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Fake chicken with a real purpose: CEO of Seattle food tech startup aims to make a lasting difference

Editor’s note: This is the second of five profiles of the finalists for Startup CEO of the Year ahead of the 2023 GeekWire Awards. With enough prodding,…



Rebellyous Foods founder and CEO Christie Lagally. (Rebellyous Foods Photo)

Editor’s note: This is the second of five profiles of the finalists for Startup CEO of the Year ahead of the 2023 GeekWire Awards.

With enough prodding, Christie Lagally will admit that the culture and work ethic at Seattle-based food-tech startup Rebellyous Foods originates with her.

But just as quickly, the founder and CEO of the 5-year-old company shifts the spotlight back to those she works with and what they’re building.

“It also comes from the next person because they’re a leader, and the next person,” Lagally said. “So I don’t feel like I necessarily have to bring it every day because everybody’s bringing that to the table.”

Lagally’s leadership of a small and dedicated team of about 20 employees has helped Rebellyous grow to serve more than 120 major school districts across the U.S. Its products are in 1,100 retail stores nationwide and Rebellyous has raised about $30 million. And now Lagally is among the finalists for Startup CEO of the Year honors at the 2023 GeekWire Awards.

The company, which makes a variety of plant-based faux chicken products including nuggets, patties and tenders, has a bigger mission than just providing another alternative for meat eaters. Rebellyous aims to upend the production of plant-based “meat” products altogether by creating the technology and the manufacturing equipment necessary to scale to a size that makes a difference.

Inspired by real meat processing

Plant-based faux chicken products from Rebellyous Foods in Seattle. (Rebellyous Photo)

“Somebody once described a startup to me as ‘pump it and dump it,'” Lagally said, referencing the idea of creating a lot of value in a company quickly and then selling it. “That is not the purpose of Rebellyous. The purpose of Rebellyous is to create real systemic change in the meat industry. You want to create an organization that’s going to endure.”

Lagally brought that mindset from her earlier career as a mechanical engineer at Boeing, where she spent five years focused on developing equipment to build airplanes faster, better and cheaper.

At the same time, the longtime vegan was, and still is, heavily involved in advocacy type work and politics. She works with the Humane Voters of Washington, a political action committee for the humane treatment of animals, and she cares deeply about climate change, human health and animal welfare.

‘The purpose of Rebellyous is to create real systemic change in the meat industry. You want to create an organization that’s going to endure.’

– Christie Lagally, Rebellyous Foods CEO

Engineering work paid the bills, but Lagally was in search of something that combined her passions and could lead to systemic change in the world and address the climate crisis. She briefly joined The Good Food Institute as a senior scientist, evaluating alternatives to conventional animal agriculture before launching Rebellyous a couple years later.

In her view, existing meat alternatives on the market such as Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat simply hyped the idea of getting consumers to try this or try that. But none had addressed the consumer need of price, quality and volume.

Despite her love for animals, her misgivings about consuming meat, or her feelings about the industry’s impact on the environment, traditional chicken processing provided Lagally with a lot of the inspiration for Rebellyous.

“The chicken industry is the most automated manufacturing system in the world,” Lagally said. The CEO admits that it’s “disgusting to think about because processing animals is a horrific thing.”

“But the way that we’ve been able to scale the production of meat by automating it … is really where the inspiration came from,” she said. “That is fundamentally what we needed to do to compete.”

Just over five years in, Rebellyous has made significant progress. The startup’s “Mock 2” plant-based meat production equipment, capable of making the dough that is essential to its products and enabling Rebellyous to reach commercial scale production of its food, is just months away from reality.

Leaally said the system will be installed in a yet-to-be-named facility in the Pacific Northwest in November and will start producing roughly 10 million pounds of fake chicken per year and possibly scale up to 25 million.

“We’re going to have 10 billion people on the planet and it’s not possible to feed everybody with meat,” Lagally said. “So what’s the solution? Well, we’re creating a solution to transform chicken production into plant-based meat production. Everybody wins, but it has to be economically feasible.”

Out-of-the-box thinker

Christie Lagally, right, and Kristie Middleton during the early days of Rebellyous after the startup secured its first customer: Swedish Hospital. The two had to trek through a major Seattle snowstorm to get to a promotional event at the hospital, where all their products managed to sell out. (Rebellyous Photo)

Richa Thapliyal is the vice president of manufacturing and logistics at Rebellyous, where she’s been reporting in various roles to Lagally for just under three years. She called her “hands down the best manager I have ever had.”

Thapliyal said Lagally is tenacious, persistent and an out-of-the-box thinker whose ability to find solutions to unique challenges is unmatched. She’s also vulnerable and takes critical feedback.

“She never claims to have all the answers, and always seeks diverse inputs and perspectives,” Thapliyal said. “She often asks for, and implements feedback, which in my experience is very rare.”

And the CEO is not afraid to get her hands dirty.

During the peak of COVID in 2021, Thapliyal said the production department was severely short staffed and Lagally volunteered to help on the production floor, where she took over and owned the dishwashing space.

“Her help on the production floor not only helped the team get work done, but moreover helped with demonstrating a culture of collaboration across roles, demonstrating that no task is beyond anyone,” Thapliyal said.

Kristie Middleton, vice president of business development, has reported to Lagally for four years at Rebellyous. They previously worked together at The Humane Society where Middleton helped institutions such as schools and hospitals get more plant-based options on their menus.

It was there that she discovered that Lagally, a volunteer at the time, could be a future entrepreneur as Lagally described how they could solve the barrier of plant-based meat’s cost effectiveness through better manufacturing technology.

Today, Middleton says Rebellyous’ strength is a result of Lagally’s relentless pursuit of “getting to a yes,” a core value that describes the company’s tenacity to overcome challenges that initially seem impossible.

“She is always thinking about protecting the company for long-term sustainability over flash-in-the-pan growth,” Middleton said.

As a leader, Lagally believes that people at her company want to be there — especially in what she considers an employee job market, where there are other choices.

“You don’t come to Rebellyous to be miserable,” Lagally said. “Life is way too short to be unhappy at your job. This should not be a grind. It should be an adventure.”

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