2016 New Zealand Innovation Awards Innovation Excellence in Research: Sunfed

The winner of the Innovation Excellence in Research is... Sunfed!

The secret of Sunfed Meats’ meat is that it’s not meat at all, despite the name strongly suggesting otherwise. It’s also not something grown in a lab, a la a certain variety of “meatless burger” (that shall remain nameless for fear of defamation) much-reviled among vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.

What Sunfed Meats is, rather, is all-natural meat. From plants.

That’s not a misprint.

Sunfed Meats’ plant protein-based meat contains the same proteins at meat from animals, while also consuming just 20 percent of the land and water required to raise livestock. In other words, it’s better for the environment, and is less cruel to animals.

Sunfed’s first product is chicken made from Canadian yellow peas. The exact process how this is done is a closely-guarded trade secret, but one thing that’s not secret is that it has massive potential to disrupt the food industry – at least as chief executive Shama Lee tells it.

But if Lee’s assertions that it could change the way we produce our food sounds too good to be true, it shouldn’t. People certainly seem to believe in what Sunfed and chief executive Shama Lee are doping, or an international conglomerate of Kiwi, British and US investors wouldn’t have put $1.5 million into the Auckland-based company. Lee also won the prestigious Start Tel Aviv startup competition, enabling her to all-expenses-paid to the Israeli city for the five-day event to learn from successful entrepreneurs and participate in a bevy of lectures and workshops. Sunfed Meats was also featured at the Agribusiness Investment Showcase this year, and has qualified for a Callaghan Innovation research and development grant.

Shama Lee (left).

Lee – who co-founded Sunfed in January 2015 with husband Hayden – says her company is unlike anything else in Aotearoa, with only a few companies overseas doing something even remotely similar to Sunfed. Among those, she says, are Beyond Meat in the United States (which is backed by none other than Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates) and Like Meat, a collaboration between several European nations that also counts on funding and support from the European Commission.

Lee does reveal that a secret of Sunfed’s process is that it’s “wet” protein, rather than the dry vegetable-based meat of earlier generations that used a large variety of nutritional substitutes, many of which were not natural and instead artificially created. Some of the ingredients in Sunfed’s chicken-from-peas, for example, include water, sunflower oil, and vegetable powder.

The average Kiwi downs 4.4 kilogrammes of lamb, 14.5 kilogrammes of beef, 18.1 kilogrammes of pork, and 37.8 kilogrammes of chicken per year, according to OECD stats – making us among the biggest meat-eaters per capita in the world. Sunfed isn’t trying to make us reduce how much meat we eat but, rather, where we get it from. With the effects of over-farming well-known and an ever-rising population creating an ever-growing need for food, it’s a noble goal indeed.

EVALUATOR'S COMMENTS:

It's exciting to think that in the not-too-distant future we may have a substitute to animal protein meat products. This will enable a massive advancement in food technology. New Zealand is primed to be a leader in this industry due to its globally respected agricultural industry.

This story first ran in Idealog 63.