I spilled the ugly truth right away: My father was a butcher.

Joe Mastrull supported a family of five by working in the meat rooms of some of the region's largest grocery stores. For a time, he owned a meat store. At home, we ate meatballs, braciole, pot roast, chicken, pork chops, and veal and peppers.

As moderator of a recent panel discussion at the Wharton School titled Meat Without Animals: Social Entrepreneurship and the Future of Food, I felt obliged to disclose my carnivorous past. I would have understood if I had been promptly escorted from the room. But this was an inclusive group, out to woo converts with research and reason, not to shame devotees of beef burgers and chicken parm.

The four panelists are vegetarians, each in jobs through which they hope to persuade conventional meat eaters to consume plant-based and "clean" — or lab-grown — meat.

The Meat Without Animals panel, front row from left: Frohman Anderson, New Crop Capital; Jill Carnegie, Numu Vegan; Eric Schnell, a serial natural products entrepreneur; and Aylon Steinhart, the Good Food Institute.
The Meat Without Animals panel, front row from left: Frohman Anderson, New Crop Capital; Jill Carnegie, Numu Vegan; Eric Schnell, a serial natural products entrepreneur; and Aylon Steinhart, the Good Food Institute.

Organized by the Good Food Institute, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps start-ups specializing in animal-free food and works to encourage more consumer interest in such alternative foods, the event on the University of Pennsylvania campus also was aimed at getting the three dozen students in attendance, including MBA candidates, to consider careers in an industry on the rise.

Driving that growth are sustainability-insistent millennials, technological advances that have enabled plant-based ingredients to be formulated to taste and feel like meat or cheese, and buy-in from some big conventional-meat players such as Tyson Foods Inc., which invested in January in the clean-meat start-up Memphis Meats, joining financial titans and major philanthropists Bill Gates and Richard Branson, among others.

"It's just a really exciting time to be in the space. We're just at the beginning of so much opportunity, and it's really exciting to see some of the large players acknowledging them," said panelist Frohman Anderson, venture partner at New York-based New Crop Capital, a private venture fund that invests in early-stage companies developing alternatives to animal-based food products. He also launched EverHope Capital in Providence, R.I., to invest in such options after successfully founding and selling a company specializing in nontoxic and organic personal-care products, Pure Haven Essentials.

Echoing Anderson's bullishness was the event's warm-up act, Nicole Marquis, founder and CEO of HipCityVeg, a plant-based fast-casual restaurant chain in Philadelphia and Washington.

"All of you are at the vanguard of something great," Marquis told attendees.

HipCityVeg’s “Disco Chick’n” has not a bit of animal in it, but is a menu favorite.
HipCityVeg’s “Disco Chick’n” has not a bit of animal in it, but is a menu favorite.

Impact and economic opportunity are fueling this wave. On the impact side, panelists cited a litany of ills they say can be reversed by greater consumer adoption of animal-free food, including antibiotic resistance, environmental degradation, and species loss. They decried government subsidies to animal agriculture, contending that they keep prices of animal products artificially low. Technology, however, is improving the efficiency of in vitro animal cell culture and the processing of plant-based ingredients, rapidly closing the return-on-investment gap between animal-based products on the market and alternatives. The result has emboldened investors.

Having raised more than $40 million over the last 20 years for five businesses he was involved in, "I've never in my life … seen it as easy to raise money in food tech," said Newtown resident Eric Schnell, cofounder of Steaz, the first organic and fair-trade soft-drink brand. "This is a whole different animal."

Or lack of one. "I've never in 20 years seen the passion and the dedication to animal suffering. … It's just a whole different conversation with these investors," Schnell said.

Investors are intrigued because they "see a massive disruption on the horizon," Anderson said, based, in part, on the 10 percent share that plant-based alternatives — led by soy and almond milk — have taken from the global dairy market in the last 10 years.

"If we're to use that as an analog and sort of look at the potential for plant-based meats and clean meats to take 10 percent of the global market share of the meat market, which is estimated to be over a trillion dollars, you're looking at a $100 billion market developing over the next 10 years, and these large strategics [companies] want a piece of that," Anderson said. "In addition to the economic opportunity, they're very worried about the disruption and their business models being hurt."

Jill Carnegie is an aspiring disrupter. A professional animal activist, she is also cofounder of Numu Vegan, a new plant-based (coconut oil) mozzarella cheese company in Brooklyn. While just starting to introduce Numu in New York restaurants, Carnegie has an ambitious goal: "to become as ubiquitous as soy lattés are to coffee shops." Because plant-based cheeses have some turnoffs, such as keeping their shape even when melted, or tasting good heated but not cold, "cheese is kind of the final frontier" in the animal-free food movement, Carnegie said, claiming, "Numu solves that."

Numu Vegan mozzarella on a pizza made at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Numu Vegan mozzarella on a pizza made at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The focus is "really trying to get our production to the point that we can compete with even the prices of subsidized dairy cheese," she said. "I think we can get there."

Citing inefficiencies of converting crops to protein through animals, and the associated high consumption of land, water, and energy, Aylon Steinhart, business innovation specialist at Good Food Institute, suggested to the student audience that impactful careers await them in plant-based and clean meats.

"All of us in this room have an opportunity to change the world," he said.

That process can't be insensitive to farmers, and to cultures in which meat is a staple.

"We must be cognizant of these cultural and economic realities when promoting novel technologies that seek to revolutionize the food industry," said Lance Lively, a first-year MBA student and a Good Food Institute fellow at Penn who helped organize the panel discussion. "We need to provide opportunities for those involved in animal agriculture to become stakeholders in the alternative-protein industry and share in its success."

Among those intrigued were Roxie Bartholomew and Joy Sun, both first-year MBA students at Wharton. In interviews after the panel, Bartholomew, a vegan, said she believes eating plant-based "is one of the most important things you can do for the environment." In terms of a career, technology is her thing. "What I'm trying to figure out is how we can bring technology into the food ecosystem in order to create more accessible, sustainable food for people."

While technology is driving considerable innovation in animal-free food options, branding needs to catch up, Sun said. Vegan has "a sacrifice connotation," she said. "I was thinking, 'Can they rebrand themselves somehow?' … In class, we learned that the prunes industry had to rebrand themselves as dried plums to basically sell to millennials."

As for me, I bought a half-gallon of almond milk the next day. I'm not liking it at all in coffee, but it's fine for cereal.

I also bought two pounds of chicken breast. Old habits die hard for a butcher's daughter.