“The more you eat, the thinner you get,” a young woman wrote in her review of Plant Professor’s dumplings on Xiaohongshu, a social commerce app that hosts content related to health, beauty, and lifestyle products. “There are only around 300 calories in this whole bag of vegan pork dumplings. You won’t put on any weight even if you eat it at midnight.”
That claim seems too good to be true, but positive reactions poured in. The post received thousands of likes, and users left comments to ask where they could buy the featured food item.
This is precisely the type of content that is reposted by alt protein brand Plant Professor to drum up attention and sales. The company has managed to secure a sizable following.
As young people in China become increasingly conscious of their diet and pursue healthier lifestyles, new forms of plant-based food are landing in the bowls of consumers across the country. China’s alt protein market is expected to reach USD 13 billion by 2030, according to Euromonitor’s estimate. “The huge demand will generate a few top-tier companies that are worth tens of billions (in yuan),” said Zhao Xiangjun, founder of Plant Professor, to KrASIA. If Zhao has his way, Plant Professor will be among them.
From milk to meatless
After working in the dairy industry and seeing how cows are treated by corporate food brands, Zhao decided the first step to ending animal cruelty began with his own eating habits. He became flexi-vegan, and decided that the way to propagate his mission would be to establish Plant Professor and provide vegan food options for other people too.
Zhao came to realize that the Chinese plant-based meat market is still in its infancy compared to the United States and Europe. Most of his customers are less concerned about issues like environmental protection and global food security, and more often in pursuit of a low-calorie lifestyle.
That is particularly the case for young women in urban locations. This awareness gave Zhao a roadmap for his business: he narrowed down Plant Professor’s product positioning and created niche products, like dumplings stuffed with plant-based meat, that catered to his customers base.
“To be widely accepted, the food needs to be grafted onto something that people are familiar with,” said Zhao. “It has not occurred to most people that traditional foods can help cut the calorie intake, but Plant Professor’s products are healthy and creative, so they are very willing to try them.”
The strategy was clear: elevate the healthy traits of plant-based food and package them in familiar traditional food forms that almost everyone in China enjoys. But the R&D process was much bumpier than Zhao and his team expected. It took nearly six months to identify the right ingredients and locate suppliers, and it took another year to nail down what type of food their plant-based meat should be presented in, given the diversity of Chinese cuisine.
By December 2019, the team felt like they had perfected their product’s recipe. Then, in July 2020, their dumplings were put into mass production and began to appear on customers’ plates.
How many (occasional) vegans can there be in China?
Plant Professor was officially formed in 2020. Already, it has served more than 200,000 consumers. The rapid pace of acquiring first-time customers was based on collaborations with KOLs on TikTok sibling Douyin and Tmall. This growth mirrors investor interest in companies that are having successful starts in the meatless food product sector. In August, Plant Professor received RMB 50 million (USD 7.7 million) in Series A funding, making it one of the first startups of its kind to gain a solid foothold in this new space.
Meanwhile, more and more domestic and multinational companies are eyeing the possibility to convert China’s meat-eaters, who consume 28% of the world’s meat, into occasional vegans. There were 26 investments in domestic plant-based meat brands in 2020 alone, according to data compiled from open-source reports, and nearly all of them raised eight figures in US dollars.
That means Plant Professor has many competitors that are each attempting to develop products that carry similar health-focused messaging. Starfield, one of the most well-known Chinese plant-based meat producers, raised three investments in 2020. Meanwhile, it has collaborated with some of the trendiest F&B brands in China, like Hey Tea, Nayuki, and Tim Hortons, to put veggie burgers on their menus. Other homegrown brands, like Zhenmeat and HeyMeat, also closed their seed rounds last year.
Foreign incumbents are also entering China to feed the world’s most populous nation.
Beyond Meat, the first plant-based meat company to become a listed company, made its debut in the Chinese market in April 2020 through a collaboration with Starbucks. Another star company, The Very Good Butchers, teamed up with Burger King and supplied patties to more than 300 restaurants in China last December.
Despite all these formidable competitors, Plant Professor’s Zhao still firmly believes that local brands know Chinese taste buds best and can retain loyal customer bases.
“My mom always hates low-calorie food and thinks it’s tasteless,” another young user wrote in her review of Plant Professor on Xiaohongshu. “But she completely changed her mind after tasting this plant-based dumpling. This is something that can get your mom’s approval.”
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Inside China’s Startups” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in the country.