- A new kind of ‘super protein’ startup launched on Monday with backing from Silicon Valley VC firm 1955 Capital and the venture arms of two global food companies.
- The raw materials for its approach came from research done deep inside Yellowstone’s volcanic hot springs, where organisms must adapt to a barren environment.
- The startup, called Sustainable Bioproducts, claims it can brew up high quantities of its product while having a minimal impact on the environment.
Protein is what’s for dinner, but only if the world’s biggest food companies can keep up.
The rise in global appetites for everything from meat to beans and peas is creating what experts call a “perfect storm” for environmental concern, as farmers must increasingly crank out more food with less land and water.
A new startup has one possible solution. Called Sustainable Bioproducts, the company sources protein from ingredients found deep inside an unlikely source: the searing volcanic hot springs in Yellowstone National Park. To make the product, the company brews it up using a process similar to that used to make beer.
What comes out, CEO Thomas Jonas told Business Insider, is a neutral-tasting, naturally high-protein substance that can either be mixed into yogurt for an alternative to the Greek variety or shaped into patties for the next plant-based burger. Plus, the startup’s product is naturally rich in some of the same key amino acids that the body needs to function. Often found in animal products like eggs, these protein building blocks are especially tough to procure from a vegan or vegetarian diet.
“What we have here is a super protein,” Jonas said. “And it comes from one of the most pristine wild places on the planet.”
On Monday, the startup launched publicly with $US33 million in funds from Silicon Valley-based venture firm 1955 Capital and the venture arms of two leading global food suppliers – grain company Archer Daniels Midland and multinational food producer Danone. Based in Chicago, the startup is using the funds to build a production plant and cook up several prototype products.
Key to the startup’s operation, Jonas said, is that it will require a fraction of the natural resources needed for making other proteins like meat and nuts. In place of wasteful factory farms or large parcels of land, all they need, according to Jonas, is essentially a series of brewer’s vats.
The company’s core technology is the process it uses to ferment a set of unique microorganisms first discovered in Yellowstone by Montana State University scientist Mark Kozubal nearly a decade ago. Now serving as the startup’s chief science officer, Kozubal came across the organisms as part of a research project supported by grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, and NASA. Sustainable Bioproducts also independently received grants from all three organisations, Jonas told Business Insider.
Protein’s rising popularity
The global market for alternative protein sources is climbing fast. According to a recent report from research firm Grand View Research, the market for protein formulations from sources like soy and beans is expected to reach $US49 billion over the next six years.
Consumption of proteins from conventional sources like meat and dairy is skyrocketing, too. The meat industry totals around $US200 billion. In China, meat consumption has grown sevenfold over the last 35 years, according to a recent report from multinational finance company Rabobank.
Experts say protein’s popularity is a result of a growing population and an increased global awareness of the ingredient’s role in good health. Found in meat, beans, nuts, eggs, and an array of dairy products, protein helps power our muscles and makes us feel full, two factors which may be linked with maintaining a healthy weight.
But plain old meat, the most popular source of protein, is problematic for the planet – at least in the way it’s currently produced. An ounce of beef – one-sixth of a standard burger patty – requires over 100 gallons of water to make. Dairy cattle, chickens, and pigs also produce the greenhouse gas methane, and the factories and farms that house them add carbon dioxide to the mix.
That’s driven a series of creative biotech startups, many of them concentrated in California’s Silicon Valley, to find high-protein alternatives to meat.
There’s fake meat that tastes and looks so much like the real thing it even “bleeds” like it; plant-based alternatives to animal products like bean-based “eggs” and vegan dressings; and high-protein snacks and powders from sources like crickets, beans, peas, and fungi.
A collection of startups is also aiming to make real chicken, duck, and cow from animal cells without the animal, but experts say those products are at least three to five years away from landing a spot on a restaurant menu. To date, this reporter has only tasted one prototype product from one of those companies.
By contrast, Sustainable Bioproducts has a shorter timeline to market and a more versatile platform, according to Andrew Chung, the founding partner of 1955 Capital and now a member of Sustainable Bioproducts’ board of directors. Jonas said it aims to have a product on the market by 2021.
Chung, a former partner at high-profile VC firm Khosla Ventures (an early investor in plant-based burger startup Impossible Foods and food startup Just) told Business Insider that he saw Sustainable Bioproducts as one of the most promising protein companies he’d considered backing in roughly a decade.
“This is an important answer to the question of how do you make the planet healthier,” Chung said.
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