SAN FRANCISCO — The startup is housed in a garage-like space in San Francisco's tech-heavy South of Market neighborhood, but it isn't like most of its neighbors that develop software, websites and mobile-phone apps. Its mission is to find plant replacements for eggs.
Inside, research chefs bake cookies and cakes, whip up batches of flavored mayonnaise and pan-fry omelets and French toast — all without eggs.
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 $350 million into food-related startups last year, compared with less than $50 million in 2008, according to the firm.
Plant-based alternatives to eggs, poultry and other meat could be good for the environment because it could reduce consumption of meat, which requires large amounts of land, water and crops to produce, backers say.
It could also benefit people's health, especially in heavy meat-eating countries like the U.S., and reduce outbreaks of diseases such as avian flu, they say.
"The biggest challenge is that people who consume a lot of meat really like meat, and to convince them to try something different may be extremely difficult," said Claire Kremen, faculty co-director of the Berkeley Food Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.