Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2012

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The vegan entrepreneur

The vegan entrepreneur
Photo by Bob MacDonnell

Ethan Brown '94

by David A. Brensilver


It doesn't just taste like chicken. It looks and cooks like one, too.

That's what Ethan Brown '94 says about “Veggie Chicken,” a new meat substitute that replicates the fibrous structure of animal tissue and can substitute for meat in any dish. But fooling the palate is only one of Brown's objectives. The 40-year-old entrepreneur also aims eventually to “dramatically underprice meat.”

Many of the meat substitutes available at grocery stores today are viewed by consumers as being inferior to and costing more than the real thing, according to Brown. The soy- and pea-protein-based products he's developing are his answer to a question he started asking himself about three years ago: What if meat substitutes that were healthier for the consumer — and for the environment — were available at a lower cost than animal protein?

Brown, who majored in government and history, came up with his business concept while working in business development for the fuel-cell company Ballard Power Systems. He regularly attended conferences where “people would literally be wringing their hands” trying to figure out how to use renewable energy to address climate change. Yet, often, they would be eating steak, known for its energy-intensive production process. “How difficult is it to change what you eat for dinner?” Brown asks. “Logistically, it's easy.”

He left his staff position at Ballard in 2009 (while staying on as a consultant until last year) and began investigating meat substitutes. His research led him to Fu-hung Hsieh, a professor of biological engineering and food science at the University of Missouri who had been working for a decade on using plant-based proteins to mimic animal tissue. ?
Armed with the exclusive license to the university's patent on the creation of “muscle-like tissue” from plants, Brown formed Cumberland, Md.-based Savage River Farms. He initially raised money from friends and family, followed by a round of funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm. A second round of funding, he says, came from an investor group led by Twitter cofounders Biz Stone and Evan Williams.

Savage River Farms expects to roll out its chicken alternative at Whole Foods and other retail outlets this year, and they're working on ersatz beef. So far, the products still cost more than meat, but less than some other meat alternatives. Brown continues to partner with the University of Missouri on research and with the University of Maryland on product development.

Chris Kerr, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Humane Society of the United States, says Savage River Farms is “absolutely at the forefront in terms of innovation.”

Brown says he learned the confidence of his own convictions from classes with government Professor William Frasure and history Professor Bruce Kirmmse (now emeritus). An environmental ethics course with philosophy Professor Lawrence Vogel helped shape his pragmatic approach to sustainability.

Reflecting on his approach to teaching the course, Vogel said, “The focus of environmental ethics really ought to be pragmatic. … It's an anti-philosophy position.”

After graduating from Connecticut College, Brown earned an MBA at Columbia University and worked in energy and electricity restructuring. His long-term goal: to become the next Perdue or Tyson Foods. Without the chickens, of course.


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