A Kiwi entrepreneur has introduced a new item to the growing menu of alternative meat products taking up space on supermarket shelves.
New Zealander Jade Gray has quietly been working behind the scenes since 2019 to develop a meat-free version of jerky capable of winning over the palates of even ardent carnivores.
His company Off-Piste Limited recently launched its first product and it's good enough to have convinced venture capital investors to pour $1.5 million into the business at an over-subscribed pre-seed capital raise in July.
"We managed to close our pre-seed round in about 48 hours, so that speaks to the level of interest and the impact this could have on the industry," Gray tells the Herald.
Gray wouldn't provide details on the identity of the investors, but he did say that they included two high net worth New Zealanders and a well-known venture capitalist fund.
He further explained that it was a convertible note rather than an equity round.
A convertible note is akin to a bond, which involves the company borrowing money from investors and paying them interest for a certain time. Being convertible means it will convert from debt to shares in the company when certain conditions are met.
Gray says he tends to use this money raised from this round to continue new product development and set up a pilot plant dedicated to the development of these products.
In addition to this funding, Gray has also received $200,000 in research and development funding from the Ministry of Primary Industries, a $20,000 study grant from the Foundation of Arable Research, $4500 in IP funding from Callaghan Innovation and $2000 Media Training funding from Auckland Unlimited.
"From starting up to now, I've also put a couple of $100,000 of my own money in to get it off the ground," he says.
"Obviously, R&D is not cheap."
Over the last couple of years, he has collaborated closely with Massey University research team, which is part of the New Zealand Food Innovation Network, which is run by Callaghan Innovation.
Over the course of several months, the research team looked at a range of protein sources that could best be used to replicate the meat experience.
They eventually settled on using a combination of pea and fava beans, which offer a protein count of around 45 per cent.
"We needed something that could have parity with meat in terms of nutritional content, and this also helps us to be soy-free, which is a big part of our selling point."
Gray's motivation for taking a punt on the alternative food scene comes down to a number of factors.
Earlier in his career, he worked in the beef farming sector and became familiar with the processes that keep the meat industry moving.
His work in the farming sector saw him move to China, where he ran a beef feedlot for a number of years before moving on to meat processing giant OSI, which supplies McDonald's in China.
He also worked closely with retail giants Costco and Walmart on the butchery side of their respective businesses in Asia.
"This gave me a big insight on the whole meat industry in Asia, which led me to start my own restaurant chain in China, selling burgers and pizza," Gray says.
In 2016, Gray started noticing the growing acceptance of plant-based meats in Asia, particularly among younger consumers.
"We launched our first plant-based meat offering in China in 2018, through my restaurant chain. We developed our own plant-based pepperoni and mozzarella.
"That experience really gave me an insight into the Chinese market around this space. So when I sold that company and came back to New Zealand in 2019, it really gave me the motivation to get into this alternative protein space."
Unless you're a trained sommelier, it would be incredibly difficult for the average person to separate this product from the meat version that inspired it.
A sample sent to the Herald for a taste test strongly indicated that the chefs behind the scenes clearly had a big influence, not only texture but also flavour.
The result is a product that offers the combination of salty and chewy that makes jerky products so moreish to fans of the snack.
But getting the taste right is only part of the challenge for the business.
A bigger challenge will be convincing some of the most ardent meat-eaters that they should perhaps sample something different.
Jerky remains a niche product here in New Zealand, but Gray is setting his sights on far bigger markets.
"If you go to the United States, China and South Africa, you have a significant industry that New Zealand is pretty oblivious to," says Gray.
"We're internationally and export-focused. We're excited to launch in New Zealand but that's not our end game."
Jerky also lends itself well to international ambitions, given that it doesn't need to be cooled and can be sold direct to consumers via an e-commerce platform.
Gray's move into the alternative meat space coincides with the growing flexitarian trend as well as global steps to reduce carbon emissions.
In 2016, the Chinese government outlined an ambitious plan to cut its citizens' meat consumption by 50 per cent by 2030.
Gray believes that alternative meat products like those he is producing could play a major role in helping countries achieve those targets.
He also says that the New Zealand Government needs to take this trend seriously to avoid falling into the same trap as the wool industry.
"That industry pretty much laughed off the development on synthetic fibres back in the 1960s, when wool was extremely valuable. They just ridiculed everyone who thought that synthetics could ever disrupt wool, and now look at the industry."
Gray predicts that the nature of competition will evolve quickly in the global food industry in the coming years.
"New Zealand needs to realise that our competitors moving forward aren't going to be Uruguay, Ireland and Australia. It's going to be Silicon Valley. It's going to be Tel Aviv. It's going to Singapore. It's going to be Schengen. These are food technology hubs that are just growing incredibly fast and putting out an incredible amount of product.
"So how does Auckland become a future food hub? That's really my mission here."