The NC company that wants to feed the world

"We want to help people access quality food. That’s been the mission from the start and that’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years” Dr. Rody Hawkins, CEO of Improved Nature

A detail view of Improved Nature's Improved Meat product in the powdered from as seen at the company's headquarters in Garner, North Carolina, Thursday, August 17, 2017. Improved Nature has developed a meat replacement technology created with only soy protein that can mimic the structure of meat protein. Their Improved Meat product retains a much longer shelf life than meat protein and has the ability to be easily brought back from a frozen or dehydrated state. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

GARNER — Operating out of a 30,000-square-foot plant in Garner, an R&D team whose credits include launching Slim Jims and Lunchables to consumer markets now has their sights set on a loftier goal.

Dr. Rody Hawkins and his colleagues have developed a commercial technology to convert plant protein into food products and ingredients. The company claims their proprietary processing capabilities allow them to produce some of the most sustainable quality protein food products available worldwide. The core products the company creates are made from two ingredients — non-GMO soy plant protein and water.

Improved Nature’s founders include Hawkins, Steve Klawiter, Larry Chandler, Moshe Meidan and Sarid Shefet. Most of the team met at ConAgra foods, an Illinois-based food service company. Shefet and Meidan, the inventor of the technology from Israel, struck up a friendship nearly 20 years ago working in the industry. Shefet and Chandler both studied food science at N.C. State University.

The soy-based protein starts as a powder that is molded into strips, like pasta. After 15 minutes of boiling water and flavoring, it becomes a meat substitute that can be baked, fried or microwaved like any other meat. Their first products are similar to jerky and chicken nuggets or tenders, but the potential is endless, according to Hawkins.

A detail view of different dried forms of Improved Nature’s Improved Meat product as seen at the company’s headquarters in Garner, North Carolina, Thursday, August 17, 2017. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

“We can take that base product and put it in a Thai dish, or a sweet and sour pork, or beef and broccoli or chicken chow mein,” he said. “We can do all those all vegetarian. … We can make a white fish filet, or a grilled chicken. We can turn it into beef tenderloin. We can even make a bacon out of it.”

Prior to forming Improved Nature, all the founders, with the exception of Median, worked on products like shelf-stable meats and sandwiches for the military’s Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). Over the years they’ve also worked with NATO and the United Nations Feeding programs. In September, they will speak at Concordia’s Annual Summit about developing sustainable food products and solutions for food shortages in developing and politically unstable regions of the world.

Improved Nature is currently launching pilot programs with a “crispy tender” product, a vegetarian alternative for fried chicken tenders, for approximately 15 K-12 school districts in the U.S. that serve over a million meals a day.

With just the core group partners working in the Garner facility right now, Improved Nature plans to hire about 30 people within the year to manufacture the base product. For now, they are rolling out the first samples and recipes for their products and attending trade shows and conferences, along with meeting with major food companies, vegetarian organizations and others to give them a taste of their work.

“The worldwide market has 8.5 percent growth rate for plant-based proteins; it’s huge,” said Improved Nature’s CFO David Swintosky. “We are collapsing the supply chain from the field with much less resources and time to the production facility and getting a 20 times greater efficiency rate than the animal protein supply chain.”

President and CEO of Improved Nature, Rody Hawkins poses for a photograph at the company’s headquarters in Garner, North Carolina, Thursday, August 17, 2017. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

“As the population grows, you’ve got limited land and limited water; water is probably the most critical; how do you feed 10 billion people with the same resources we have today?” said Hawkins. “Agriculture and technology have done a phenomenal job of being more productive with the land and growing more crops. It is a success story, and it’s kept up very well, but eventually you are going to peak out. We have a way to be 20 times more efficient so we could actually feed 10 billion people, no problem.”

“I occasionally get a vegetarian who says I just can’t eat this because it reminds me too much of meat, it violates my conscious,” said Hawkins. “We take that as a compliment every single time.”