We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Arturo Elizondo, the CEO and co-founder of Clara Foods, a San Francisco-based food technology company that is making eggs without chickens. Founded in 2014 with David Anchel, Clara Foods is using fermentation technology to replicate the protein in eggs without the need to take a single cell from an animal, which comes at a fraction of the environmental impact of factory farming. Since their inception, Clara Foods has raised US$ 45 million in funding, including investment from the major Illinois-based food and pharmaceutical company Ingredion. One of the leading innovators in the alternative protein space, Arturo has recently been listed as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30. In this interview, we speak to the CEO and co-founder of the food disrupting startup about Clara Foods, why his company is not part of the cell-based/cultivated space and why he will always work in the food industry.
GQ: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you started Clara Foods? Tell us a bit about the journey that got you here.
AE: So I was born in Texas, I’m Mexican by heritage. I grew up eating two eggs for breakfast every morning like any good Mexican, and had a barbeque every Sunday like any good Texan. So animal protein was a huge part of my life and culture and upbringing. I never thought about where my food came from until I was at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and learned how food was made, and began learning about how environmentally destructive it is in terms of water, land, and energy required to produce all the foods I ate growing up.
I couldn’t reconcile the fact that people had to make this choice of either eating something that was super tasty and affordable, or something that was sustainable and ethical. It always felt like it was a compromise, that the cheapest and most delicious things were the worst for you and the planet. I couldn’t accept it. So I decided to leave the USDA, and book a one way ticket to San Francisco without no job and no place to stay, but I knew I needed to at least give it a shot. I had to at least try to use technology to make foods that people know and love but without it destroying the planet. I knew that if I didn’t pursue this, I would always wonder what it would be like.
GQ: What exactly does Clara Foods work on?
AE: We are a company making eggs without using chickens. We do that by fermentation. Eggs are a combination of proteins, fats and water. There is nothing else in eggs. So we focus on using yeast and fermentation to create the same protein. In the same way that brewers use yeast to convert sugar into alcohol to make wine and beer, our yeast is used to convert that same sugar into protein, and we design the yeast to make any type of protein we want. This technology has been used to make the heme protein for Impossible Foods’ plant-based patties, the rennet used in cheese making, and all the insulin that diabetics use. It’s been around for decades but never been applied to ingredients in this way before. We’re using it to make eggs that foam, gel and bind – to make all the foods that people all over the world love, in a way that leaves a smaller footprint on the planet.
GQ: So, you are not a cell-based company? You don’t take any initial cell from an animal, in this case from chickens, to produce eggs?
AE: Yes, we don’t take a cell from an animal. We 3D print the DNA, which we then add to the yeast. Essentially, we’re hacking the yeast. The yeast becomes a computer in the same way that computers read programs in terms of 0s and 1s, and then they churn out an output program for any application you want. With cells, instead of 0s and 1s, it is ACGT – the building blocks of DNA [adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T)]. Every single one of these letters codes for different amino acids that make up protein. We add these letters into the yeast, so that once they meet the sugar, it becomes a protein factory reading what protein to make based on the gene we have designed.
GQ: What inspired you to start a fermentation company? Why apply cell fermentation biotechnology to eggs specifically?
AE: We chose eggs not only because they are simple from a tech perspective, but more than anything, the world is addicted to eggs. We consume 1 trillion eggs every year. Almost everyone, especially middle-income folks and [people in] developing countries, consumes one egg a day. So it is an incredibly popular food. In grocery stores, almost half the products contain eggs. The protein from eggs have such an incredible functionality that they have become the building blocks of our food system, so what we want to do is to make these building blocks with a better, more sustainable factory minus the chicken.
GQ: We’re now seeing cellular biotechnology being applied almost everywhere – meat, milk, cotton. Do you think that it’s possible to see a world where traditional meat and dairy production is phased out?
AE: I mean, I think eventually we can see a world where a vast majority of food is produced this way. There will probably always be some people that will want to eat meat from a cow and eggs from a chicken. And I think ultimately, for us, the problem that we are hoping to solve is the issue of eliminating factory farming. No matter where you stand in terms of the food system, whether you love or hate meat, we can all get behind the fact that factory farming shouldn’t exist. Our food system is broken and it is destroying our planet in the process. And this factory farming system produces almost 90% of the eggs we eat today.
GQ: What are the biggest challenges facing alternative protein foods? How far away are we from it going mass?
AE: I think one is: continuing to have access to capital for these companies. And now, there are more investors coming into the space to support it. Secondly, we need governments to support some of these technologies, in the same way that they have supported clean energy because it is good for the planet and our national security. Food is also about national security and protecting our planet. So I think that there is a need and opportunity for governments to support this industry as it scales up, and at the very least, set out a level playing field. Right now, the balance is tipped in favour of the massive dairy, egg and beef industries who have gotten so strong and have been able to influence governments to change labelling laws. It’s really important to at least have a level playing field.
GQ: What is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about Clara Foods?
AE: One of the main misunderstandings is around our technology. I think when you make eggs without chicken, it sounds crazy. But this technology has been around for 40 years, and that is something that is eye-opening to everyone I talk to. If you had cheese today, if you know a person with diabetes who has gotten their insulin injection, that is all a part of exactly the same technology that we’re using. We’re just taking it to the next level of applying it to an area that is desperate for change.
GQ: What future innovations do you have in store?
AE: We’re building at the most basic level an animal protein production platform, an intel of animal protein ingredients. Our egg is just the beginning, and it is a great product, but ultimately there are so many kinds of protein to go into that people don’t even know exists in their food. Like many wines use egg whites to clarify, and fish bladder has been used to filter beer. The food industry has been so established for so long that there are so many opportunities for innovation, so what we want to do is to build a technology that can produce different kinds of animal protein, whether it comes from chicken or other animals.
GQ: Do you see Clara Foods and other cellular companies as a partner next to the plant-based food tech industry in the fight to disrupt our unsustainable global food system?
AE: Yeah, I think that we all fall within a spectrum. At the end of the day, we’re making products that are about giving choice for people, because right now there are none. We’re getting started, but there still aren’t enough choices for egg alternatives, beef, pork, fish, milk, cheese, yoghurt, and so on. We sometimes forget that these markets are massive. There is so much room for so many companies, the umbrella is so wide. I totally see myself as aligned because we’re all fighting the good fight. If the world is to thrive and survive, we need every tool at our disposal.
GQ: Is it fair to say then, that Clara Foods doesn’t see other alternative egg products, such as JUST’s plant-based egg made out of mung beans, as competitors?
AE: Ultimately, we’re still fighting the same fight, aren’t we? I believe that we need to be coming at the problem with as many approaches as possible. It’s just that we’re approaching the issue by creating eggs using existing technology that has worked over the years to create animal protein, instead of having to start by building a plant ingredient database first. We have the technology for animal protein, and we’re using it to roll out our alternative sustainable animal egg products without the chicken.
GQ: Aside from our food system, what is the biggest environmental issue in your opinion?
AE: I was asked once what I would be doing if I were not developing this technology. I think I would be focusing on food waste – it’s something like 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from food thrown away. If we can simply reduce food waste, if we bought less, we can really ease the burden. Ultimately, I can’t imagine a world where I’m working on something disconnected from food. If I really had to pick something outside of food, it would be on marine life and the state of our oceans that is so at risk of plastic. But then again, 46% of the plastic in our oceans comes from fish nets from the seafood industry.
GQ: Yes, so given the fact that even plastic pollution is linked to our food system and seafood production, will we be seeing Clara Foods working on seafood as well?
AE: Good point, I think that there is a possibility. Plus, egg whites are used in so many applications and ingredients that make up so much of our seafood dishes, so yes there is definitely that opportunity there. We’re already looking at different proteins.
GQ: Final question – we have to ask you: team rice or team noodles?
AE: Oh gosh. Noodles, 100%!
Lead image courtesy of Green Queen.