Could volcanic microbes hold the key to future plant-based protein?
Start-up’s novel fermentation technology could be commercialized in 12 to 18 months following high-profile investment
15 Aug 2019 --- Closely following last week’s report underscoring how plant-based food could be key to the climate change fight, US start-up Sustainable Bioproducts (SBP), has unveiled pioneering plans to revolutionize the alternative protein market with its breakthrough biotechnology. Backed by investment from the likes of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Danone, SBP is developing a new way to grow edible protein, emerging out of fundamental research into extremophile organisms that live in Yellowstone National Park’s volcanic springs. This has led to the development of an innovative fermentation technology, which can grow protein with great nutritional value and minimal impact on the environment.
In an in-depth interview with FoodIngredientsFirst, Thomas Jonas, CEO of the Chicago-based company – which has already raised US$33 million in series A capital and is strengthening its management team with a stellar line-up of leading food and biotech executives – explains how investors are attracted to the “very real” alternative protein space.
This is because the fundamentals supporting it are deeply rooted in several long-term macro trends: global warming and the predicted population explosion that will make it simply impossible to feed 10 billion people with the existing protein supply chain.
“Our investors such as ADM Ventures and Danone Manifesto Ventures provide us with strong knowledge in specific food categories and can help us as we develop and scale our product line-up. These industry leaders have significant resources, in-market experience and partnerships and can provide us with valuable guidance and open doors as needed as we get closer to commercializing our products. Investors recognize the unique value of what we are bringing to the market,” Jonas says.
SBP is not extracting an already existing protein from soybean or a pea in the form of flour; the microbes the start-up is working with actually create a protein in the same way a cow or chicken does, by digesting simple nutrients, but they do it much more efficiently.
“A passion for exploration” led the start-up to Yellowstone National Park, one of the harshest ecosystems in the world. The team saw how “life optimizes the use of resources in this challenging environment.” Following research, SBP discovered a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids. It also invented a novel fermentation technology. The method creates a complete protein with significantly less land, water, and emissions than traditional agriculture and then the protein is used to create food.
“Our goal is to create delicious, innovative foods that are just as good for you as they are for the planet,” Jonas continues. “We’re still 12-18 months from a commercialization of our product and are still refining our product line-up and determining the timeline for our introductory launch. However, we recognize how rapidly this space is evolving so we will be adjusting our efforts to be able to take advantage of this demand.”
“Our new CMO’s focus over the next few months will be working closely with our product development team and validate our rollout plans. We are looking at both consumer-facing and B2B channels to bring our product to market. We can benefit from learning some of the things that those who were first to market maybe could have done differently while they were still learning. We are looking at both consumer-facing and B2B channels to bring our product to market but we’re not trying to rush to get short-term wins.”
Executives with experience from Kraft, P&G, Leo Burnett, LanzaTech and Cargill have joined the alternative protein company’s Board of Directors and leadership team, promising unparalleled expertise to the company in both marketing consumer products and scaling biotechnology.
“We understand the need to create alternatives and have been working on this for some time. We are accelerating those efforts by adding a team of top executives with experience running some of the world's most successful food and biotech companies,” Jonas adds. “We expect to make a significant impact with a differentiated brand in the alternative protein marketplace.”
Have we hit a plant-protein tipping point?
The most recent UN report on climate change and food reinforces the urgency to drastically rethink the world’s current protein supply chain. Last year several other high profile reports also underscored the extreme urgency of fixing “broken” global food systems and agricultural practices.
The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) called for a total transformation of how systems operate as agriculture and consumer choices are major factors driving “disastrous climate change.” Key themes include the type of food produced and how to mitigate impacts through “climate-smart” food systems as well as dietary changes such as cutting down on meat.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also issued a stark warning to limit global warming to 1.5°C which would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
Flexitarian and meat-reducing diets are increasing, and there is no doubt as to the growth of the plant-alternatives space and cultured meat sector, however, Jonas points out that the reality is currently only around 5 percent of US households are vegan or vegetarian.
“We haven’t yet seen a big shift in those numbers. We think it’s more about giving people options. When they do want to have a meatless option or meal, whether because they prefer that for dietary or environmental reasons, we want to be able to offer them great-tasting alternatives that are good for them and for the planet.”
“What we have seen in the data is that many Americans are willing to take small steps to reduce their meat consumption provided they have tasty alternatives. The success of Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger certainly speak to that and we think we have hit a tipping point where consumers are much more open than they were even a few years ago,” he explains.
Innova Market Insights data notes that there has been a 45 percent average annual growth of food and beverage launches with a vegan positioning (CAGR, 2013-2017). These products increased their market penetration in Europe from 1.5 percent in 2013 to seven percent in 2017. Within the vegan meat space, trends were also highlighted in a 2018 Innova Market Insights consumer survey which showed one in five US consumers “have eaten less meat across the past year.” Meat substitutes accounted for 14 percent of global meat launches in the first nine months of 2018, up from six percent in 2013, the market researcher reports. There has been considerable activity and innovation from new plant-based meat brands targeting opportunities for good-tasting, nutritious and sustainable options among vegetarians, vegans, meat reducers and flexitarians.
“Our growing leadership team is an exciting step for us and there’s no doubt we have a lot of work ahead of us. Clearly there is more to the alternative protein market, as seen with the recent UN climate change report; this is about more than just a new diet, it’s about changing the nature of how we grow and feed our world. And, with our changing food system, we really have to think about how we can do it with a fraction of the resources and are being very thoughtful and deliberate about it. Our journey is just beginning,” Jonas concludes.
Former Kraft Foods CEO Tony Vernon has joined SBP’s Board of Directors. In his tenure as CEO, Vernon oversaw Kraft Foods Group’s spin-off from the company now Mondelēz International. He also served on the board of WhiteWave Foods – the company behind household alternative protein brands Silk and So Delicious.
LanzaTech CEO Dr. Jennifer Holmgren has also joined the Board, bringing deep expertise in the development and commercialization of renewable technologies and biotech. Karuna Rawal has joined SBP as Chief Marketing Officer. Jim Millis has joined as Chief Technology Officer having previously served as CTO of BioAmber and, earlier, Technical Director of Industrial Bioproducts at Cargill.
By Gaynor Selby
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