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Startup aims to replace chicken, egg

| Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, 5:09 p.m.
In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, CEO Josh Tetrick holds a species of yellow pea used to make Just Mayo, a plant-based mayonnaise, at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco. Can plants replace eggs? A San Francisco startup backed by Bill Gates believes they can. Hampton Creek Foods is scouring the planet for plants that can replace chicken eggs in everything from cookies to omelets to French toast. Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors, the upstart seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, CEO Josh Tetrick, left, watches as research and development chef Trevor Niekowal, right, makes a plant-based scrambled egg at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco. Can plants replace eggs? A San Francisco startup backed by Bill Gates believes they can. Hampton Creek Foods is scouring the planet for plants that can replace chicken eggs in everything from cookies to omelets to French toast. Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors, the upstart seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

SAN FRANCISCO — The startup is housed in a garagelike space in San Francisco's tech-heavy South of Market neighborhood, but it isn't like most of its neighbors that develop software, websites and mobile phone apps.

Its mission is to find plant replacements for eggs.

Inside, research chefs bake cookies and cakes, whip up batches of flavored mayonnaise and pan-fry omelets and French toast — without eggs.

Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Hampton Creek Foods seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces.

The company, which recently started selling its first product — Just Mayo mayonnaise — at Whole Foods Markets, is part of a new generation of so-called food-tech ventures that aim to change the way we eat.

“There's nothing to indicate that this will be a trend that will end anytime soon,” said Anand Sanwal, CEO of CB Insights, a New York firm that tracks venture capital investment. “Sustainability and challenges to the food supply are pretty fundamental issues.”

Venture capital firms, which invest heavily in early-stage technology companies, poured almost $350 million into food-related startups last year, compared with less than $50 million in 2008, according to the firm.

Plant-based alternatives to eggs, poultry and other meat could be good for the environment because it could reduce consumption of meat, which requires large amounts of land, water and crops to produce, backers said.

It could benefit people's health, especially in heavy meat-eating countries like the United States, and reduce outbreaks of diseases such as avian flu, they say.

“The biggest challenge is that people who consume a lot of meat really like meat, and to convince them to try something different may be extremely difficult,” said Claire Kremen, faculty co-director of the Berkeley Food Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

The American Egg Board, which represents producers, said eggs can't be replaced.

“Our customers have said they're not interested in egg substitutes. They want real, natural eggs with their familiar ingredients,” said Mitch Kanter, executive director of the board-funded Egg Nutrition Center.

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