Lukas Böni explains
how he plants meat

Journalist: Marah Rikli | Photographer: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Bigger, better, stronger – December 2023

Lukas Böni is one of the four founders of Planted, Europe’s fastest-growing food tech start-up in the field of alternative proteins. With plant-based meat made from yellow peas, the young entrepreneurs are increasingly making a name for themselves across Europe.

Your first product was ‘planted.chicken Nature’, a meat replacement product based on pea protein and rapeseed oil. How did you come up with the idea for this?

My cousin Pascal Bieri worked in the food industry in the USA in 2017 after studying at the University of St. Gallen. There, he closely followed how plant-based meat products were being launched onto the market and was sceptical about the ingredients. Pascal wanted to create such a product without additives and asked for my opinion as a food technologist. I thought his idea was brilliant, and I was won over straight away.

After that, you were joined by two other like-minded people.

The third member of Planted was Eric Stirnemann, who like me was doing research at ETH at the time. Shortly afterwards we were joined by Christoph Jenny, who knew a lot about financing and marketing. He started his career in asset management at Credit Suisse and worked at Jacobs Holding before the founding of Planted. The four of us pooled our knowledge together and created a concept. Then we were given CHF 150,000 from the ETH Pioneer Fellowship, which we used to found our own start-up – Planted. We now produce over a tonne of plant-based meat every hour here in Kemptthal, and employ over 200 people from 28 countries.

At your main plant in Kemptthal, your employees can enjoy the company’s own products at the adjoining ‘planted.bistro by Hiltl’. Do you and your employees still eat meat at all?

Most of us are probably flexitarians, or in other words flexible vegetarians. Over the time that our employees work for us they often become big fans of our products on their own accord. Personally, I do eat meat from time to time, but only good quality meat and not very often.

“Save the world. With every bite” is what it says on your website. So is Planted less about profit and more about saving the world?

Meat production has continued to increase in recent years, and uses up huge quantities of resources. It releases a lot of greenhouse gases as well as requiring an enormous amount of water, fertiliser and space – which is all a massive burden on our ecosystem. What’s more, there are people suffering from hunger.

“To grow and be successful, you don’t just need a culture of mistakes but you also need the courage to fail”

We can’t feed ten billion people with meat. For ecological reasons in particular, Planted wants to offer a tasty, plant-based alternative to cheap meat from factory farms. That said, I am also convinced that a new, more ecological way of thinking is emerging when it comes to nutrition, especially among young people, and that a growing business sector is being created.

According to the industry report by Barclays, the plant-based meat business will grow to USD 140 billion by 2029 and make up ten per cent of the global meat market. However, the market is highly competitive and many companies already offer meat substitutes. What makes you stand out from your rivals?

Consumers prefer the texture and taste of our products compared to those of our competitors. We are also consistent when it comes to using sustainable and healthy ingredients in our products. We don’t use any artificial flavours or colourings, only use very little salt and generally avoid any raw materials from outside Europe. This is more expensive, but better. Our products also have a very high protein content, in some cases even higher than an animal-based chicken breast.

Thanks to investors, you were able to invest an initial CHF 36 million in your company, Planted, and then another CHF 70 million. This means you are in the middle of another huge growth phase.

This investment means we can expand our product range. Our chicken breast, for example, will now be available in retail outlets throughout Switzerland from October, whereas up until now it has only been available to the catering industry. In terms of research, technology and product development, we have also developed new prototypes, which we are now testing, optimising and scaling. The investment will allow us to accelerate the testing phases and put a lot more resources into scaling our products, and therefore into growing our business.

How are you covering the massive increase in demand for raw materials due to your rapid growth? 

Compliant soya or wheat would of course be a lot easier to obtain because it is available in large quantities and is needed for a lot of food sectors, including meat production. Yellow peas, on the other hand, are still a new raw material, and we would also want them to be local and organic, which puts extremely high demands on our suppliers. At the moment we source the raw materials from Western Europe, and so cover our requirements as well as having relatively short transport distances. Nevertheless, we are in talks with Swiss farms that are testing cultivation. It isn’t clear yet whether they meet our quality and quantity requirements. But we also have to be practical. Switzerland will hardly be able to cover the food industry’s entire demand for raw materials without imports.

“We have to be pragmatic as well, though. Switzerland will hardly be able to cover the food industry’s entire demand for raw materials without imports, especially if we don’t change the way we eat.”

Founded in July 2019 as a spin-off from ETH Zurich, Planted is currently one of the fastest-growing start-ups in Europe in the field of food from alternative protein sources. Planted combines proprietary structuring and fermentation technologies to produce meat from plant proteins. The focus is on delicious taste, a meaty and juicy texture and exclusively using natural ingredients.

You are planning to grow abroad and set up more production facilities in export countries. 

Producing where our customers are based makes sense in a lot of ways. The transport routes are even shorter, which makes us even more sustainable. It also means we can produce locally with staff from the region, which ultimately makes the product affordable due to the lower wages. Export growth is a challenge for Swiss companies like us. Costs in Switzerland are high, which makes the product very expensive abroad.

Was really fast growth the goal of your start-up from the very beginning? 

Yes! We wanted to be number one in the market right from the start, and we still have great ambitions. Together with our employees we want to replace meat on as many plates in the world as possible, and thereby reduce the negative impact of the meat industry. This shared sense of purpose is also the recipe for Planted’s success.

“We wanted to be number one in the market right from the start”

Have you also made any mistakes yet?

Of course we’ve made mistakes, even if I can’t name an obvious one right now off the top of my head. In my opinion, having a constructive and positive culture of mistakes is essential in founding a start-up and especially when scaling up. Mistakes need to be admitted to and seen as a learning opportunity.

This also includes being willing to take risks. 

Yes, both on the part of the company and the investors. It happens far too often that a start-up doesn’t make the most of its potential due to a fear of failure or an unwillingness to take risks. To grow and be successful, you don’t just need a culture of mistakes but you also need the courage to fail. Failure has an bad reputation in Switzerland, which is wrong. After all, failing always raises important questions that are important for scaling: “What didn’t work?” “Why didn’t it work?” “How can we do it differently?”, etc.

Let’s take a look at the future. Will we no longer be eating meat in five to ten years’ time?

People’s habits in terms of buying and eating food is very culturally embedded all over the world. The kind of disruption we want for potentially the entire population of the world, i.e. ten billion people by 2050, will take at least half a generation. For this to happen, people’s consumption habits need to change in such a way that plant proteins become as commonplace as animal proteins are today.

What do you need in order to achieve this goal? 

People choose good taste. People will only change their habits and buy our products if they actually like them. For us to grow as we intend to, we need to develop even better technologies. We want to branch into red meat, for example by launching a Planted steak.

“For me, growth means being able to handle what life throws at you. It’s about having to adapt to new situations and environments.”

After completing his doctorate in food science at ETH Zurich as well as doing various internships, 33-year-old Lukas Böni founded the start-up Planted in 2019 with his three colleagues Pascal Bieri, Eric Stirnemann and Christoph Jenny. Lukas is married and lives in Zurich with his wife and three children.