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UC Berkeley alumni use fungi to make realistic salmon alternative

Kimberlie Le and Joshua Nixon speak at SCET’s Newton Lecture Series.

You’ve probably tried a veggie burger or maybe even soy chicken strips –– but have you ever seen salmon that isn’t animal-based?

Joshua Nixon and Kimberlie Le, the co-founders of Terramino Foods (now primeroots), first conceived of the idea to use fungi to create a meat replacement for salmon in the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology’s Alt.Meat Challenge Lab, where students competed to build the best replacement for an animal based product over the course of a semester.  Now, they’re incubating at IndieBio, one of the leading accelerators for life science startups.

They joined UC Berkeley students at SCET’s Newton Lecture series last month to talk about their journey to making their challenge lab startup a reality.

“About a year ago, I was in your seat,” Le said. “Now I’m pleased to announce we’re in the midst of closing our seed round of funding.”

The Science

One of the problems with traditional plant-based meat alternatives, like a veggie burger, is that “plants always taste like plants,” Le said.

So she and Nixon set out to find a different alternative to meat that would match its texture more closely. During their research they found that the size of the fibers in fungi are actually much closer to the size of meat fibers, especially compared to plant fibers, which are typically twice as large.

The large size of plant fibers means that to make them into meat alternatives, they have to be pulverized, which is why to some, veggie burgers taste mushy.

At Terramino Foods, Le and Nixon have made a salmon burger that they said has a texture that is much closer to the real thing.

“You’re not compromising on taste you’re not compromising on texture you’re not compromising on the cultural component of how you feel when you eat it,” Le said.

To make the burger they ferment their fungi and then grow it in sugar and simple nutrients. The burger currently retails for $15, but they hope to soon scale it up to a point where it’s more competitive with other seafood products.

The Story

Terramino Foods was far from Le and Nixon’s first project. They first met on UC Berkeley’s ski team and after that would go on to work together through several startup ideas in college.  

“During that journey of skiing together we learned that we work well together,” Le said.

So when they both found themselves in an SCET collider class, where they were expected to  compete against others in their class to design the best product, they teamed up to create a new type of helmet to better protect skiers from head injury.

They won the collider and hoped to make their idea a reality –– but found out later that other people had already put patents on a similar project. Nevertheless, an entrepreneurial bond had formed.  

After that, they started working on a project meant to bring sustainable energy to the developing world. It was sponsored by the U.S. State Department, but after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, their funding fell through.

With another failed project on their hands, the two had to do some soul searching. They realized that their idea of using fungi to make seafood replacements was a winner. So they got to work and eventually landed themselves a spot at IndieBio.

Words of Advice

Le and Nixon had plenty of advice for the young entrepreneurs at the Newton Lecture Series who hope to someday be in their position.

Le comes from a family of entrepreneurs and managed restaurants starting at age 15, whereas Nixon said that when he first came to college he “knew almost nothing about entrepreneurship except that I really wanted to do it.”

Both built up their business skills in SCET classes at UC Berkeley, where they won three challenge labs. They learned to be “ruthlessly resourceful” and how to professionally pitch their ideas to investors.

Now, they have nowhere to go but up as they work on creating a full seafood line for Terramino Foods.

The two encouraged students to find what they’re passionate about and work hard to make it into a reality.

“Entrepreneurship can be a vector for whatever you want to achieve in your life,” Le said.

SCET’s Newton Lecture Series brings leaders in technology and entrepreneurship to UC Berkeley to tell their stories to students.