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Q&A with Alt: Meat Co-Director, Dr. Celia Homyak

Dr. Celia Homyak is the Co-Director of the UC Berkeley Alt: Meat Lab

Dr. Celia Homyak became the new co-director of the University of California, Berkeley Alt: Meat Meat Lab at SCET starting in January 2022. Celia is a multidisciplinary scientist experienced in organic chemistry, biochemistry, food science, and materials science. She received her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she studied the formulation and characterization of lipogels as a tunable delivery scaffold. After Ph.D., Celia joined leading alternative foods startups in the Bay Area, JUST and then Ripple Foods. Throughout her industry experience Celia led Research & Development functions to develop next generation plant proteins and plant-based foods. Below is a Q&A session with Celia regarding her previous experiences and work with the Alt: Meat Lab so far.

Q: How has your experience been with the startups in the plant-based foods industry? How do you think that prepared you for working with the Alt: Meat Lab? 

A: I worked at two different startups, JUST and Ripple Foods, before joining the Alt: Meat program. These experiences highlighted different aspects of alternative food technology. Being part of R&D teams at both JUST and Ripple allowed me to better understand the difficulties that persist in development of plant-based food products. Specifically, it helped me understand the challenges behind designing and producing such alternatives to both feel and taste like traditional animal-based food products. Additionally, there were many struggles behind developing the raw plant ingredients themselves to make them consistently function properly within these food systems. Overall it was clear that I could not just sub in plant protein for animal protein due to their major differences within food systems. 

The companies I worked for were also small enough that it allowed me to develop my skills in working on the business aspects of developing plant-based products. For example, I managed research projects internally but also managed cross-collaborations with external universities, companies, and government organizations. All of these projects and collaborations came along with managing budgets and subsequent deliverables. Along with this I managed an intellectual property (IP) portfolio for the entire company to ensure they were protecting their technology. JUST and Ripple were very small in size, which forced me to regularly overlap and work with people from other business units such as sales, marketing, and finance. We all had to work together to design, develop, launch, and maintain the products. Similarly, at the Alt: Meat Lab, I need to manage our budgets, talk to external collaborators, manage students, as well as match novel technologies with the business side. Overall the skills I obtained in industry fit very well for me to succeed at SCET. 

Q: What would you say is unique about Alt: Meat Lab?

A: There are programs at other universities for either the advancement of alternative food technology or technology entrepreneurship. What makes the Alt: Meat Lab unique is that we combine the two, alternative food technology & entrepreneurship training. The Alt: Meat Lab teaches you how to make that technology into a startup business. Being in Berkeley and at SCET also gives us a wealth of knowledge and resources to support the program with the thriving local ecosystem in both food technology and entrepreneurship. 

Q: How do academia and industry work together to make products?

A: I think academia and industry can work together in various ways to shape the future. Academic institutions can support industry by collaborating on long-term problems. On the other hand, industry can tackle many of the short-term and actionable problems that are not suitable for an academic setting. Cross-collaborations between the academic sector and private industries benefit both the students and companies. With such collaborations companies are able to get a view into the newest research and science universities are doing. Additionally, students are able to acquire business skills and better understand how scientific principles can be used to make tangible products. 

Q: How did you get interested in this field? 

A: My graduate work was in chemistry, designing lipid nanoparticles for protein delivery. Originally, I was going in the direction of a pharmaceutical job. Halfway through my Ph.D. I changed my diet to eat plant-based food. After feeling better health-wise, I also realized the impact of what we choose to eat has on the environment and sustainability of our planet. Soon after, I found out that new plant-based food companies were hiring people from various scientific backgrounds such as chemists, engineers, and biologists. Based on my personal values I found going into the field of plant-based foods to be quite a good fit in comparison to pharmaceuticals. 

Q: What are some biggest unsolved challenges in the industry?

A: Texture and taste. There are two kinds of plant-based food trends. One is to simulate animal foods, concentrating on making them taste and feel like animal products such as milk, meat, or eggs. Making plant-based food like animal food is all about replicating a specific texture and taste. For meats things are very focused around having the “meaty” bite in texture with specific fat and umami flavors that you get from traditional whole muscle meats such as filets or steaks. For egg and dairy, it’s more about making sure they can be functional when baking and cooking while also still tasting the same as their animal counterparts.The other type of development is by making plant-based food products that have desirable taste and texture, but rather than imitating animal foods they are more focused on making tastier, healthier, and less processed foods. These types of foods, which are not replicating animal products, are much less developed and investigated today. This approach is looking at our foods and food system as a whole to identify ways we can make delicious foods by harnessing more plants in their natural texture, form, structure etc. This style of food development is focused more holistically on the neighboring ecosystem and will rely heavily on how we can curate the next generation to accept this style of development and eating. I think (& hope) this type of development and foods will be more of the “future of food”.

Q: In terms of health aspects, what have you seen so far? What are the findings? 

A: Increasing the amount of vegetables you eat will improve your health, this is pretty well established. There is also a lot of evidence with this that decreasing meat intake can also support a lot of health improvements. Regardless of this, there are many plant-based food alternatives on the market today and whether they are trying to replicate animal products or not commonly goes hand-in-hand with their overall health. For example, the plant-based meats trying to taste and feel like meat have similar nutrition to animal meats. These types of products have similar sodium and fat levels, which are generally not healthier than real meat. On the other hand there are products such as veggie or black-bean patties that are far from the taste/texture of animal meat but also much healthier alternatives. 

Q: Can you tell us about your course this fall?

A: The Fall 2022 course is called Technical Foundations for Alternative Ingredients and Foods, which is focused around reviewing the state plant-based foods and ingredients. A lot of people have no clue where to start in the plant-based food space, so this course is to help them build a technical  foundation around the space in hopes that they will either start a venture or go work for a venture within the plant-based food or similar industry. The fall course is also a preparation course for our Spring 2023 Challenge Lab entrepreneurial course. This course will focus more on the development of plant-based foods. Projects in these courses will eventually turn into pitches to investors and industry partners that pursue entrepreneurship in food technology. 

Q: What is your favorite project in the past semester?

A: There was an interesting project designing plant-based hard-boiled eggs, which is very exciting due to there not being plant-based hard-boiled eggs on the market today. Also, this year we introduced not just the design of foods but also the design of new ingredients, such as corn protein or oat protein. Such ingredients have potential high value within the plant-based dairy and meat industry.