The entrepreneur leading us to a plant-based but meaty food future

Engineer Shama Sukul Lee tackles our growing food and environmental crises with plant-based chicken that meat eaters love.

If we’re looking to reduce carbon emissions and tackle the climate crisis, experts including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argue the world will need to boost its intake of plant-based foods and reduce meat consumption.

But despite a growing awareness of the high costs to animals, humans and the planet, we’re eating more meat.

“Even people who are moving away from red meat for health reasons are moving to chicken. To meet the demand, the only thing the animal system can do is cram more and more animals together and grow them bigger, fatter, faster,” Shama Sukul Lee said.

Convincing passionate meat eaters that plant-based food is a good idea can be a challenge. As founder and CEO at Sunfed, Shama is one innovator committed to making it happen.

Shama Sukul Lee, Sunfed founder and CEO

The New Zealand engineer moved out of software, turned to food industry disruption and has created plant-based food products that pass the taste test – even for the harshest critics.

Shama will share her thoughts and experience in food technology with Sydney startups in our visiting entrepreneur program, taking part in 2 events: The future of food: How entrepreneurs are innovating to feed the world and The hardware code: deciphering for success.

In the lead up to the program, she spoke to us about how her clean technology is leading a paradigm shift for the largest market in the world.

Sunfed chicken-free chicken

A good product is at the heart of a paradigm shift

We know plant-based meat alternatives have been around for a long time but meat consumption has continued to escalate. We can only tackle it if we provide an attractive alternative.

“Transformation comes from creating new choices for consumers,” Shama said. She believes the market economy is the largest human force on the planet. People vote with their wallets, but democracy is only as good as the choices available.

“You create a very, very good meaty product,” Shama said. Sunfed’s chicken-free chicken has the meaty experience people want without compromising on nutrition like other plant-based meat alternatives.

Sunfed spent 5 years developing its IP.

“We are ruthlessly product focused because we want to be a solution. That's why I think Sunfed has taken off. The whole intention is that our chicken-free chicken is considered better than animal chicken in every way.”

2 steps to disruption

However, a great product alone does not guarantee disruption. You need to be able to scale it.

“The solution cannot be a niche thing sitting on a shelf at 10 times the price (of the competition). You create a product better than the status quo, and then scale it out. That's where disruption is no matter which industry,” Shama said.

The issue of scale is important, because as production expands it runs the risk of causing damage.

“The biggest challenge is not to become another problem when the scale-up happens. For too long we have been taught that exploitation of resources is just a natural part of building and scaling out a company,” Shama said.

Not for Sunfed, which chooses to use pulses like yellow peas in their food products because they are incredibly environmentally sustainable crops. Coarse grains and legumes were identified by the IPCC as being an ideal low greenhouse gas emitting food.

“Yellow peas are nitrogen fixing, they have a minimal water footprint with the ability to be drought resistant, and they are very hardy crops, minimising pesticide use. And they provide nutrients to the soil leaving it better than they found it,” Shama said.

Software is not the only place for disruption

While sustainable food tech is one area for growth, Shama believes that there are lots of areas where startups can use the power of business for positive change.

Shama reminds us that Covid-19 clearly showed what is essential to humanity. She advises entrepreneurs to consider what the real foundational aspects of humanity are and transforming those.

“That is the biggest bang for buck, that will make the biggest difference,” she said.

She confesses that it is a different type of challenge, and she was maybe naive coming from a background of software into manufacturing.

“Doing hardware is a completely another level. You’re making real physical things, you need so much capital upfront and that's just for your prototypes. You will want to do design iterations rapidly, but this takes time and again, you need capital. And then there’s the manufacturing side which is its own beast. I am very humbled by hardware and manufacturing.

“I would say to entrepreneurs, don't be afraid to get your hands dirty with making physical things. Yes, it is very hard in the beginning, the barrier to entry is high (although, not insurmountable), but if you truly want to shift things with the limited time and energy you have on this planet – that's the way.”

Sunfed boar-free bacon

Meeting the meat-eaters on their terms

Sunfed is about to launch its new bacon product. Is a bacon lover going to consider Sunfed’s boar free bacon an option?

“We know they will. Because we launched it at Meatstock 2020, a live music and barbeque festival, of all places. The hardest audience you can find. And we were the most popular stand. I had bodyguards and I didn't need them! So it’s been very well stress-tested, we feel good about the product. It's time to get it out to the market,” Shama said.

The webinars are free but you need to register to receive the livestream link.

The future of food: How entrepreneurs are innovating to feed the world
Thursday 18 June from 6pm to 7.30pm
Register now

The hardware code: Deciphering for success
Wednesday 24 June from 12.30pm to 1.30pm
Register now

The visiting entrepreneur program is a series of free events where international entrepreneurs share their expertise with tech startups in Sydney. This year’s program has a focus on entrepreneurship in sustainable technology.

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