Tender raises $12 million for its plant-based meat-making ‘cotton candy machines’

US alternative protein start-up Tender Food – formerly known as Boston Meats – has raised $12m in seed funding for its ‘cotton candy machine’ technology which can be used in the production of plant-based meat analogues and cell culture proteins.

Why is this important:

Besides taste, texture is one of the biggest bottlenecks facing alternative protein producers in their quest to accurately mimic the meat of slaughtered animals.

In addition to improving mouthfeel for the consumer, realistic textures help alternative meat products cook more similarly to their conventional cousins.

Early generations of plant-based and cultured meats were largely characterized by homogeneous preparations like burger patties and nuggets. Recently, however, a number of alternative protein companies have sought to produce more complex alternative protein products that represent more faithful imitations of formats such as steaks, chops, tenderloins and other whole cuts.

Somerville, Mass.-based Tender aims to do just that with its new approach to creating fibrous masses reminiscent of animal muscle, using plant-based ingredients.

Notably, the startup’s technology could potentially be used by both the plant protein and cultured meat industries, according to Chantre.

“Tender creates protein fibers. These can be used to create the fibrous structure of muscle in plant-based products, but can also be used to create scaffolds for cell-cultured meat applications,” he said.

How it works:

Tender Food’s technology “spins” plant proteins at high speed, subjecting them to centrifugal force that pulls them into threads that can then be used to mimic the muscle fibers of animal meat.

The company – which itself was “spun off” from Harvard University in 2020 – has its origins in R&D conducted in the lab of co-founder Kit Parker.

Plant-based pulled pork made with Tender technology. Image credit: Tender Food

Parker is the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and an associate faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where Chantre previously served as a postdoctoral fellow.

“Product quality and price are the two most important factors for consumer choice, and we believe any new approach should carefully consider them,” Chantre said. “Our technologies, which look a bit like cotton candy machines, solve both. They allow us to create a unique product quality [with] a distinct texture of muscle fibers. And they are fast.

What they say:

Kevin Kit Parker, Professor, Harvard University and Co-Founder, Tender Food

“The texture of real meat has been very difficult to mimic with today’s alternative meat texturing solutions. The ability of our technology to replicate the architecture and mechanics of animal muscle in a plant-based protein food, while meeting the nutritional goals of protein consumption, is expected to have a significant impact on the industry.

Chris Sacca, co-founder, Lowercarbon Capital

“The approximately 6 billion carnivorous humans who eat meat generate about 15% of total carbon emissions. Kudos to vegans, but to win everyone over, you need plant-based steaks and chops that taste just as good on the grill as what’s cut from a carcass”