Planted Foods AG

“Chicken” from plants

Four university graduates from Zurich have quickly conquered the Swiss plant-based food market with their start-up, Planted Foods AG. Their flagship product, planted.chicken, convinces due to its amazingly genuine texture and because it contains absolutely no artificial additives. With Bühler as their technology partner, the four founders have ventured into industrial production.

There is a monument to the birth of industrial food production standing in Kemptthal, Switzerland. Here, almost a century ago, Maggi, the company known today by homemakers and cooks around the world for its bouillon cubes, liquid seasoning, and ready-made soups, started production. Maggi was ultimately acquired by Nestlé in the 1950s, and in 2002, soup production was moved to Germany, leaving the factory still.

The area where Maggi once produced soups has come back to life as “The Valley” – an industrial zone of 100,000 square meters with historical buildings that are now being used by research groups, start-ups, stores, and restaurants. Just 20 minutes by car from Zurich, the area is fertile ground for pioneering work and innovation.

Planted Foods is one of the new residents. In June 2020, the start-up began production in one of the former Maggi production halls with a product that is just as innovative as the bouillon cubes were 100 years ago. Planted Foods produces its “planted.chicken” – strips of chicken made from pea protein.

“We researched all possible proteins available, from algae to sunflower seeds to yellow peas,” ex-plains Christoph Jenny, co-founder of Planted Foods. “Yellow peas suited our first product, planted.chicken, perfectly because the nutritional value and the fibrousness of it are surprisingly similar.” Jenny is one of four co-founders of the ETH Zurich spin-off that came out of the Laboratory of Food Process Engineering at the Institute of Food Nutrition and Health, headed by Professor Dr. Erich Windhab. The four young men met in the research facilities of the university. There Eric Stirnemann is completing his doctorate in the field of Food Process Engineering. Lukas Böni also completed his doctorate there.

Using an extruder from Bühler, Stirnemann experimented with the perfect formula for plant-based meat substitute products. Böni did his doctoral research on hagfish and had the expertise in handling soft textures. The business expertise came from Pascal Bieri, who studied Business, and Christoph Jenny, who received a degree in Finance from the University of Zurich. It was the perfect starting point for an exemplary success story.

 

Planted Foods AG team The founders of Planted Foods AG (from left): Eric Stirnemann, Christoph Jenny, Lukas Böni, and Pascal Bieri

Only natural ingredients

Inspired by American pioneers such as Impossible Foods, the founders wanted to develop their own meat substitute products completely without added artificial ingredients: “Our products should have no added artificial ingredients and be 100 percent vegan. No animal products, no antibiotics, no GM (gene modified) ingredients, no gluten, and no preservatives,” says Jenny. The ETH was won over by this idea, and the Planted Foods project received CHF 150,000 start-up capital from the university’s Pioneer Fellowship Program. Now the adventure could really begin. Eric Stirnemann’s doctoral re-search had laid the foundation for the project so that by 2018, the group had already developed their promising product prototype. Then things began to speed up rapidly.

In March and April 2019, the first samples were ready for visitors at various trade fairs. By May, Planted Foods received its first restaurant order. “The innovative restaurateurs were enormously im-portant to us in bringing our product into the market,” says Bieri. “They tested our product and gave us valuable feedback that we could use for our continued development.”

planted.chicken product as advertized by Coop Swiss consumers have been able to find the "vegetable chicken" from Planted Foods on the shelves of grocery retailer Coop since February. The writing on the package says: No animals. That works for me. Copyright: Coop.

Already at Version 2.3

The successful market launch of planted.chicken, however, is just the beginning of this start-up’s story. According to Böni, Planted Foods operates like a software company. “We started with Version 1.0 and are now at Version 2.3.” For this stage, Planted Foods has launched its own online shop where customers can take part in surveys about the various versions. “That means that our product is basically never finished with development. We are perfectionists and try to advance with each release.”

Planted.chicken is delivered in boxes with funny rhymes. Meat substitudes from Planted Foods AG land in grocery stores completely free of artificial ingredients and flavor enhancers.

It is quickly evident that a lot has happened in a very short time at Planted Foods’ production premises. The offices at the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health laboratory at the ETH in Zurich were bursting at the seams. There was barely enough workspace for the growing team, and sometimes people even worked with their laptops on their knees sitting on the stairs outside.

Even back then, the technological heart of the actual production process – an extruder from Bühler – was already working at full speed. It kneads and heats the ingredients for the plant-based chicken and arranges them in its interior to form a new microfiber structure. “The extruder enabled us to perform the first production scaling,” explains Stirnemann. The topic of scaling occupied the four founders again with their next big step: Planted Foods moved into its own factory in Kemptthal in June. “We purchased our own production line from Bühler, which made it possible for us to scale up to an industrial level,” says Stirnemann.

This move equals an increase in production capacity from about 500 kilos per day to 500 kilos per hour. “It is great for us to have a technology partner like Bühler at our side, one that has constructively supported us,” Stirnemann explains.

The Bühler project team received the order to set up the new production facility and started work in November 2019. Installation started in April 2020. This was a challenge in terms of time. “We wanted to be able to put the plant into production within one month,” says Randolph Geitel, Project Manager at Bühler. “Traditional delivery times have become obsolete in this market. We have to be extremely fast and flexible if we want to be part of such innovative projects. We rose to the challenge and production started in June.” 

 

Factory and showroom in one

Another tricky condition for the new production facility was that the factory had to be publicly accessible for visitors and visible from top to bottom along the entire value chain. This is a novelty for industrial food production. “We want to be open and transparent to consumers about what we make, which is 100 percent natural,” says Jenny. “Our concept has already received a lot of interest, and we receive a huge number of requests for tours.”

The production facility in Kemptthal is both an industrial food production plant and a showroom. As Geitel explains, this posed completely new challenges for project management. 

“The design had to be functional and at the same time totally clean and attractive.  In addition, there were special re-quirements regarding noise emissions. The facility had to be publicly accessible without visitors needing to wear ear protection. Special measures were also needed in terms of food safety,” he says.

But for Geitel, this was no obstacle. “Basically, no project is the same. We don’t sell rack plants. Our solutions are always engineered specifically for the customer.” Geitel also sees a large added value for Bühler with such projects. “Most people have no idea what an extruder is. In Kemptthal, we now have a platform where we can present this,” he explains.

planted.chicken in hands Hardly distinguishable from real meat: the planted.chicken made from yellow pea protein.

Research remains the focus

Planted Foods has succeeded in getting out of the research lab and into the commercial market, but it wants to stay relatively lean in the beginning. “We do need to bring a new product to market every few months. We want to attract people with simplicity more than anything.” Nevertheless, according to Jenny, the team already has a new creation in the pipeline: “We launched the planted.pulled this summer. It’s a pulled pork product made from plant proteins, which we are selling primarily to catering establishments for the time being.”

And the tasty revolution will continue, thanks to a strong focus on research. “Of the 55 employees at Planted Foods currently, 20 are working in research. We want to keep this focus and continue making our contribution to better substitute meat products.”

Products used by Planted Foods AG

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Alternative proteins

Alternative protein burger

By 2050, it is estimated that an extra 265 million tons of protein will be needed to meet the demands of the world’s population. Finding new protein sources is essential.

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