made of to help speed up the transition to less harmful protein production methods…)

Planted production facility for its plant-based protein products

A Planted production facility (Image credits: Planted)

It’s also worth noting that (actual) meat can be adulterated with plenty of substances the average person may not want near their food, from the antibiotics fed to animals to increase yields, to the (‘antimicrobial’) chlorine routinely used to wash chicken carcasses in US meat production facilities (although that particular process is banned in the EU) — so there can be a double (i.e. higher) standard applied to meat alternatives, even as long accepted (i.e. tolerated) factory farming methods leave plenty to be desired.

But the vested interests in sustaining traditional animal husbandry and the jobs it creates are undeniable.

The upshot is that alternative protein makers have to work doubly hard to get their products to market and into people’s stomachs. So the growth challenge is real — even as the potential for scaling looks massive as policymakers everywhere look for ways to shrink carbon emissions. (A 2021 study reported by the Guardian found that meat production accounted for nearly 60% of the greenhouse gases associated with global food production — which itself is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases generated by human activity — which means that greening how we eat generally, and meat specifically, is essential if we’re to avoid climate catastrophe; no ifs, no buts.)

Investors backing alternative proteins are calculating that humanity will, over the long haul, make the switch to alternative protein sources, whether gradually then suddenly or slowly and steadily — as food production systems and policy incentives are reconfigured and reformed.

“It is an honor to partner with Planted in its mission to revolutionise the way meat and protein-rich foods are consumed globally,” said Liz Gordon of L Catterton in a statement supporting Planted’s Series B. “Not only are their products inspired by nature but they are also free of unnatural ingredients, scalable, and able to be easily incorporated into consumers’ daily lives as well as traditional meat supply chains. With food as a strong lever to promote human health and environmental stability, Planted directly contributes to creating a healthier and more sustainable food system. We have strong conviction in the company’s continued growth, as more people across the globe continue to adopt alternative proteins into their lives.”

The European Commission has a flagship ‘green deal’ policy with the goal of shrinking the bloc’s carbon emissions to net neutral by 2050 — which includes attention to agricultural reform, under a so-called “farm to fork strategy” (to transition to “a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system”, as the EU’s PR puts it). Although oxymoronical talk of “sustainable livestock” at the EU level suggests the thinking may not be nearly bold nor ambitious enough to deliver the slated eco transformation.

In the meanwhile, the reality is current EU agricultural subsidies are among those skewing the global food production playing field by propping up an environmentally unsound status quo. (A reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, adopted at the end of last year for the 2023-2027 period, was billed by lawmakers as combininghigher environmental, climate and animal welfare ambitions with a fairer distribution of payments, especially to small and medium-sized family farms as well as young farmers” — with no high level message about the need for farmers to transition beyond animal protein production as yet, as commissioners shy away from a message that many traditional farmers may find hard to swallow.)

A Commission proposal for a “legislative framework for sustainable food systems” (aka, FSFS) — slated to be a flagship component of the F2F strategy — is due to be adopted by the EU’s executive body by the end of 2023 so, it remains to be seen what else is coming down the pipe, in terms of harder food system reforms, but the pace of the EU’s creeping policy change is already lagging the protein disruptors.

“There are subsidies and also the way the regulations work — which work against us,” agrees Jenny, when asked about the policy picture. “We welcome that alternative proteins are mentioned as part of the green deal — but ‘sustainable livestock’ is also a cornerstone so… ”

Despite a patchy policy picture on home turf, he still sounds confident that traditional meat’s baked in competitive advantage is shrinking — and will shrink further in the coming years — as alt protein players scale up production, optimize their processes and tap into better economies of scale. And, also, as harsher economic conditions bite.

“As we scale up — and [remember] animal farming has been around for centuries and has been totally optimized — so as we’re scaling I think we’re also A) finding better technology, more efficient technology to produce but B) also have large scale obviously — so we can optimize costs quite a bit,” he predicts.

He also points to “adverse inflation” working against animal protein production as it gets more expensive to produce meat — given animals must be fed protein to produce the meat humans eat and that’s a far less efficient means of producing edible protein for humans than getting it direct from plants. “Overall we see meat prices rising as they’re way more prone to inflation given their lower conversion ratio of protein than alternative proteins — and I think that is one of the key measures [we’re] improving.”

“Last but not least, one of the tricky [issues] to overcome is that animal meat is typically used by retailers as a way to get customers in the door so typically they put lower margins on animal meat vs alternative proteins which typically are used as higher margin products by retailers,” he adds — hence that’s why Planted does direct distribution, b2c, to customers (and presumably also explains its early focus on building relationships with restaurants so they’re supporting the product in how they’re putting it on their menus).

Planted Exec Board - f.r.t.l - Pascal Bieri Judith Wemmer Christoph Jenny Lukas Böni

Planted executive board, from right to left: Pascal Bieri, Judith Wemmer, Christoph Jenny and Lukas Böni (Image credits: Planted)

“Working on these three things we see the gap shrink quite quick over the next couple of years,” he continues, emphasizing that the team is certainly not hanging around waiting for policymakers to roll out a red carpet for green foodtech but is strategizing hard to make growth happen despite all the ingrained challenges. “What we focus on is what we can impact day by day. We really focus on optimizing our production processes, and simplifying things and making sure that we don’t rely on any policymakers to make the changes — but rather we put ourselves in a position to get to prosperity.”

More problematic than policymakers being slow in serving up their fulsome support, Jenny suggests, is the role of meat industry lobbyists working actively against reform of the food system by trying to undermine adoption of alternative proteins. “The bigger issue is that lobbyists, very strong nationalist lobbyists — on the animal farming side — try to counteract us on a day to day basis, doing that on the European level or in local government,” he tells us. “A good example is the amendment 171 they wanted to pass to forbid plant-based milk.

“France for example is super aggressive that you cannot relate to any animal what we’re doing. So I think that’s the fundamental issue. Then the subsidies that come out of these policy struggles. So I think we find ourselves, on a day-to-day basis on the legislation side, rather in a back-and-forth — rather than moving forward and fixing the broken food system together. And we’re losing time day by day to really reduce our food’s carbon footprint on that side.

“That’s the daily struggle and the reality. So while the green new deal sounds promising the daily struggle with lobbyists and the economical power of the animal farming system is the reality.”

As well as competing with unreasonably cheap animal-derived meat — and fending off vicious attacks from the meat lobby — Planted is also of course competing with a growing number of alternative protein startups.

Plant-based rivals include the likes of Beyond Meat (mock chicken, burgers etc), Heura (mock chicken), Future Farm (fake mince, sausages, burgers), Impossible Burger (faux bloody burgers), and Juicy Marbles (vegan steaks), to name just a few meat-challenger startups in an increasingly-packed-like-sardines but branded-like-fancy-chocolate playing field (yes, plant-based fish is also a thing).

As if that wasn’t enough, there are also lab-grown meat plays trying to disrupt traditional animal farming by growing meat from cells to sell cruelty-free meat. (Aka, lab-grown meat or cultured meat). As well as liquid meal replacement purveyors, like Soylent, pushing the notion that there’s no need to even chew dinner… So the competition for disrupting traditional protein sources is colorful, plentiful and growing.

That makes differentiation between disruptors another potential challenge. How to make your fake chicken or faux pork stand out from other vegan alternatives?

Albeit, the size of the global meat market is more than massive enough to accommodate many different brands and approaches, given every human has to eat (and people’s food tastes will differ). So this should be a case of a rising appetite for alt proteins growing the size of the pie rather than a winner takes all scenario. Just so long as consumers can be convinced, en masse, to chow down on proteins that haven’t demanded animals are reared for slaughter as the price of eating dinner.

“We focus on the message,” says Jenny, when asked how Planted is approaching differentiation amid the growing gaggle of alternative producers. “We just founded the company in 2019 and the reception we get market per market is very positive — because I think people do start to twist the pack around and look on the ingredients. So I think one of the most important communicators for us is the back of the pack and making sure that it’s clean.

“The second thing that comes out — if you do it clean and you do it proper — is that the taste profile is very, very good. So I think our repurchase rates are much higher than the industry standard. And that is very important when you get to sell the product because otherwise you’re just spending marketing money and you don’t get repeat purchases. So that’s a metric we focus on very strongly. And where I think we’re second to none.”


Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022



Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.

The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.

TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.

The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.

Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.

Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.

The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.

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Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development



Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.

It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.

In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.

Image credit: Stoke Space

“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”

While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.

Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.

Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.

“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”

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Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors



Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.

Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.

Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.

We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.

For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”

There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.

As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.

There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.

Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.

At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.

Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.

Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.

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