Bottomline: If you care deeply about something, don’t be afraid to follow your heart and your passion.
By Justine Crowling
Blair Crichton T’18 was recently recognized by Gen. T magazine as one of 400 young leaders shaping Asia’s future—and it’s easy to see why. At just 35, Crichton has already launched an all-new whole plant-based meat company in Singapore that is transforming the way Asians eat.
Founded by Crichton and Columbia MBA Dan Riegler, Karana specializes in taking whole-plant ingredients and creating meat-like products without heavy processing or artificial ingredients. The range will launch in winter 2021 with whole-plant pork made from jackfruit and ready-to-cook Dim Sum. The company has already seen widespread interest from investors, raising nearly $2 million in seed funding in July to launch its first series of products.
Crichton is now focused on expansion beyond Singapore, into both other Asian markets, as well as western markets like the U.S. where burgeoning plant-based meat companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have experienced immense success. Indeed, with growing consumer interest in plant-based products that are not only better for you, but that also reduce reliance on animal agriculture—which generates the second highest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, greater than all transportation combined—the timing seems to be just right for Karana.
“Business needs to move beyond the profit motive,” says Crichton, who came to Tuck eager to address climate change in his post-MBA career. “My hope is that Karana will play a significant role in not only reducing our carbon footprint, but also changing the way we eat in a way that’s better for us and for the globe.”
When did you first start considering entering the plant-based meat space?
Some of the early seeds were planted during my first year at Tuck. I interned with Impossible Foods and continued my work with them during an Independent Study. I began to see that there was so much we could do to address climate change in the way we eat and by revolutionizing our agricultural system.
I also observed Impossible Foods’ international expansion beyond the U.S. I grew up in Hong Kong where beef and products like hamburgers aren’t regularly consumed—pork, chicken, and seafood are considered staples in Asia-centric markets. I saw a real opportunity to create a plant-based product focused on Asia, both in terms of the meat style but also the style of product you create. When I met my partner Dan in the Bay Area, he had envisioned Karana and was looking for a co-founder to join him. Things really took off after that.
How would you describe Karana’s core mission?
Central to what we do is bring better food to you—that’s food that is better for you, better for the planet, and has better taste. We care deeply about sustainability and addressing problems associated with not just animal agriculture but agriculture in general.
So many plant-based products rely on heavily processed commodity crops, such as soy, pea, and wheat. Though it’s a step in the right direction, it doesn’t tap into the immense biodiversity we have on the planet. For us, our goal is to get people to eat less meat but also reduce our reliance on mono-crop farm and agricultural systems.
Finally, this is food that is better for you: There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that eating a more varied and biodiverse diet also contributes significantly to wellness.
How is Karana different from other plant-based meat companies?
We are a whole-plant meat company, which means that, rather than relying on heavily processed commodity crops like soybean and wheat, we create our products around the biodiversity that exists on our planet. We find ingredients that are naturally meat-like and then enhance and improve them for consumption in a way that respects their original whole-plant nature.
Another differentiator is that we are focused on Asia. Here in Singapore, for example, there aren’t many plant-based pork options out there. The products that do exist use heavily processed commodity crops—we do not. Our enhancement process is entirely mechanical with no chemicals, nothing that couldn’t be done in a well-equipped kitchen and a deep knowledge of food science, just scaled up.
Finally, we create ready-to-cook Asian comfort food. Many plant-based companies out there are creating the meat, but not the end product. What we’re seeing is that consumers are demanding convenience—but they want healthy convenience. They want something that they can feel good about, tastes great, and is easy.
What will the next year look like for Karana?
In 2021 we’ll be focused on commercialization and scaling up. We launched our beta product last year. We’re now launching our whole-plant based, shredded pork product in restaurants and food service in Singapore. We also have a minced product that will be released soon as well. By Q1 of 2021, we will launch dumplings and baos both in food service and in retail markets, including supermarkets and online channels.
We’re also looking to quickly expand beyond Singapore, to the U.S. for example. We first need to scale our manufacturing. But we’ve found that there is a real interest in our products out West. From an R&D perspective, we’re beginning to develop other products to keep the innovation pipeline moving. Consumers want authentic products and we’re actively assessing those opportunities.
As a young entrepreneur, can you share a few lessons learned from this journey?
You have to really believe in what you’re doing. Times will be tough. Network like crazy—we had so many lucky breaks come through the network we built. Remember that people are at home now and likely have more time to jump on a call. Bottomline: If you care deeply about something, don’t be afraid to follow your heart and your passion.
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