5 July 2018

The yeasty boys: how vegan innovators are changing the foods we eat

People used to view veganism as a niche fad favoured by weedy, socksand-sandal-wearing hippies. However, despite these negative stereotypes, the number of people identifying as vegans appears to be growing exponentially.

Vegan Life Magazine reported in 2016 that there were over half a million vegans in the UK, an increase of over 350% compared to 2006. Even more impressively, a report by the research firm GlobalData in 2017 stated that 6% of US consumers when asked identified as vegan, compared to 1% in 2014.

Furthermore, with celebrity proponents of the vegan diet including Beyoncé, Bill Clinton, Stevie Wonder and Mike Tyson, to name but a few, it is not hard to see why the old stereotypes are being dismissed.

An early company to court the vegan and vegetarian markets was Marlow Foods Ltd, who developed Quorn, a meat alternative made from the soil mould Fusarium venenatum. Previous attempts to produce a foodstuff made from F. venenatum were unsuccessful due to excessive levels of DNA or RNA in the final product. If consumed, purines (found in DNA and RNA) are metabolised and produce uric acid, which can cause gout. However, Marlow Foods Ltd developed a heat treatment which removed the excess levels of RNA and they filed a patent application to protect this core technology in 1985.

Based on this innovation, Marlow Foods launched a number of vegetarian and vegan products sold under the label Quorn Foods. While the initial patent application has now expired allowing competitors the opportunity to make similar products, Quorn has become a household name and brand recognition allows Quorn Foods to maintain a large stake in the market. Furthermore, Marlow Foods continues to file patent applications to protect new innovations and products: for instance they have recently filed a patent application to protect a product comprising F. venenatum which uses agar to bind the filaments of fungi together and allows the product to be texturised to resemble meat; the use of agar instead of egg albium means that the product is suitable for vegans.

It is clear that Quorn Foods’ strategy is working as they recently announced a growth of 16% globally in 2017.

Meanwhile, with the large growth in popularity of vegan diets, it is no wonder that other food companies are looking to establish themselves in the vegan market. For instance, at its investor summit in September 2017, Nestlé said that they were interested in offering plant-based products to appeal to not only vegans but also to vegetarians and flexitarians (people who largely follow a vegetarian or vegan diet but do occasionally eat meat).

Furthermore, it is not just the multinationals that are looking to get in on the act. A number of startups based in Silicon Valley are also developing innovative vegan foods.

One such company is Impossible Foods, the brainchild of Patrick O. Brown. In 2009, Brown reached the conclusion that the world’s largest environmental problem was the use of animals to produce food. Accordingly, Brown decided to take an 18-month sabbatical with a view to solving this problem. Firstly, Brown set out trying to educate people about the effect the meat industry has on the environment in the hope that this would change consumer behaviour; but this approach gained little traction.

Not willing to admit defeat, Brown decided that he had to try a different strategy. Accordingly, rather than educating people and appealing to their consciences, he decided to make a food product with a low environmental footprint that people would choose to buy instead of meat. Since beef is widely regarded as the worst meat to farm from an environmental perspective, Brown decided to start out by producing a vegetarian version of the beef burger. Armed with this idea, Brown was able to procure $3 million in seed money to found Impossible Foods.

Now Brown needed to work out what it is that gives beef its signature taste. Brown had a hunch that the key ingredient would be heme, the molecule in blood that makes it red and carries oxygen. The heme found in animals, and consumed in traditional beef burgers, is carried by a protein called myoglobin. However, heme is also found in plants where it is carried by a protein called leghemoglobin. In particular a leghemoglobin is found in the roots of leguminous plants, such as soy, where it is used to extract nitrogen from the air.

In theory it would be possible to extract the heme directly from soy roots. However, this would require vast amounts of soy beans to be farmed and the process of growing all of the soy beans and extracting the heme would be costly and would increase the environmental footprint of the final product. Accordingly, the team at Impossible Foods decided that they needed to develop a new method of producing heme sustainably.

With this in mind, the team at Impossible Foods took the gene from soybeans that encodes the heme protein and inserted it into a species of yeast called Pichia pastoris. By doing this the Impossible Foods team had developed a scalable and sustainable way of producing heme. Due to this innovation, Impossible Foods have now been able to launch their first product, the Impossible Burger, which they claim “uses 75% less water, generates 87% less greenhouse gases, requires 95% less land and 100% fewer cows” than a traditional beef burger.

During development, Impossible Foods filed a number patent application to protect their inventions and they have now obtained granted patents in a number of countries and regions including Europe and the US. In light of these innovations, and their granted IP, Impossible Foods were able to close another funding round in August 2017 where they raised $75 million with backers including Bill Gates. With their pending patent applications extending beyond burgers and into dairy products, it will be interesting to see what Impossible Foods does next.

Perfect Day (originally called Muufri) is another Silicon Valley based start-up with big ideas. The name came from a study that stated that cows produced more milk when they were played soothing music, such as the Lou Reed song “Perfect Day”. However, like Impossible Foods, Perfect Day aims to take cows out of the equation altogether.

The co-founders, Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, are both vegans who love cheese. They were introduced by a mutual acquaintance who knew both were interested in attempting to produce milk in a cell culture. Despite never having met, Pandya and Gandhi agreed to take their idea and apply for a grant from a new biotechnology accelerator in Cork, Ireland. They won a space in the program which gave them laboratory space, mentorship and $30,000 in initial funding and – most importantly – the opportunity to put their idea into practice.

Over a summer in Cork, Pandya and Gandhi were able to genetically modify a species of yeast called Kluyveromyces lactis to produce the four key casein proteins and the two key whey proteins found in milk, namely α-S1 casein, α-2 casein, β-casein, κ-casein, α-lactalbumin and β-lactoglobulin. Pandya and Gandhi were also able to produce milk fat triglycerides by transesterifying short-chain triglycerides into high oleic sunflower oil. By combining the proteins and fats together with sugar, ash, calcium and other additives they were able to produce a cow free milk. Pandya and Gandhi filed a patent application to protect this technology.

Over their summer in Ireland, Pandya and Gandhi also generated a lot of interest in the press which led to them being contacted by Horizons Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Hong Kong. Horizon Ventures invested $2 million in Perfect Day after a meeting in Hong Kong which involved a representative from Horizons Ventures tasting a sample of the milk Pandya and Gandhi had produced. This gave Pandya and Gandhi the money to relocate to Silicon Valley and work on perfecting their product.

Perfect Day recently received their first granted patent for their technology. At the same time they announced a round of Series A funding, and were able to raise $24.7 million, bringing Perfect Day a step closer to realising their dream of having vegan friendly dairy products “in every aisle of the grocery store”.

In summary, with its high growth, the vegan sector is an exciting area where innovators are pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible. By using patents application to protect these innovations, companies are able to obtain large investments to fund their innovative work.