Meet the mechanical engineer who left Boeing to make plant-based chicken

From Boeing to plant-based nuggets.
From Boeing to plant-based nuggets.
Image: Courtesy of Rebellyous Foods
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Christie Lagally spent much of her childhood peering into the dark through the lens of a telescope. But she never found the answers she sought in the chilly vastness of outer space.

It makes sense that she’d look there, though. Lagally came of age at the tail end of the Cold War, during the period when the US was entering the Gulf War in the Middle East, at a time when Los Angeles was overwhelmed by race riots, and when Bill Clinton was president. The world felt tumultuous as ever, even from her childhood home in the Colorado plains.

“I was looking for a world outside our messed up world,” Lagally says. “I wanted to work on the relentless exploration of space through telescopes or spacecraft.”

She eventually did. The kid who gazed into the night sky and revered Star Trek’s captain Kathryn Janeway grew up to manage a $10 million research and development effort for Boeing’s 777X wing manufacturing unit. But Earth’s gravity eventually pulled her attention homeward: In 2017, Lagally decided to start Rebellyous Foods, a company making plant-based chicken.

Today, Rebellyous products are available at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, a couple corporate cafeterias, a few restaurants along the Interstate 5 corridor, and at a handful of restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company just started working with national food distributor, US Foods.

So what drove an aerospace engineer to become a purveyor of nuggets, patties, and strips (and soon, fish)? It comes down to a deep-seated commitment to animal activism—and Lagally’s enduring engineering expertise. Under the hood, Lagally is building a different kind of meat alternative startup.

Internal combustion vegan

There’s a common thread that binds the entrepreneurs developing the next generation of meat alternatives: They’re mostly vegan. That includes the leaders of food technology startups like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, JUST, Memphis Meats, Finless Foods, and Mission Barns.

In that regard, Lagally is no exception. She had avoided eating animals since she was a young teen, and later discovered veganism in the form of a pamphlet from the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, tucked inside a thin folder labeled “social justice issues” at her local library while researching for a school report on vegetarianism.

Throughout her early career, she volunteered for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). It was at a HSUS conference sometime around 2016 that she met Josh Balk, who leads the organization’s farm animal protection unit.

“I will never forget at a [HSUS] conference, she and I got together, sat down in a quiet area of the conference center and she said, ‘I feel like I’m not doing enough. I have this experience and this knowledge, what can I do?’,” Balk recalls.

He says they talked about chicken.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of innovation around burgers, but for years the chicken side seemed to be lagging behind, even though it’s the most popular animal protein in the US,” he says.

So when Lagally decided to leave her job at Boeing and start Rebellyous Foods in 2017, it wasn’t an intellectual concession. She had an opportunity to be a pioneer in a field that she felt passionate about for ethical and health reasons. The company was launched with a clear vision: By wedding her passion and know-how in mechanical engineering to her activism, she would try to reshape the meat alternative market.

The nugget of an idea

“A company is a combination of what you want to sell and the people who run it,” Lagally says. She points to Impossible Foods, a competitor that sells high-tech, plant-based burgers with a secret, meaty-tasting ingredient familiar to biology majors: heme. “The fact that Impossible Foods was founded by a former professor and biochemist is not a coincidence,” says Lagally. “He saw a way to tackle this problem.”

It makes sense, then, that Lagally’s approach to plant-based meat would be informed by her obsession with aerospace engineering. Drawing from her expertise as a mechanical engineer, she’s trying to fix one of the plant-based meat industry’s looming inefficiencies: its manufacturing equipment.

“We need equipment that is made for doing what we’re doing rather using old equipment that was made for something else,” Lagally says.

A conventional meat company works with animal meat that naturally contains water, protein, and fat. Industrial-sized grinders and mixers process meat products such as ground beef and sausages. In plant-based meat, though, that same machinery—while helpful in some instances—isn’t the best hardware for the job. That’s because the ingredients are so different. One might take protein from one bean, oil from another type of bean, and then add water to recreate the taste of conventional meat.

“You don’t have to hydrate chicken, it already has water in it,” Lagally says. “You don’t need to mix and emulsify.”

One of her designs allows food scientists at Rebellyous to emulsify water and oil together better, combining them with the protein to create a solid mixture that can be turned into a nugget or chicken patty. “It applies the right forces so that protein can relax enough to let the oil and water bind to it,” Lagally says. Think of the attachments for a standard countertop mixer: The paddle mixing tool set at a slow speed might prove much better at binding dough ingredients together than the whisk attachment set at a similar speed.

Rebellyous Foods is still a lightweight in its field. Whereas Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have respective valuations of $4.8 billion and $6.6 billion and sell to consumers nationally, Rebellyous Foods is still operating on its initial seed funding as it works to raise capital for its Series A funding round.

But its current size and reach are deceptive. Lagally isn’t necessarily building a company looking to rival other plant-based meat startups: If she does things right, Lagally hopes to sell her manufacturing equipment to other companies ramping up their own product offerings.

Right now, these companies mostly use hardware and assembly line equipment originally designed for processing conventional meat. It works—but not well enough. “We know this industry is entirely dependent on our ability to fix this particular problem,” Lagally says—and she’s starting with chicken.

Maybe it’s natural that the mechanical engineer would end up selling machines for plant protein rather than making her entire focus the plant protein itself. Before Lagally earned her bachelor’s in engineering, and long before completing a thesis on internal combustion engines, she was a high school graduate taking culinary courses at a community college.

That adventure was short-lived. Food, it turned out, wasn’t her forte.

“It didn’t go very well,” says Lagally. “I wasn’t very good at it.”

But her new conquest may prove to be a lot different. She says she’s eager to take her expertise and try her hand at reshaping the food system. A brand new frontier, one where she’ll have to boldly go where no plant-based meat entrepreneur has gone before.