Natalie Portman Helps Startup Raise $12 Million to Mimic Animal Muscle

Tender Foods, a startup founded by Harvard engineers, “spins” plant proteins into muscle-like fibers that provide a realistic meat texture.
Tender Food Natalie Portman
Tender is Natalie Portman’s second investment in the alternative protein space this year. | Tender/Steve Granitz/Getty Images

A new startup is getting closer to bringing realistic plant-based meat to market, thanks to a recent $12 million investment. The round was led by climate-focused venture capital firm Lowercarbon Capital, plus actor Natalie Portman and others. 

Boston-based Tender Foods launched in 2020 with a drive to create plant-based meat with a whole-cut texture, like a conventional piece of pork, chicken, or steak. Along with flavor, offering consumers a realistic, familiar texture is a challenge that a growing number of alternative meat makers aim to solve. Tender has taken a unique approach with its solution: spinning plant protein into long, thin strands in something that looks like a cotton candy machine.

Tender founders Christophe Chantre and Kevin Kit Parker, Ph.D., developed the technology in the latter’s lab at Harvard University. Parker is an Associate Faculty member of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where Kit was a postdoctoral research fellow prior to co-founding the Tender. Harvard is also Portman’s alma mater.

How to make plant-based meat more meat-like

Chantre says that the company’s goal is to “make products that are indistinguishable from butchered meat.” By leveraging its spinning technology, it aims to produce affordable, realistic vegan meats. Most plant-based meat on the market relies on extrusion, a processing technology where proteins are broken down, then formed into muscle-like fibers. But, Tender says its technology takes it a step further by spinning plant protein into long, thin fibers, then forming them together in a shape that better mimics muscle tissue.

“Product quality and price are the two most important drivers for consumer choice, and we believe any new approach should carefully consider these,” Chantre told AgFunderNews. “Our technologies, which look roughly like cotton-candy machines, solve for both. They allow us to create unique product quality [with] a distinctive muscle-fiber texture. And they are fast.”

The $12 million in seed funding will be used to scale up the production of its plant-based meats, which it aims to launch in Boston this year. The company says that it is not ready to share details of what that first product will be, but its lineup will include chicken, beef, and pork.

Celebrity investments are ramping up in alternative protein, and Tender is Portman’s second investment in the space this year. The Academy Award-winning actor backed the French plant-based bacon startup La Vie in January.

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