Forget Hamburgers - This Israeli Wants to Print 3D Vegetarian Steaks

Alon Bar-Shany is making the leap from color printers to printing steaks out of protein substitutes. In an interview, he admitted he eats real meat, but says alternatives are the world’s only chance

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Redefine Meat plant-based meats are going to go on the market this year - first in Israel with hamburgers and kebabs, and then the world - and one day with vegetarian steaks
Redefine Meat plant-based meats are going to go on the market this year - first in Israel with hamburgers and kebabs, and then the world - and one day with vegetarian steaksCredit: ללא קרדיט
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv

The former general manager of HP Indigo will be an active chairman of the Israeli startup Redefine Meat, which specializes in printing of protein substitutes. In an interview, he admitted he eats real meat, but still dreams of creating a vegetarian steak

The startup Redefine Meat announced this week that Alon Bar-Shany, the former general manager of HP Indigo, has been named the company’s active chairman.

Bar-Shany left HP Indigo last June after 25 years with the company, including 16 as general manager. Now, he is switching from printing color on paper to the three-dimensional printing of protein substitutes.

“Even though it doesn’t seem like it, there’s a lot of similarity and many connections between the two,” he said in an interview. “This model – which connects hardware with raw materials, services, an international distribution system and a business model – is similar.

“At Redefine Meat I found an opportunity to build a large company over the long term and not just to build something and sell it,” he added. “But perhaps the primary connection is the startup’s two founders, Eshchar Ben Shitrit and Adam Lahav, two people I met 10 years ago as young, talented product managers at Indigo, wonderful people whom I’ve worked with in the past.”

A food technician tests a cooked 3D printed plant-based steak mimicking real beef and produced by Israeli start-up Redefine MeatCredit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Redefine Meat is a food tech company specializing in food substitutes. It uses vegetable matter to make substitutes for fat, protein and blood. These materials are then fed into the company’s three-dimensional printer, which can print whatever food is requested. The process is similar to feeding an ink cartridge into an ordinary printer, or spools of colored plastic into a three-dimensional printer.

“This is a plant-based technology, with the addition of flavor and fragrance additives, that enables you to control the food product via the printing and also control the layers and spaces,” Bar-Shany said. The company’s first products are supposed to hit the market this year.

“If you look at the food substitute market, there are already two large global companies – Beyond Meat and Impossible Food – but they make hamburgers,” he added. “We’ll compete on that, but making a steak is a bigger challenge, and also a bigger opportunity.”

According to Bar-Shany, the challenge isn’t just a matter of technology. “The global population is growing at a rate of 70 million people per year, and the argument right now is over whether we’ll peak at 8.5 billion people or 10 billion. In either case, masses of people are moving to the cities and eating more meat.

“The problem is that the rate of growth in countries that are becoming rich, like China, isn’t sustainable. It’s happening at the same time as an unreasonable increase in the consumption of resources like oil and meat. These resources will simply run out, and then there will be an explosion.

“So we have to find something else. It’s impossible to go to the Chinese and tell them, ‘They eat meat in the U.S., but you shouldn’t eat meat.’ The challenge is to create a meat substitute that consumes fewer of the earth’s resources. But it has to be tasty.

“Cows already account for a significant share of the earth’s mass. This is an industry that wastes space and water and it’s very inefficient. In another few years, our grandchildren will look at us and say, ‘What is this stupidity, that you raised cows in Brazil, sent them on ships to Israel and then slaughtered them? It’s completely irrational.’ In another 20 years people will look back and say, ‘It’s inconceivable that people traveled in gasoline-powered cars and produced energy from oil and ate meat from animals.’

“For decades now, we’ve been destroying the earth on the assumption that resources are infinite, and that is humanity’s biggest problem right now. The coronavirus is just a symptom of this industry, and the vaccine isn’t a permanent solution, but only a temporary one.”

Are you a vegetarian yourself?

“No. I can’t resist the temptation. You could say I’m a vegetarian in theory, I would like to be. I don’t eat meat every day, but from time to time, I want a good steak. It seems to me that we’re a typical family, with a daughter who’s almost vegan, a daughter who eats only chicken and a son who eats only beef. Finding a restaurant everyone can eat at is a problem.

“But it’s important to say that Redefine Meat isn’t aimed at vegans. The goal is to offer something as tasty as meat.”

There are companies that are developing meat from cell cultures. And that’s no longer a substitute, it’s the real thing. Isn’t that better?

“There’s one stream in food tech that’s talking about cultures, which are very interesting but will take many more years of development before it can become a mass market. We’re based on plant products and believe that in the first stage, we can produce hot dogs, kebabs and hamburgers from them, and in the second stage, the ultimate product – steak.”

Alon Bar-Shany is making the leap from color printers to printing steaks made out of protein substitutesCredit: Ilan Assayag

‘A meat product in every respect’

Redefine Meat was founded in 2018 in Rehovot, which is gradually becoming Israel’s food tech capital, especially when it comes to protein substitutes. It has so far raised $35 million, of which the bulk, $29 million, was raised this past February.

At around the same time, the company reported that in a blind taste test, 90 percent of people couldn’t tell that its product was plant-based. The company says its printer can produce 20 kilograms of meat per hour.

Ben Shitrit, the company’s CEO, said in the announcement of Bar-Shany’s appointment, “I and my founding partner, Adam Lahav, both began our careers more than a decade ago at Indigo, and Alon has been a model for us to emulate ever since. The timing for him joining the company is perfect, since we’re preparing ourselves for a global commercial launch.”

When will we be able to bite into something?

“The machines are already being built at our factory in Rehovot. We also have all the needed permits for a food company from the Health Ministry. Redefine Meat wants to start with the Israeli market, and this summer, we’ll start to launch our products in the institutional market.

“This will begin with carefully chosen restaurants in the Tel Aviv region, and then we’ll expand our portfolio of products and our geographic coverage. Toward the end of this year, we intend to start penetrating the European market, and in 2022, additional markets.

“The factory in Rehovot will be able to produce a very respectable amount once it’s launched. But at some stage of growth, it would be reasonable to set up other local factories in our target markets.”

Which restaurant will be the first to serve printed steak?

Bar-Shany declined to answer that. But he added, “It won’t be branded as a niche product for vegetarians, but as a meat product in every respect – something that’s premium, high-quality and healthy. People will buy it because they don’t want to finance this whole terrible supply chain, and also because it’s simply tasty.

“At least in the beginning, it won’t be cheaper than steak. But a person who doesn’t eat meat will be able to go out with his friends to a meat restaurant and enjoy it.”

The company’s vision is that every restaurant kitchen will also have a three-dimensional printer for steak substitute, and that in the future, the product will also reach the retail market – people’s homes.

Nevertheless, the precise business model, including questions like whether Redefine Meat will supply the food or the technology, is still on the company’s drawing board. That’s one of the reasons why Bar-Shany was hired.

You have several competitors, including an Israeli competitor named MeaTech, a publicly traded company with a market cap of 300 million shekels ($92 million) that’s also talking about 3D printing of meat substitutes.

“Nobody today is yet printing on a large scale, and I think we’ll be the first to move from a pilot to the commercial stage. In any case, our most significant competition comes from the meat companies, which are companies worth tens of billions.”

Bar-Shany: 'In the first stage, Redefine Meat can produce hot dogs, kebabs and hamburgers from them, and in the second stage, the ultimate product – steak'Credit: ללא קרדיט

Do you suffer from a regulatory burden?

“No. Because we aren’t growing meat from cultures, everything is simpler from a regulatory standpoint. We are careful to meet all the Health Ministry’s standards.

“Our problem, like that of the whole tech industry, is recruiting workers. We lack workers, and not just in software. There are also no chemists or mechanical engineers. We even lack workers to operate the CNC machines, and that can’t be done remotely.

“So we’re taking a lot of steps to solve this, like recruiting ultra-Orthodox and Arabs and Bedouin and new immigrants, and it’s still tough. It hurts my heart that there are so many unfilled positions in this country.”

In total, Redefine Meat employs 60 people.

‘Why should I retire?’

Bar-Shany is a busy man. Redefine Meat is the third company of which he’s currently serving as chairman.

“Another company I’m chairing is Twine, a startup from Petah Tikva that developed a machine that can take a white thread and output it in any color you want. This solves a problem in the textile world’s supply chain, but it’s also a huge environmental problem of wasting water and using polluting chemicals.

“The third company of which I’m chairman is a public company called Highcon, which is more from the traditional world of printing that I came from.”

A meatless burger patty called Beyond Burger by Beyond Meat. Redefine Meat say that too can make such burgers, but add: 'making a steak is a bigger challenge, and also a bigger opportunity'Credit: Steve Helber,AP

You haven’t thought about retiring?

“Retiring? Why should I retire? That’s something Bismarck invented in the 19th century,” retorted Bar-Shany, who majored in history at college. “Until then, people worked in the fields until they died. I’m not built to sit at home and play the guitar, however tempting it sounds.”

Why did you leave Indigo?

“I don’t want to comment on that. I had a wonderful 25 years at Indigo, which I look back on with satisfaction and pride, and maybe someday I’ll write a book. At the moment, I’m focused on the three companies I mentioned.”

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