Alt-Meat Pioneer Spins Promising Products Out Of Thin Air. Literally.

Air Protein CEO Dyson oversees development of what might be the ultimate sustainability play.

Lisa Dyson has created a manufacturer that began with purpose. And she whipped up a potentially important new product literally out of thin air.

Dyson is co-founder and CEO of Air Protein, one of the most exciting propositions to come along in an “alt-meat” industry that has investors, policymakers and others giddy with excitement. That’s because such startups have potential as the ultimate sustainability play: finding ways to replace meat and poultry in the global diet.

Whether consumers in America or around the world will be quite as excited about meat-analog products from microbes that feed on carbon dioxide is the ultimate question, of course, and its answer is far from certain. It will take many months before Air Protein has marketable products available at scale, Dyson told Chief Executive.

But Dyson’s combination of higher motives with down-to-earth science and promising markets will be a success, she believes, and the recipe already has made her a better business leader.

Air Protein CEO Lisa Dyson

“Finding your purpose can help with your leadership,” she said. It can help your team, and in recruiting the right people who can get aligned behind that purpose with motivation and organizational clarity. We’re all citizens of the world. Why not do something good for the planet while employing people and running our business? That’s something I’d challenge all CEOs to think about.”

Air Protein already has attracted investments from Google Ventures, financial titan Barclays and agricultural giant ADM. And Dyson is confident that the 20-person Air Protein enterprise in Pleasanton, California, is on to something really big.

“If you want to have an impact on climate change, you have to look at the food we eat,” Dyson said. “The food industry accounts for more greenhouse gases than all transportation combined, so we need to attack food. It takes two years to grow a cow and make a steak, and lots of land and water. So I created Air Protein to make the most sustainable protein on the planet.”

Dyson’s devotion to sustainability is personal. Her mother is a Louisiana native. At the time of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Dyson was an education consultant with Boston Consulting Group in Atlanta. Then she went to New Orleans to try to help rebuild the city under the auspices of a Gates Foundation program geared toward rebuilding the education system there.

But Dyson learned a lot about herself in the process. “Seeing the devastation created by this weather event—people lost their lives, their shelter—caused me to think about how climate scientists were predicting more intense weather events in the future,” said Dyson, who earned a PhD in physics from MIT. “That was the beginning of my transformation,” she said.

At that point Dyson brought in another important strand from her personal background: Her father was a serial entrepreneur who started and grew companies in the fashion and personal-care businesses, at one point presiding over a chain of 55 salons. “My upbringing and training taught me that if we could create something that economically made sense, then business would scale it,” she said.

Dyson and partner John Reed from MIT started a company that they transitioned into Air Protein, where Reed is chief scientific officer. Based in part on research conducted by NASA in the 1960s to develop nourishment for astronauts on long missions, the two combined carbon dioxide with microbes called hydrogenotrophs.

“We use elements of the air—carbon dioxide and nitrogen—plus renewable power and feed them into a culture, kind of like how you’d make yogurt, beer and other fermented products,” Dyson explained. “But by contrast, instead of carbon-dioxide off-gas, the culture eats those gases and ends up making a protein-rich ingredient. Initially it’s in a liquid form, but we dry it and end up with a flour.”

With that raw material, Air Protein is developing analogs to meats, poultry and fish, starting with chicken. “We add spices and seasonings to get something that tastes like meat,” she said. “It’s part of the movement of reclassifying meat—that ‘meat’ is not a function of its origins but, rather, of the experience of eating it. We’re focused on  mimicking that experience very closely, with nutritious and tasty meat analogs that meat eaters would love.”

While asserting that Air Protein’s platform is unique, Dyson said she’s happy to throw in with a proliferating number of competitors making animal-product imitators and “a movement to bring about a new way of making meat.” She’s not sympathetic to arguments against alt-meats based on the rise of renewable agriculture, the potential disruption of agrarian societies around the globe, and the overall benefits of animal nutrition.

“Growing an animal is hugely inefficient,” she said. “Innovation is all about making things better, doing things better. So why not do that?”