In 2021, Shalom Daniel founded Mush Foods in Israel with the future of alternative proteins in mind.
The start-up would use mycelium, a root-like structure of mushrooms, to mimic meat, from chicken to beef to seafood. The product, called CUT50, could combine with meat to create a realistic final product. Mush Food’s goal is to reduce animal-based products that are harsh on the environment and are less healthy than plant-based alternatives.
“We don’t believe that most of the people in the world are going to be vegetarians or vegans,” Daniel said. “But we do want to reduce meat consumption, and we do want to improve the nutritional value of the food that we are eating.”
To reach the market by January 2024, Mush Foods is building its home not in the land of milk and honey but near the City of Brotherly Love.
Backed by a Philadelphia-based investor, Daniel plans to set up Mush Foods’ first facility at Rutgers University’s Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, New Jersey. He hopes to partner with mushroom growers in Kennett Square in the coming year.
Mush Foods is one of about five Israeli food technology startups with ties in Philadelphia, according to Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ravid Butz. Its move to the U.S. marks a growing trend of Israeli food tech startups wanting to call Pennsylvania their home.
According to Butz, 40% of Israeli startups turn to the American market to help grow their business, and the Northeast is a particularly rewarding region. Densely populated and with New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., within proximity of one another, the region is rich with resources — from manufacturers to investors — for Israeli businesses to scale up.
PICC works with Israeli companies and connects them to appropriate resources in the Philadelphia area to grow business in the region and assist overseas startups. Over the next year, it is hosting a series of webinars on food industry and tech, culminating in a September symposium.
“We map out the local ecosystem,” Butz said. “We go to our members; we go to our board; we go to people in our community, and we map out the most strategic introductions that those Israeli companies need, and we’ll keep doing it, to open up meaningful conversations for them that can lead to whatever that company needs.”
Philadelphia and Israel have partnerships in industries such as gene and cell therapy, but the ties in food tech are also strong.
Israel is a world leader in the food tech industry. According to a study by the Good Food Institute, a global nonprofit advocating for plant- and cell-based alternatives to meat and dairy, Israel invested $160 million in plant-based food product startups in the first half of 2022, accounting for 22% of the world’s total products in this sector, Times of Israel reported in August 2022.
Israeli startups, rich with intellectual resources, have sought out Pennsylvania for its abundant agricultural capital. According to Michael Roth, director of conservation and innovation at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the commonwealth has 100,000 acres of land permanently preserved for agriculture, representing about 6,000 farmers. The diversity of crops in Pennsylvania means one industry doesn’t lead the others. The state relies on a variety of products, and, when it comes to outside business, a variety of investors.
“We don’t have the mega-farms that we’ll see in some other states, so we really have to be nimble,” Roth said.
Along with acres of land are a plethora of academic institutions that support agricultural innovation, said David Briel, deputy secretary of international business at the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
Pennsylvania sells $49 billion worth of goods overseas, Briel said. The commonwealth works with 5,000 international companies.
The connections between Israeli startups and Pennsylvania resources are harder to quantify. The plant-based industry has only taken off in the past five years, Briel said, and cell-based, or lab-grown, meats are an even bigger question mark. Daniel said Mush Foods is ahead of the game, as it looks to go to market within five years of launching. Most startups take 10 years, he said.
The potential of the industry means that Pennsylvania has to “stay in the game” by having policies that are welcoming and supportive to international businesses looking to set up shop here, Briel said.
This doesn’t mean the food tech collaborations between Pennsylvania and Israel have no tangible impacts today. Jonathan Deutsch, a professor in the Departments of Food and Hospitality Management and Nutrition Sciences at Drexel University and head of the Drexel Food Lab, urges people to think of food tech more broadly.
“There are a lot of things that are technologies, right?” Deutsch said. “Cooking is a technology, and cellular engineering is a technology, and they’re very different.”
The Drexel Food Lab, with a mission to “apply culinary science and food innovation to improve the health of people, planet and economies,” creates appealing and healthy products using food waste or upcycled foods that are gentler on the environment.
Founded in 2014 by Deutsch and former student Alexandra Zeitz, Drexel Food Lab was a model for universities interested in food tech research grounded in local interests and resources.
It also inspired Rinat Avraham, post-doctoral fellow and nurse educator at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, to create the Negev Food Lab, which is in part supported by Ben-Gurion University and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
The Negev Food Lab has been customized to serve the vast Negev region of Israel, which makes up about 4,650 square miles, or 55% of Israel’s land. Many people there live in food deserts and have little access to health care, making preventative health measures, such as a healthy diet, important to the population’s well-being.
The lab has worked with community centers in Be’er Sheva to provide cooking lessons to isolated seniors and investigated school-provided subsidized lunches to make them more appealing to students.
“Our perspective is much more wide about food — not only the nutritional aspect but also food as [it] affects other things in the community,” Avraham said.