Editor’s note: This interview is part of a Q&A series with winners of the ORIGIN Innovation Awards 2020. HERO Protein is a winner in the category Startup Awards–Food & AgriTech.

HERO Protein is the first domestic company in China to sell plant-based meat products produced using high moisture extrusion. Founded in 2020 and based in Shanghai, HERO Protein aims to become the leading brand delivering a tasty and accessible range of plant-based meat products, offering consumers the culinary experience of conventional meat while ensuring food safety and sustainability. HERO Protein was named to the International Future Agrifood 2020 Alternative Protein Top 20 list, and it was a winner of TechNode Global’s 2020 ORIGIN Innovation Awards in the Food & AgriTech category.

HERO Protein’s formulation team consists of a team of former senior R&D executives at Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Gardein, Lightlife, and Morningstar–the five largest plant-based meat brands in North America. HERO Protein’s management team consists of food service, catering, and retail industry professionals with 15-20+ years of experience.

The company closed an $850,000 pre-Seed round in February this year, with participation from Cremer, a global commodities and co-manufacturing company; Lever China Fund, the most active alternative protein investor in China; and senior executives from leading restaurant brands.

In this TechNode Global Q&A with Coco Tse, Vice President, Strategy & Operations at HERO Protein, we learn how the company is improving on the concept of meat alternatives through different manufacturing processes that ensure the quality of both taste and texture that more closely resembles the real thing.

What are the key industry challenges in meat alternatives, and how is HERO Protein addressing these?

Coco Tse, VP Strategy and Operations, HERO Protein
Coco Tse, VP Strategy and Operations, HERO Protein

Across the new protein industry landscape in China, we see key challenges in product quality and application, supply chain and channel management, and consumer awareness/market cultivation.

For product quality, majority of the domestic brands are utilizing traditional technology, dry extrusion, and working with traditional vegetarian meat manufacturers. As a result, product quality is suboptimal and not comparable to international plant-based meat brands.

HERO Protein is China’s first domestic company utilizing advanced high moisture extrusion technology for plant-based meat production, a critical technology for reproducing juiciness and mouthfeel of meat. Our products were formulated specifically for the Chinese market by a team of former senior R&D executives at Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Gardein, Lightlife, and Morningstar, the five largest plant-based meat brands in North America.

Application-wise, we see limited applications currently in the market. We are working actively with partners in the ecosystem from chefs to restaurants, to corporates and brands, to expand the product application portfolio in terms of cuisines, forms etc., and adapt to consumer needs.

For supply chain and channel management, as mentioned earlier above, most domestic brands are working with traditional vegetarian meat manufacturers, who have limited capabilities for upscaling or experience serving into large QSR chains. HERO Protein, therefore, works with one of the largest manufacturers in China, which is also a key supplier of leading QSR chains such as YUM China, Dicos, etc.

What are you doing to engage the market? How does sustainability play a part in food and agri tech?

In addition to channel management, our local management team has more than 15 years of experience in the foodservice, catering, and retail industries, serving and/or working with brands including McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, etc. We have a strongly penetrated channel network to support our sales expansion into foodservice and retail channels.

For consumer awareness and market cultivation, given that plant-based meat is still relatively new to Chinese consumers, we note the urge to educate consumers better of what plant-based meat is, and reasons why to opt for plant-forward diets. We have therefore partnered with some of the leading catering providers for corporates and schools to introduce plant-based meat into their menus, as well as providing support for educational talks and materials for internal sustainability promotion.

For example, one of our serving schools incorporates one Vegetarian Day every week, and we provide educational materials such as nutritional comparison and environmental impact for the school to educate students better on how to live a more sustainable lifestyle. In addition, we partner with local environmental advocacy organizations such as Green Initiatives to organize communal gathering and talks. Last year in mid-April, we organized a talk specifically on the relationship between water scarcity and animal agriculture. The event was very well-received by the participants, learning better about daily water footprint.

What are the essential ingredients in innovating in the FoodTech space?

HERO Protein is China’s first domestic brand utilizing advanced high moisture extrusion technology for plant-based meat production. We combine expertise from an international R&D team and local management experience in the food service and retail industry for product formulation and channel penetration.

Product innovation and localization will be key to capture Chinese consumers for making the switch to incorporate more plant-based foods. We are committed to continue taking the product at the core of our business, to continue to innovate and produce best-in-class quality products at an affordable price for consumers.

ORIGIN: Sizzling innovations in FoodTech are enhancing taste, nutrition, and sustainability