How China’s Beyond Meat Defied COVID-19 and Raised Millions in 2020

Founded during the pandemic, Chinese plant-based meat startup Hey Maet raised multi-millions over two rounds in just four months.

There is a Google and there is a Baidu. There’s Amazon and then there’s Alibaba. For Tesla China answered with Nio. And now there’s Hey Maet (not a typo), in response to Beyond Meat.

It’s hard to say that China isn’t a trend follower, though in recent years one could argue that (IMHO), when the Chinese copied, they sometimes do it even better.

With the current food craze in plant-based faux meat, this latest Chinese entry into the foray also wants to prove that indeed they can do it better.

Defying the pandemic odds

And they are off to a good start if the first nine months are anything to go by. The company was bravely founded on March 30th, 2020 in Shanghai — right at the peak of the global COVID-19 panic.

Since then, a lot of articles have been written about their early successes.

  • Bringing together a “highly experienced team from both East and West”, including research experts in plant-based meat science.

  • Achieving very quick iterations of a wide range of new, high quality products — imitating pork, chicken and beef for both Chinese and western cuisine — which have demonstrated market traction.

  • A strong seed investor — listed Shuangta Food, who is also their raw material supplier, R&D partner, andoutsourced manufacturer. (Incidentally, Shuangta also supplies Beyond Meat.)

  • Downstream distribution deals of reportedly over a 1,000 restaurants — including a beef brisket noodle franchise in Canada owned by Hong Kong celebrity Jordan Chan.

But perhaps the most wrote about was the company’s success in raising multi-millions over two rounds in just four months, despite the lull in venture capital deals for Chinese startups due to the pandemic.

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What all the articles have failed to point out though, is that their founder Chichi Hong, is very young.

By my reckoning, based on her LinkedIn profile she is probably around 25 years old.

I could not find any other sources regarding her background or actual age, but most articles covering the Hey Maet story usually cites the fact that “she has over 10 years of experience in vegetarianism”.

Beyond that, she has no real experience in either entrepreneurship, nor the food business, since graduating from a Canadian university with a degree in International Studies in mid-2017.

So how did she manage to perform the near impossible in just nine months?

The answer, as always, probably lies beneath the (public relations) surface.

The Real ‘Mate’

A closer look at her LinkedIn profile revealed clues as to why despite her youth and lack of experience, her startup is so successful in every aspect; all within a shocking nine months — from funding raising, product R&D, to go-to-market execution.

It’s probably because it was already all there.

Hong was previously a co-founder of Zhenmeat, another high profile Chinese plant-based meat startup started in circa August 2019.

But this startup’s media coverage was largely fronted by CEO and Founder Vince Lu. Apart from LinkedIn, the only other online evidence I could find linking Hong to Zhenmeat was an article in Global Times published in September 2019.

Hong was cited as their COO and quoted saying that “the company has already struck a deal to provide fillings for dumplings and dim sums for Jin Ding Xuan, a restaurant chain based in Beijing”.

It can surely be no coincidence than that Hey Maet’s first product was a plant-based meat dumpling, brought to market just two months after their founding. The company has also since introduced dim sum favorites such as ‘Xiao Long Bao’ (steamed buns with soup) and wontons.

Her association with Zhenmeat ended quite quickly in December 2019 according to her LinkedIn, and one can’t help but wonder if there was a falling out and parting of ways, leading to her replicating an identical company within a few months.

That Shuangta Food was Hey Maet’s seed investor and key partner was probably also no coincidence, since Shuangta Food is also Zhenmeat’s production partner.

It’s all about the network

Whatever the (real) case may be behind Hey Maet’s rapid setup and go-to-market success, undoubtedly one of the key reasons behind Hong’s fundraising wins goes back to something I’ve stressed heavily in my article “The Truth Behind How Venture Capital Chooses Startups” — networking.

Having the right network is the fastest and best way to ensure funding success.

The only real work experience Hong has since graduating is working in a relatively unknown investment firm in Hong Kong called Ausvic Capital. Her role: just about everything from deal sourcing, networking and marketing, to managing the portfolio companies.

In short, she learned everything there was to know about how startups can successfully get up and going, and probably also got to know a lot of investors in the process.

However, since she specialized in blockchain and ICO’s at Ausvic, she probably wouldn’t have gained any contacts or knowledge on the plant-based food industry in particular.

But those, she got from her brief stint at Zhenmeat.

So once the split from Zhenmeat happened, it was simply a matter of porting over the right resources. Nine months then, didn’t seem so miraculous after all.

Moral of the story: extraordinary success is often about being prepared.