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Viviane Lanquar — Director of Biochemistry at Hampton Creek

Women In Food Tech #1

Viviane Lanquar. Photo credit: Hampton Creek

In the very hipster neighborhood of the Mission, in San Francisco, hides an intriguing warehouse. There, 6 years ago, food and science joined together to revolutionize our current food system. It all started with an idea, to create better-for-you products by substituting animal proteins with plant proteins, and a handful of people who believed in the mission. Welcome to Hampton Creek’s offices.

Hampton Creek illustrates what can happen when people start to pay attention to where their food comes from. Its existence proves that Silicon Valley startups are playing a determinant role in shifting our food system. In 2011 Hampton Creek’s founders, Josh Tetrick and Josh Balk, set out to develop a plant-based food company after witnessing the negative impact of our current food system on both human beings and natural ecosystems. Their goal was to explore the potential of the plant kingdom to create everyday products that leave less of a footprint. To do so, the startup has taken an R&D approach to food and treated it as a science, combining biochemistry, technology and data. In 2013, Hampton Creek launched its first product into Whole Foods markets, Just Mayo, an egg-free mayonnaise made out of a key ingredient, the Canadian Yellow Pea. Today, the fast-growing startup offers a variety of products such as its Just Dressings, Just Cookies and Just Cookie Doughs. In 2016, the company closed their most recent round of funding that included a valuation at $1.1 billion, giving it coveted “unicorn” status. Most recently, Hampton Creek announced the future launch of its new product, Just Scramble, an egg substitute that contains 20% more protein than a chicken egg. Within 6 years, the startup have grown from 20 employees to 130, expanded its scientific expertise, and built a R&D robotics lab in-house which analyze plants characteristics autonomously. However, Hampton Creek won’t stop there and has revealed plans to enter the clean meat space and intend of making their first commercial sale by the end of 2018.

At the entrance of their warehouse, we can hear music coming up from the first floor, mixed up with low chatting and sounds of cutlery clanking around. In the open space, marketing and sales team mingle with scientists and chefs. At the back of the room, Viviane Lanquar, Director of Biochemistry, is talking to two of her colleagues from R&D.

While she was pursuing her Master’s Degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Viviane had no idea her resume would include one of the most famous plant-based food startups of Silicon Valley. Her passion for plants emerged while she was studying plant evolution in Paris. She realized that plant characteristics and diversity could be the sustainable answer to many environmental issues caused by our current food system. Following her PhD, Viviane furthered her interest in cellular biology and plant application by researching plant proteins at Stanford and the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research). At the end of her postdoc, in August 2014, Viviane was unsure where her path would take her. It seemed she had 2 options that those before her had taken. She could either leverage her experience as a biochemist and work in the pharmaceutical industry, or she could draw upon her work as a plant biologist and potentially pursue employment for a large seed company. Instead, she decided to carve out another path and blaze her own trail to Hampton Creek.

At this time, the startup was in its infancy and rapidly expanding its in house R&D team. They were looking to add a plant chemist to the team, to conduct research on plant proteins. Viviane was unfamiliar with the food science field, but she was intrigued by this small startup that showed promise. She identified with what HC stood for; sustainable food should be accessible to everyone. In September 2014, she joined the R&D team, working alongside six other scientists, most of whom were women. At the time Hampton Creek was a 20 person startup with a small office on 371 10th Street, below Josh’s apartment. Funding was limited and she had to make do with few resources on a bench the size of a coffee table! “But [she] trusted the idea”, she said. In December 2014, Hampton Creek raised $90 million in Series C funding. With this influx of new funding they moved offices the following year and settled in a new 90,000 square-foot facility in the Mission, giving R&D more space and resources to expand.

During her first two years at Hampton Creek, Viviane’s mission was to analyze plant proteins to determine if they had specific properties that could potentially replace animal proteins in food products. A typical workday was divided between designing experiments, testing and extracting relevant data. In 2016, Viviane was promoted to Director of Biochemistry, moving away from her bench towards a more managerial role. Today, her work includes coordinating research projects, making sure deadlines are met and mentoring new recruits, which she particularly loves as it allows her to dive back into experimental design.

Viviane and her team. Photo credit: Hampton Creek

One novel project that Viviane is excited about is Hampton Creek’s clean meat project. Clean meat, or cultured meat, is produced by taking a sample of animal cells and replicating them in a culture inside a laboratory. This type of production is considered healthier and better for the environment. Unlike standard meat production, clean meat doesn’t require the use of antibiotics and isn’t contaminated by bacteria such as salmonella. The first lab grown beef patty was produced by Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University in 2013 for a total cost of $330,000. Thankfully these costs are significantly lower today due to extensive scientific research, however it still remains more expensive to produce lab-grown meat. Some of the high costs are derived from the use of fetal bovine serum which is required in clean meat production. Fetal bovine serum comes from which bovine fetus’ blood which is added to other types of cells and serves as a media by triggering cells reproduction. However, fetal bovine serum extraction isn’t widely accepted and is still considered quite controversial. To extract the fetal bovine serum, bovine fetus’ blood is drained at the slaughterhouse until the fetus dies. This process had raised ethical questions regarding the fetus’ potential suffering. This is where Hampton Creek has stepped in. Viviane and her team have been exploring ways to use plants to sustain animal cells growth and replace fetal bovine serum. Such a change will lead to lower costs of clean-meat production and prevent the use of fetal blood, thus making clean meat accessible to everyone within the next 5 to 10 years.

“Joining Hampton Creek was incredible because I was given the opportunity to use my skills for a company which shares my values: making our food system ethical and respectful of human beings, animals and our environment.”

Viviane considers that our current food system is unfair and wished everyone had the same available options to healthy and sustainable food. According to her, plants have an important role to play in the coming years for our food system. Thanks to their diversity, plants can offer a wide range of solutions. Plant characteristics can be used to replace animal proteins in our food to help lower the environmental impact of food production which is currently centered on animal proteins. Witnessing the plant-based food industry grow gives Viviane hope for the future, “It is stimulating and shows us that, after all, it wasn’t such a bad idea!”. Many thought the plant-based industry to be a trend, attracting a minority of the population. Societal change never happens overnight, instead change requires out-of-the-box thinking and beta testing. But, most of all, change on this scale requires people that are unafraid to take risks. People like Viviane.

This article is part of a series centered on women in FoodTech. With women as a common thread, this article series is focusing on people and companies that are finding innovative ways to bring sustainability to our current food system.