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As Australia’s meat-free scene sizzles, Hungry Jack’s boss backs plant-based protein startup

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

v2food

Nick Hazell, founder and chief of v2food (centre) with Jack Cowin and Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews. Source: supplied.

There’s a new Aussie plant-based meat startup on the scene, born out of CSIRO and with backing from Hungry Jack’s head honcho Jack Cowin.

The startup, v2food, was born out of a partnership between CSIRO and its venture capital fund Main Sequence Ventures. Competitive Foods Australia, the fast-food empire headed up by Hungry Jack’s boss Jack Cowin, also contributed seed funding.

The startup is headed up by Nick Hazell, a former aerospace engineer who later found himself working on R&D and food innovation in food businesses such as Mars and Masterfoods.

Through working on research projects with CSIRO, doing consulting work and teaching at UTS, Hazell has had a career focused on disruptive innovation in foods, all with a theme of how to make foods both nutritious and sustainable.

And, while he’s founder and chief, Hazell wasn’t personally at the meeting where v2food ⁠— or what would become v2food ⁠— was first dreamt up.

Rather, Cowin met with Phil Morle, partner at Main Sequence Ventures, and some of the brains at CSIRO, to consider whether there a way they could come together to influence the emerging market of alternative proteins.

“There is some technology and some expertise in CSIRO, and there are some routes to market,” Hazell tells StartupSmart.

“But, in order to make something happen, we’re going to need to form a business.”

That was when Hazell found himself recruited to head up his very first startup.

“I ditched everything,” he says.

“We had to go for it.”

The business was incorporated in January this year, and, while he doesn’t reveal anything specific, Hazell says its plant-based meat products will be available on the market “extraordinarily soon”.

“An R&D team of 2,500”

While having a fast food-focused entrepreneur so decidedly on board with the plant-based protein trend may seem unusual, and a significant win for the industry as a whole, Hazell notes that Cowin’s expertise is “far broader than just Hungry Jacks”.

Cowin is also a significant exporter of Aussie meat products, the founder points out.

“Jack brings a very, very strong commercial sense, and really good business skills, and an amazing network,” he says.

And, the rest of the network gives the startup a fighting chance, too. The business has a “unique combination” of partners in the form of investment experts, a global entrepreneur, and the technical minds at CSIRO.

“I’ve got an R&D team of none, and an R&D team of 2,500,” Hazell says.

“There is such a huge depth of technical skill from CSIRO, and they’re really leaning into this.”

At the same time, it’s able to maintain a startup mindset and growth trajectory. In the space of less than nine months, the business has gone from inception to launch, creating a product that is ready to go to market and which, Hazell says, is “world-class”.

In the food world, that’s unusual, he adds.

“In my experience, this sort of project can take two to three years.”

But, this kind of speed-to-market is necessary, if v2food is going to make the impact on the industry it intends to.

“Our mission is to make a difference, globally.”

If we’re going to sustain a growing population, “we need to change the way we eat”, Hazell says.

“We have to get to scale really quickly if we’re going to have any impact.”

Not so niche

This is the latest in a string of developments in the Aussie alternative meat world. Back in June, New Zealand startup Sunfed Meats announced it would be launching its chicken-free chicken product in Coles stores all over Australia.

In Sydney, Vow Meats is working on cultivating lab-grown kangaroo meat, developing the technology with a view to figuring out which animals have the best nutritional profiles and flavours, and what could in theory now be consumed ethically.

And on the coast of Queensland, Qponics has created an algae farm that is producing a high-value omega-3 oil that can be used both as a nutritional supplement or in products such as tuna-free tuna. The process of creating the oil also produces a protein-rich byproduct that can be used in other meat alternatives.

Ultimately, these products are not targeted at people who already eat a plant-based diet.

For v2food, the target market is “people who love meat”, Hazell says.

That means the race is on to make a high-quality product that’s a viable and, crucially, affordable substitute.

From his wealth of experience in the food industry, Hazell says it’s “a truism” that if your product doesn’t taste better than the alternative, or it’s more expensive, it’s not going to get off the ground.

“Our meat not only has to taste better, but also it has to be priced the same or lower, otherwise everyday people won’t make the decision to opt for a plant-based product,” he says.

While vegetarians and vegans will likely eat v2food products, the real target market is meat eaters who want their food to have less of a detrimental environmental impact.

“Increasingly, that’s everybody,” he says.

While the business is focusing on the Australian market first, there is scope to expand into Asia, and ultimately exporting plant-based meat around the world.

“We’re ambitious to scale quickly,” Hazell adds.

“It’s going to be a tailwind for the next decade. The science of climate change, the situation with sustainable food globally, it’s not going to go away,” he explains.

“The physics dictates that this market will exist.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].

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