Something I think pretty much every human can agree on is that fatty foods taste good. So after noticing that vegan meat alternatives could use a bit more fat, entrepreneurs and chemical engineers Dr. Jen-Yu Huang and Dr. Michelle Lee teamed up to develop a unique type of plant-based fat called PhytoFat, as well as found their San Francisco-based company Lypid in 2020.
PhytoFat is a "creamy, juicy animal fat analogue" made with vegetable oils. But what makes it different is Lypid’s “proprietary way to structure [the oils] to become a solid fat tissue structure,” Dr. Jen-Yu Huang tells Green Matters exclusively. So, it’s only fitting that the first product Lypid created with PhytoFat was a plant-based version of pork belly, which is famously one of the fattiest cuts of meat out there.
“We have a really unique fat ingredient,” explains Dr. Huang, a graduate of National Taiwan University and Cornell University. “So we are thinking about how we can bring new products to the market, because basically everyone else is doing crumbles with little fat in them, like ground meat. And we think pork belly can be very ideal to showcase our fat.”
And even though Lypid's pork belly products are not yet available to the public (you can request samples on Lypid's website, though), the company is already making waves. For instance, Dr. Huang was invited to COP 27 in Egypt last year, where he spoke on panels about the food industry's role in the climate crisis.
I got to try Lypid’s Smoked Pork Belly Slices at the 2023 Plant Based World Expo on Sept. 8, 2023, at the Javits Center in New York City, and the delightful fattiness and flavor knocked my socks off. I couldn’t resist asking to interview the brains behind the creation, and fortunately, Dr. Huang was down to speak with me for Green Matters’ Greenovation series — check out our Q&A below.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
GREEN MATTERS: What inspired you to found the company?
JEN-YU HUANG: Michelle and I were grad students at Cornell. And our Ph.D. research was to find out how we can improve plant-based meat. And the interesting finding we had is that fat is a critical missing part. So that's why we co-founded Lypid, to try to bring alternative fat to the markets. And that's how we got here, to launching the world's first plant-based pork belly, full cut.
GM: What challenges have you faced in building the business?
JH: In the early days, it was about how we can scale up our production. Because all the technology is developed in the lab, but we have to do the real production to bring it to the market. We spend a lot of time and effort on that. That's a really big challenge for us, even right now.
GM: What motivates you to continue working on the business?
JH: I'm a chemical engineer by training. And I did a lot of research on climate-related industries. And when I interviewed over 100 companies, I found out food is one of the critical parts of this problem. And that's why I decided to jump into this industry and try to make more sustainable foods that are also tasty at the same time.
GM: What’s your vision for the future of the company?
JH: We will definitely produce more products for the market, like fatty meats, including charcuterie products, dairy products, and also marbled steak.
GM: What direction would you like to the plant-based food industry go?
JH: I could imagine two directions. One is that there should be more diverse products on the market. Even right now, compared with the animal meat products, it’s still pretty limited. Take steak — there are so many different cuts of steak. But it hasn’t happened in the plant-based meat space yet. And we are thinking, with this fat, we can create different cuts of meat with different textures and mouthfeels. That's one direction.
And the other one is that we have to prove it is really more sustainable and healthier. So I think there will be more quantified data to compare with animal meat production. That's the two directions we have to go.
GM: What's the most rewarding part of running Lypid?
JH: My favorite part is seeing chefs create amazing dishes with our ingredients and products. It's very innovative to see how chefs and us can bring some really new and unique products to the consumers and they enjoy it, and can't tell it’s plant-based. That's the part I really like.
“Greenovation” is a series from Green Matters that invites founders of companies that are not only disrupting industries, but also trying to change the planet for the better.