San Francisco-based startup Hampton Creek already has a couple of wins under its belt with its egg-free mayonnaise and dairy-free cookies. But its recent announcement that Dan Zigmond, formerly lead data scientist for Google Maps, will head the data resources for the company’s planned world’s largest plant library reveals just how grand its ambitions are. The purpose of the library? To identify and catalog plant characteristics in the quest to find more sustainable, animal-free alternatives to common foodstuffs.

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So how do you challenge someone who built the data team at YouTube and then had the world at their fingertips at Google Maps? As Zigmond told Fast Company, “The mission is just so compelling. There’s human health, environmental sustainability, animal welfare. I think it’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t have a connection to one of those things … I wouldn’t have gone if I didn’t think there was a tremendously exciting technical challenge in organizing and understanding plant compounds.”

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Before Zigmond’s arrival, Hampton Creek had already collected and begun work on 4,000 plant samples in an effort to understand their properties and possible applications in food products. The team is looking at compounds in plants and their molecular structure to identify predictors of successful food applications — properties such as gelling and emulsifying agents. Identifying these predictors will make it easier to target or rule out plants in the future based on simple, initial tests. As Hampton Creek bioinformatics specialist Lee Chae explains, “There’s no way we could physically test every plant compound. There are about 400,000 known plant species — emphasis on ‘known’– and just a couple dozen fully sequenced plant genomes.” Depending on the properties being sought, analyzing one plant sample can take between an hour and a day.

The team is still focusing on readily available plants, but acknowledges it will eventually explore more rare specimens. It is also keeping its findings in house for the moment, though it may look to licensing in the longer term. But with its mission of “bringing healthier and affordable food to everyone, everywhere,” and commitment to finding non-GMO, animal-free alternatives to everyday foods, the implications for more widely available, sustainable products hitting the shelves seem promising.

+ Hampton Creek

Via Fast Company

Photos by SamtasticPhotography and Charles Knowles via Flickr