Start-ups

This 23-year-old Uber employee used her stuck-at-home pandemic time to create vegan 'eggs' — now she's turning it into a business

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Grace O'Brien, Peggs founder.
Photo courtesy Grace O'Brien

Uber project manager Grace O'Brien worked at the company's San Francisco office until the Covid-19 pandemic forced remote work. First, she moved back home to Los Angeles. Then, she and her boyfriend, who also has a job that transitioned to remote work, started Airbnb cabin-hopping to places where they could go hiking.

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When O'Brien, 23, and Ryan Schools were in Bend, Oregon this fall, wildfires hit, taking hiking off the table, too.

"I'm a young 20-something in a pandemic: the things that filled my extra time, like socializing with friends, completely disappeared," O'Brien says. "I wanted to fill my additional time with a meaningful project."

O'Brien took the opportunity to tackle a problem that had long nagged at her: the paucity of quality vegan eggs.

With her newfound bucket of time, $3,000 of her own cash and the internet, O'Brien set out to create a new kind of vegan egg subsitute in her kitchen. With no prior food science experience, O'Brien now has a viable product, Peggs, and is trying to raise funding via her Kickstarter campaign to turn her passion project into a business.

A problem to solve: A better vegan egg

"I've always wanted to go fully vegan, but I don't wanna give up eggs,'" O'Brien says.

The vegan egg options available were not appealing to her: They had unnatural, confounding ingredient lists or could be used for baking but not for scrambled eggs, or they were largely relegated to specialty stores, O'Brien says.

"I wanted to make sure there were options so people would be more inclined to adopt a plant-based lifestyle and wouldn't have as many 'buts.'"

O'Brien also felt there was a huge opportunity and market for vegan eggs. "You go to a grocery store now and half the dairy aisle is a different plant-based milk — from hemp to almond. And you go to the egg aisle and there is just hardly any innovation." (From 2017 to 2019, the plant-based egg category grew 228% percent but was still the smallest of the plant-based food categories, according to Good Food Institute.)

So in September, housebound in her Airbnb in Bend, O'Brien started researching on weekends and after work. She documented the properties of "regular" eggs, like mouthfeel and their multi-functionality, meaning you can eat them for breakfast but also to make cookies.

Then O'Brien drove to the local Walmart, bought a slew of ingredients, opened a spreadsheet for documenting results and started product testing.

Though she had baked and experimented with recipes when she was young, "I learned everything about egg alternatives through reading, trial and error and speaking to people with more experience," she says.

'Chickpeas not chicks'

Pretty quickly, O'Brien and her first taste-tester, Schools, ruled out soy. (Schools, who works for ag tech greens farming company Plenty, has formal experience with taste testing.) Many existing egg alternatives are soy-based, but O'Brien and Schools did not like the taste.

They settled on a base of chickpeas — ergo the "chickpeas, not chicks" company slogan — and kala namak (also known as black salt), turmeric, onion powder and nutritional yeast for flavor.

"Kala namak is a special salt with a highly sulfuric flavor that is critical for giving the product an eggy smell and taste," O'Brien says.

O'Brien was pleased with her progress, but knew something was still not right with the texture and mouthfeel. Sheneeded some help from someone with technical experience.

So she found Hugo Lisboa, a chemical engineer with a Ph.D. in polysaccharides and experience with materials science and food processing, on an online platform called Kolabtree, where freelance scientists and experts are available for hire. For a nominal fee, Lisboa offered to help make suggestions. He advised her on some gums and specialty ingredients, all of which O'Brien was able to locate and purchase online.

"Grace developed a great product in terms of taste and wanted the texture to mimic a regular egg the best way possible using vegan ingredients," Lisboa says. "I just gave her notes on how some macromolecules [which is a large molecule, such as starch or protein] would behave during cooking and after cooking. I also provided a method for her to test and further develop her product."

Some of the recommendations sent O'Brien on an internet deep dive.

"I have a whole cabinet of very weird special ingredients that I was testing out because this is kind of the cheapest easiest way to do it in a pandemic," O'Brien says. "I'm special ordering things on Amazon. The good thing about the Internet is like somehow you can get almost everything you need within within two weeks."

After more tweaking, O'Brien sent her concoction — a powdered egg mixture you beat with water — to family, friends and vegan influencers she cold-messaged via Instagram.

"We just sent them the product in hopes of getting feedback, but many of [the influencers] posted on their own volition," O'Brien says.

They were a hit: Turnip Vegan, with 121,000 followers, posted a video making an omelet with Peggs, saying he loves chickpeas; WeAreVeano, with 15,200 followers, made vegan egg muffins, calling them "SO close to the real thing," just to name two.

Launching on Kickstarter for Veganuary — and beyond

Soon O'Brien felt she was ready to test out Peggs in the market. She had a friend shoot a video, and in January, launched a Kickstarter campaign to coincide with "Veganuary," a trend in which people start the year off with plant-based eating.

O'Brien's Kickstarter campaign focuses on Peggs' sustainability and the fact that it can be used in cooking and baking. Peggs are soy-free and as a powder, shelf-stable, which are also selling points. However, Peggs currently have less protein than real eggs, something O'Brien is working on. O'Brien plans to retail Peggs by the bag, for about the price of a half dozen eggs.

As of Friday, Peggs has raised a bit more than $20,000 from almost 300 donors on Kickstarter. (Various donations get the donors the equivalent of a dozen eggs, as well as merch or a virtual cooking class, depending on the dollar amount.)

With six days left to reach her goal of $35,715 — which will go towards manufacturing in a professional food-packing facility, offical vegan and allergen-free certifications, recipe perfection and marketing — O'Brien is uncertain if she will make her goal. Since she created an "all-or-nothing" campaign, if she doesn't reach the funding goal, she doesn't get any of the money pledged.

That is not getting O'Brien down, though.

"One of my mistakes, I think, is Kickstarter is not the place where you typically [go to] discover new food. So I think part of it is a learning curve for me as an entrepreneur is finding where your customers are," she says.

Still, "I have had some investors reach out, so I might pursue them; or I may just continue to grow the company slowly with my own money," she says.

Peggs isn't O'Brien's first venture.

When she was 14, O'Brien says she started a non-profit NGO, "Ears for Years," where she raised money to get solar-powered hearing aids to "a few hundred" deaf children in developing nations. Though she says she still checks in on the children who received hearing aids, she wound down Ears for Years when she got to Stanford.

The never-ending need to seek donations to keep a non-profit operating made O'Brien interested in starting a profit-generating company.

And whether or not O'Brien's Kickstarter meets its goal, she's going to keep trying to deliver Peggs. She wants everyone who backed the Kickstarter to have them.

"I don't want to give it up," O'Brien says.

"I think it's just about iterating. You find different ways, what works, what doesn't," she says. "Every entrepreneur — you're going to run into things that don't work as expected or you missed something. But at the end of the day, it's just about [you] keep going."

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