Sophia Retchin still remembers the first time she visited a factory farm. Retchin, a Wilmington native, had been invited to a friend’s family’s farm, but it was not all cute animals frolicking in a barnyard.
The animal cruelty that Retchin felt she witnessed affected her so deeply that years later, as a UNC senior—she graduated earlier this month—she decided to begin a plant-based meat startup in hopes of promoting an entirely new system of farming and meat production.
Even earlier in her time at UNC, Retchin became a face for vegan, animal rights and environmental justice advocacy.
She became involved with the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes plant-based alternatives to meat and other animal proteins. Retchin founded the Chapel Hill Alt Protein Project as a student initiative and even started one of the world’s first alt protein courses at UNC’s Biology Department, The Cellular Agriculture Revolution.
She had to reach out to more than 500 professors at UNC before eventually finding two researchers at the School of Medicine who would teach the course, which began in January. At the end of the day, though, Retchin still felt she wasn’t making the impact she aspired to.
So, four months ago, she dove all in on creating her plant-based meat startup, which is not yet revealing its planned product offerings until the summer. Retchin said she’s innovating in a category that has been overlooked by most plant-based meat companies, yet accounts for just as much volume as popular plant-based meat products like burgers.
Retchin believes that alt protein will completely transform the animal agriculture system, but in order to get there, it’s necessary to cultivate a talent pipeline from universities into the up-and-coming field. Producers have to find a way to reach taste and price parity in order for consumers to adopt alternative protein at a higher level, Retchin said.
“[That way] consumers don’t have to change their behavior, as we know that that’s not going to happen,” Retchin said. “This truly seems like the only way that we’re going to be able to fulfill meat demand in a way that doesn’t completely ruin the planet as well as ruin the lives of trillions of animals.”
When Retchin first arrived at UNC, she was interested in alt protein, but there was little discussion of it at the university level, in STEM fields or in environmental movements. Now all that’s changed.
The Cellular Agriculture Revolution class ran out of seat capacity just a day after registration opened, showing students are strongly interested in the field.
Ultimately, the alternative protein industry only started around 10 years ago, and it will take significant time to completely shift out animal agriculture, Retchin said.
For Retchin, who has made this space her life’s work thus far, it all goes back to that one day at the factory farm when she was a child. There are more than 50 billion animals in inhumane conditions within these farms every single year, Retchin said. These are conditions we would never want to see any pet in, she adds.
“I’ve started this startup because I truly believe that as an entrepreneur, I will be able to hopefully accelerate this shift,” Retchin said. “Every year that we’re not making this future closer, we are closer to having climate change truly affect our world, as well as every year there are 50 billion animals killed. Every year counts. Every month counts.”
Additionally troubling for meat-eating, the U.N. lists increased meat consumption and increased factory farming as among the top reasons for the next potential pandemic. That alone should show the world that alternative protein needs to be the future of meat production, Retchin said.
“It’s been the time for decades,” Retchin said. “I think this field has just been somewhat looked over or thought as taboo because food is of course so innately tied to identity and culture. But that’s the whole mission of the alt protein movement is that no one’s going to have to change any part of their food culture or food identity, because we are producing and will produce products that are exactly the same with no compromise.”
In April, Retchin’s startup secured a $10,000 MICRO grant from NC IDEA, which Retchin said she plans to use in product research and development. Currently, she’s been working at the NC Food Innovation Lab in Kannapolis.
The grant will ultimately fund the development of what Retchin calls “game-changer” products that can inspire a shift in consumers’ diets toward more sustainable forms of meat. It comes down to taste, price and convenience. So far, the leading category brands—the Beyond and Impossible Burgers—haven’t yet provided that “zero compromise” in taste and price, she said.
But Retchin is confident that with more funding, more research and more development, the industry will get there.
Diving in head-first
At just 22 years old, Retchin has questioned if she was making the right choice by leaping into a startup. But the passion is there, and she can envision the world she hopes to create with her soon-to-be-released products.
“I realized that I should truly just dive in and do it,” Retchin said, “because as soon as you are truly passionate about something and are willing to dedicate the energy and time to the mission, I think it’s time to dive in.”
In addition to developing her product line as well as marketing and distribution efforts over the next few months, Retchin aims to bring on a technical co-founder who has a food science background.
Retchin also wants to be a resource for others who may be curious about the industry or hope to join the alt protein movement, she said.
Not only is the alt protein field solving global problems, Retchin said, it can also solve environmental justice and water pollution problems in our own backyard. Historically, these issues have been met with regulation attempts, but a new approach of creating a modernized meat production system with alt protein technology could replace the entire system with all its problems, instead of just trying to improve them on the margins.
When one considers all of the hours they give to work over their lifetimes, Retchin has one thought: why not devote those hours to truly making an impact? With alternative protein, she said, you can do that.
“We have 80,000 hours that we spend in work throughout our lives and ultimately, we are dedicating those 80,000 hours to be as impactful as possible,” Retchin said.