A 23-year-old dropped out of college to make meatless burgers using fungus — and got $100,000 from Peter Thiel

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Kimberlie Le

  • Fish-less “salmon” burgers may be the next frontier in the future of alternative meat products.
  • Kimberlie Le, the 23-year-old founder of a startup called Terramino Foods, is crafting burgers that taste like salmon using ingredients found in other foods.
  • Le was recently named a Peter Thiel Fellow and received $100,000 to pursue her idea.

“Salmon” burgers without any fish may be the next frontier for the future of meat alternatives.

Instead of smashing together beans and tofu or trying to coax animal cells to form edible tissues, Kimberlie Le, the founder of a startup called Terramino Foods, is taking an approach that draws inspiration from soy and sake.

Le was recently named a Peter Thiel Fellow and received $100,000 from the venture capitalist to work on her “salmon” burger concept. The goal is to brew burgers that taste like salmon using things we already eat, such as a mushroom-like ingredient called koji that’s currently used in miso soup and soy sauce.

With the funding, Le hopes to finalize the company’s recipe and double the size of Terramino Foods, which currently has four employees. Support from other Thiel Fellows will also play a key role in helping her hit these goals, she said.

Burgers a’ brewing

salmon burger

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Shutterstock

There’s a race among startups to create alternatives to meat and fish that don’t require killing animals.

Besides the ethical concerns of farming and slaughtering livestock, the business of meat production is often wasteful and resource-intensive.

Most meatless meat startups are approaching the problem in one of two ways. Some are trying to make meat-like burgers and meatballs from plant ingredients; others are brewing up animal cells in giant vats to create real cow, chicken, or fish flesh without any killing.

But both of those approaches involve some pretty big hurdles.

Products made from animal cells, like the ones that startups such as Just and Memphis Meats are exploring, require significant scientific expertise and government oversight to create. So far, no such product has been brought to consumer plates. And recipes for meat alternatives made from plants – such as plant-based burgers like the Impossible Burger – can be tough to nail down without a significant amount of time and money.

So Le’s company is pursuing a different strategy: using the fungus koji to make a product that tastes like seafood.

Miso soup requires sake.

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Miso soup requires sake.
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Facebook/misoandale

Somewhat similar in meaty texture and taste to mushrooms, koji has a long culinary history. People have eaten it for thousands of years in foods like miso soup and soy sauce; it’s also the fungus that feeds the fermantable sugars required to make sake.

Koji’s history, taste, and texture make it simpler for Terramino Foods to nail down a recipe and scale up production, since koji already provides a chewiness and bite that resembles something you’d expect from a burger. So Le doesn’t have to worry about creating a brand new texture.

“The advantage is we have naturally occurring texture which is very similar to meat,” she told Business Insider.

Le also loves koji’s taste. She said that after tasting a real salmon burger recently, she could barely distinguish it from her own salmon-less recipe.

“I was like, this tastes like our burger!” Le said.

The importance of a supportive community

A former student at the University of California Berkeley, Le dropped out to focus on her company. Last year, she and her co-founder completed a 4-month biotech accelerator program offered by IndieBio, which gave them $250,000 in seed funding and access to some of the resources they needed to get Terramino Foods off the ground.

That financial backing supplements the funding from the Thiel Fellowship, which will also provide Le and Terramino Foods with a network of support from other fellows. Every Thiel fellow dropped out of college to pursue their ideas at age 22 or younger.

Boyan Slat, the Dutch innovator behind the Ocean Cleanup plan to clear plastic from the ocean, is also a Thiel Fellow, as is Vitalik Buterin, the co-creator of digital currency Ethereum.

Le said it’s nice to be part of a network of people who didn’t necessarily follow the conventional route to success.

“Just having that support really helps – being a founder is a lonely job sometimes,” she said. “It’s cool to be in a community that values hard work and innovation and bucks the trend of getting a standard nine-to-five job.”

Le hopes that by asking people in the Thiel Fellowship network about their startup experiences, she’ll be able to start bringing her product to the masses in the next few years.

“What we’re doing isn’t rocket science – it’s growing fungi,” Le said.