Hampton Creek Foods, funded partly by Bill Gates, cracking artificial egg
Firm funded partly by Bill Gates has delivered first plant-based substitute, Just Mayo, to stores
The startup is housed in a garage-like space in San Francisco's tech-heavy South of Market neighbourhood, but it isn't like most of its neighbours that develop software, websites and mobile-phone apps.
Its mission is to find a replacement for eggs.
Inside, research chefs bake cookies and cakes, whip up batches of flavoured mayonnaise and pan-fry omelettes and French toast - all with plant-based egg substitutes.
Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Hampton Creek Foods seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces.
The company, which just started selling its first product - Just Mayo mayonnaise - at Whole Foods Markets, is part of a new generation of so-called food-tech ventures that aim to change the way we eat.
"There's nothing to indicate that this will be a trend that will end anytime soon," said Anand Sanwal, CEO of CB Insights, a New York firm that tracks venture capital investment. "Sustainability and challenges to the food supply are pretty fundamental issues."
Venture capital firms, which invest heavily in early-stage technology companies, poured nearly US$350 million into food-related start-ups last year, compared with less than US$50 million in 2008, according to CB Insights.
Plant-based alternatives to eggs, poultry and other meat could be good for the environment because the latter require large amounts of land, water and crops to produce, backers say.
It could also benefit people's health, especially in heavy meat-eating countries, and reduce outbreaks of diseases such as avian flu, they say.
The American Egg Board, which represents US producers, said eggs can't be replaced.
"Our customers have said they're not interested in egg substitutes. They want real, natural eggs with their familiar ingredients," said Mitch Kanter, executive director of the board-funded Egg Nutrition .
In Hampton Creek's food lab, biochemists grind up beans and peer through microscopes to study their molecular structure, looking for plants that can fulfil the culinary functions of eggs. So far, the company has analysed some 1,500 types of plants from more than 60 countries.
The research has resulted in 11 "hits", said Josh Tetrick, the company's CEO.
"Our approach is to use plants that are much more sustainable - less greenhouse gas emissions, less water, no animal involved and a whole lot more affordable - to create a better food system," he said.
The company's first product - the mayonnaise - is sold for roughly the same price as the traditional variety. It soon hopes to start selling cookie dough and a batter that scrambles like eggs when fried in a pan.
While Hampton Creek takes aim at the egg, another Gates-backed company is targeting the chicken itself.
Beyond Meat, located in Southern California, sells "chicken-free strips", which have the taste and texture of poultry but are made from plant protein. It is sold at Whole Foods and natural food stores. It's also working on a product that mimics beef.