Alt meat legal dispute heats up as fungi-fueled startups Meati Foods and The Better Meat Co square up over IP

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Alt meat legal dispute heats up as fungi-fueled startups Meati Foods and The Better Meat Co square up over IP

Related tags Meati Foods Emergy Foods The Better Meat Co fungi mycelium Meat alternatives

A legal dispute* between two high-profile startups deploying fermentation to produce fungi-based meat alternatives is heating up with Meati Foods accusing The Better Meat Co of intellectual property theft, and The Better Meat Co accusing Meati of sowing doubt over its IP in a bid to thwart its fundraising efforts.

Based in Colorado, Meati Foods​ (formerly known as Emergy Foods), was founded in 2015 by engineers Dr Tyler Huggins and Dr Justin Whiteley, who initially focused on the potential of filamentous fungi to create infinitely renewable batteries, before pivoting to meat alternatives. The company – which has a small-scale facility in Boulder supplying DTC customers and has raised almost $130m to date - is gearing up to open a large 100,000 sq ft production facility later this year.

Based in California, The Better Meat Co​ was founded in 2018​ by Joanna Bromley, Adam Yee, and Paul Shapiro with a focus on supplying plant-based meat enhancers, and has raised around $12m to date. Three years later, The Better Meat Co revealed it had also been working behind the scenes on fungi, emerging from ‘stealth mode’​ in June 2021 to unveil a fermentation facility in Sacramento to produce ‘Rhiza,’ a filamentous fungi-based meat alternative.

“It was around this time in June 2021​,” claims Meati in court filings, “that Drs. Huggins and Whiteley first learned that Mr. Pattillo ​[who worked with Meati/Emergy while on a fellowship at Argonne national laboratory in Illinois in 2017/2018 before joining The Better Meat Co in May 2018 as CTO] had stolen their confidential, proprietary, and innovative textured mycelium design, and the processes used to create it, and that Mr. Pattillo had used this information to create a competing product at The Better Meat Co​.”

Meati Foods: Patent ‘137 ‘covers the same mycelium harvesting methods and mycelium-based food products that Mr. Pattillo learned from Drs. Huggins and Whiteley during his time conducting research for Emergy’

Neither company has publicly revealed the strain of fungi it is working with, or notified the FDA of a GRAS determination, so there are no publicly available GRAS notices on the FDA website outlining exactly how each is producing its ‘meat.’

However, a US patent (# 11,058,137​) covering fermentation methods for producing mycelium-based meats was assigned to The Better Meat Co in July 2021 with Augustus H. Pattillo as the named inventor, prompting attorneys for Meati Foods (Emergy Inc) to fire off a letter to The Better Meat Co accusing Pattillo of intellectual property theft.  

According to court filings, Meati Foods argues that the ’137 patent “covers the same mycelium harvesting methods and mycelium-based food products that Mr. Pattillo learned from Drs. Huggins and Whiteley during his time conducting research for Emergy.

“Indeed, the specification and claims of the ’137 patent describe specific trade secret and confidential information from Drs. Huggins and Whiteley’s confidential electronic lab notebook documenting their research at Argonne,” ​argues Meati Foods, which claims it was making “food-grade fungal biomass-based alternative meat… at the lab at Argonne” ​in early 2018.

According to Meati, Augustus Pattillo “was aware of and involved in this alternative meat application, frequently discussed it with Drs. Huggins and Whiteley, and even tasted the alternative meat pictured below.”

While at Argonne, claims Meati, Drs. Huggins and Whiteley “knew their textured mycelia innovation had potential applications in the alternative meat field. For example, in January 2018, Emergy explicitly identified ‘edible protein’ as a product of their proprietary technology in a presentation seeking partnerships with breweries.”

The Better Meat Co: Meati’s accusations of IP theft a blatant attempt to ‘bully’ a less-well-funded rival

Rhiza Mycoprotein Straight from the Fermenter Better Meat Co
According to The Better Meat Co, Rhiza is a type of filamentous fungi that feeds on sorghum- and potato-based feedstock to produce a pale-colored, neutral-tasting ingredient “that looks a bit like chicken​” with 43% allergen-friendly protein by dry weight (PDCAAS score of 0.96). Picture credit: The Better Meat Co

The Better Meat Co, in turn, argues that Meati has “provided no evidence that it had identified the novel claim terms of the BMC Patent, had shared any of the concepts at issue with Mr. Pattillo, or was even actively researching meat replacement uses of mycelium prior to 2019.”

Had Meati Foods developed the technology at issue in-house, it would have secured its own patent, it adds, describing Meati’s accusations of IP theft as a blatant attempt to ‘bully’ a less-well-funded rival and thwart The Better Meat Co’s series A round by raising doubts over its intellectual property.

On Dec. 12, 2021, The Better Meat Co filed suit accusing Emergy/Meati of tortious interference, and called for a declaratory judgment of inventorship and ownership over the IP in question, adding that Meati’s “allegations that it invented the Better Meat Co Patent are insufficient to overcome the strong presumption of inventorship that comes with a validly issued patent—which Plaintiff could have, but did not, challenge before the Patent and Trademark Office.”

In a later filing, The Better Meat Co notes that Meati investor Paul Vronsky sent an email to BMC’s lead investor last summer “falsely representing that BMC and Plaintiff were in a ‘pretty significant trade secret and patent dispute’ ​[something Meati says is moot given that Better Meat Co would have been required to disclose its dispute with Meati to investors regardless].”

Meati Foods: ‘While we value fair competition, theft is unacceptable’

According to Meati Foods, its fungi-based meat is greater than 60% by weight in protein with a PDCAAS score of 1: “It’s got no inherent flavor and it’s bright white with long fibrous filaments that mimic muscle structure.” Image credit: Meati Foods

On Dec. 27, 2021, Emergy/Meati fired back with a lawsuit accusing The Better Meat Co of trade secret misappropriation and unfair competition, and demanding that it assign ownership of the ‘137 patent to Emergy/Meati.

On information and belief, no one had ever discovered how to make textured mycelial masses resembling animal meat before Drs. Huggins and Whiteley. Mr. Pattillo, Mr. Shapiro, and The Better Meat Co. would not have been able to do this either had they not stolen Drs. Huggins and Whiteley’s innovative trade secret, proprietary, and confidential information.”

The Better Meat Co: We won't stand idly by while a company with no patents spreads fiction’

In a written statement to FoodNavigator-USA, The Better Meat Co said it “filed suit against Emergy because we won't stand idly by while a company with no patents spreads fiction in an effort to take our patents and slow our growth into the marketplace.

“And that hasn’t changed now that Emergy has responded to our lawsuit with the same falsehoods that caused us to sue them in the first place.”

Meati Foods: Case is about protecting ‘integrity of the entire alternative protein industry’

Meati Foods, in turn sent us the following statement: “The dispute between Meati and The Better Meat Co. is about intellectual property theft. Several years ago, a junior lab technician named Augustus Pattillo entered into a nondisclosure agreement with Meati’s founders and conducted research for them under their direction, giving him access to the founders’ intellectual property.

“Mr. Pattillo stole technology, filed and obtained a patent using this stolen IP, and commercialized the theft by co-founding The Better Meat Co…

“While we value fair competition, theft is unacceptable, and it is crucial Meati do what is required to protect its hard work, employees, investors, and the integrity of the entire alternative protein industry.”

*The cases are:

  • The Better Meat Co v Emergy Inc (d.b.a. Meati Foods), Paul Vronsky, and Bond Capital Management LP. Case #2:21-cv-02338 filed December 12, 2021.
  • Emergy Inc (d.b.a. Meati Foods) v The Better Meat Co and Augustus Pattillo. Case # 2:21-cv-02417 filed on December 27, 2021.  

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