By: Clara Rodriguez Fernandez
Investment into alternative protein startups has skyrocketed over the last three years — in 2021 global funding reached $5.7bn, more than double the amount raised two years before. Foodtech VCs have been heavily investing into precision fermentation startups and are now looking for the next technological frontier within a crowded space.
Enter molecular farming. Melina Sánchez Montañés, investment principal and VP impact at Berlin-based VC firm AENU, describes it as “the newest of the technologies in the food sector”.
Molecular farming basically consists of engineering plants to make animal proteins. For example, the technology can be used to make dairy proteins that are identical to those found in cow’s milk — in essence, making dairy products by milking a plant instead of a cow.
Investor interest has led molecular farming startups to raise oversubscribed rounds over the past 18 months, but the technology is still facing a number of challenges including scaling up and navigating regulations.
Enabling cultivated meat
Molecular farming companies in Europe are mostly focusing on producing a specific type of product: growth factors. These are proteins that are necessary to grow animal cells — and therefore to make lab-grown or cultivated meat.
A big challenge in producing cultivated meat is that growth factors are very expensive and are traditionally sourced from calf blood. Startups have been looking for an affordable and vegan alternative, and molecular fermentation could be the key to unlock it.
Because growth factors are sold at higher prices than consumer food ingredients, they are a great first target for molecular farming companies to prove their technology.
“We started making growth factors for research and are now expanding our portfolio to serve cultivated meat developers,” says Mohammad El Hajj, CEO of Bright Biotech — a molecular farming startup based in Manchester.
Currently, cultivated meat companies work with growth factors that have been validated for research in mouse or human cells rather than, say, pork or chicken. In addition, the volumes of growth factors that will be required once cultivated meat is produced at scale will be massive.
Companies like Bright Biotech aim to cater to the requirements of these companies and enable them to scale up to commercial scale. Today, only a few hundred grams of growth factors are needed across the globe, but that will soon change. “If cultivated meat wants to take on just 1% of the alternative protein market, at least a tonne of growth factors will be needed,” says El Hajj.
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