Jasmin Hume is a food scientist. Or, she is now. The protein engineer is developing vegan alternatives to eggs, milk and other ingredients through a company she founded called Shiru. But until a few years ago, it hadn’t occurred to her that her science and engineering background was applicable to the food sector.
“Maybe it’s silly, but I’d really never thought about proteins in the context of food,” says Hume. All of her work and research with proteins previously dealt with biomedicine.
With Shiru, Hume is leveraging technologies used to engineer proteins for therapeutics to make alternative protein ingredients in the food sector. The company, a Y Combinator graduate, just raised a $3.5 million seed round led by venture capital firm Lux Capital.
“There has been a huge proliferation of veggie burgers, but there aren’t one-for-one vegan replacements for animal proteins within other foods. So many of those proteins are not consumerized,” says Lux Capital’s Deena Shakir, who led the investment in Shiru. “Those ingredients are a critical part of the alternative protein equation.”
Hume joined AFN for a coffee (rather, a vegan chai latte) in Amsterdam, where she delved into Shiru’s mission to create convincing animal protein alternatives amid increasing consumer demand and global nutritional need.
First off, are you a vegan?
I’m not. But I’m close—I’m down to cheese and yogurt. And I have to say, in Europe, the vegan options are pretty amazing. I don’t know why, but they’re a lot better than in the US.
How’d you end up starting a company that’s making vegan food products?
It goes back a couple of years to when I was doing my PhD at New York University. I did my PhD in protein engineering, which is oddly specific and also applicable. Throughout my studies, I have been interested in the intersection of biology, chemistry, and physics, so when I applied for my PhD, the program was materials chemistry and my research focused on how you can intelligently design proteins to self-assemble in the way you want them to.
After my PhD, I moved to San Francisco and worked with plant-based proteins company Hampton Creek [now Just Inc.] for about three years. I did a lot of work with plant proteins and understanding how, based on their functions, they could be leveraged in different food constructs. And that was really interesting because it gave me exposure to food-based proteins.
Most people you meet on the street hear the word protein and think of food.
For me, all of the applications I was familiar with were in biomedicine. When I found out about what Hampton Creek was doing, and that they were hiring people like me, I thought, “Wow, this is cool. They’re trying to improve the food system with more sustainable, ethically-sound options—but they’re leveraging actual science.”
In general, there are now a lot of novel approaches to developing food underway, whether it’s cellular agriculture, or modifying plant proteins, or bio-fermentation to make recombinant proteins. And there are great products coming out. But often those products are based on repurposing one material to make a completely new food. If you’re using pea protein to make vegan butter or yogurt, for example, well, the proteins within peas have not evolved biologically to behave the same way as proteins from dairy milk, so you’ll likely face some technical challenges in making products that have the right qualities.
So they can’t be one-to-one replacements, is what you’re saying?
Typically, no. Proteins are an extremely diverse set of molecules—more diverse than starches, more diverse than fats. Proteins are made up of a base set of 20 amino acids, and how you combine them and what sequence they’re in, how long the sequence is and how it folds—those factors create really unique molecules.
The proteins in cow milk are very unique—and pretty amazing. They coagulate, they separate, they emulsify, they can foam. When you try to do the same thing with pea protein, well, it’s structured differently, so it won’t behave the same way.
Many of these new food products are trying to give us the sensation that we’re eating something familiar. But they’re based on different starting materials, so there will always be challenges to creating convincing versions.
How is Shiru’s approach different?
I flashed back to the tools that I was using during my PhD, which included computational methods for designing proteins to do what we want them to do. I wondered why people in the food space were not using the most advanced computational tools available to us that folks in the therapeutic space are using all the time.
What we’re doing is using a screening methodology to look for proteins with optimized amino acid profiles for a specific application. We then make those ingredients through bio-fermentation and test them in different applications.
We can also screen against certain profiles too. For example, we can input all of the known allergenic peptide sequences and say, “we want to stay away from all of those.”
We’re not creating ingredients that could serve as a replacement for X or Y foods; rather, the ingredients we’re making will be uniquely suited for specific applications because of their functionality.
So Shiru is targeting replacements to egg or cheese, for example, that are used in other foods, rather than stand-alone products. How’d you zero in on this segment of the food market?
We are sitting here drinking chai lattes, and we have oat milk as a substitute to cow milk. Milk goes into a lot of products. Think of cheese powder for chips.
Another one I’ve been looking into recently is vitamins—many of them contain gelatin.
So ingredients are really low-hanging fruit, commercially, as long as you can make a substitute that is highly functional and matches the nutritional properties. With the diversity of plant and microbial proteins out there, there will definitely be convincing solutions that allow us to reduce our reliance on dairy, eggs and other animal proteins.
Is that ultimately what motivates you to bring these hard science and engineering tools to the food sector?
What motivates me is the larger challenge around building a sustainable food supply. It’s hard to deny that the biggest challenge we face is climate change, and animals in our food chain play a huge role in contributing to greenhouse gases, water use, and land use.
I would say in an ideal world, maybe we don’t need to rely on our animal friends for food at all. But we’re a long way from that goal, so instead, we should do our best to reduce our reliance on them as much as possible. Just doing that—that’s something I can get behind.
I have a “global trend” question for you, but first—tell me about Shiru’s target customers, competition, time to market, all that.
Right now, we’re creating a catalog of our own proprietary ingredients for which we will own the IP. We are targeting applications that are commercially compelling (and technically achievable) to ingredients companies, consumer packaged goods companies, and other alternative protein companies as well. Having the capability to screen and identify proteins that are uniquely suited to specific applications is something other companies are very interested in leveraging for their own specific use cases.
With the funding round we just raised, we are focusing on building out the technical team, both on the computational/machine learning side of the business and the chemistry and protein engineering side. We’ll be building and improving the computational pipeline to identify our target proteins and pilot them to be ready for the market.
With science and engineering companies, it takes time to go through product development and regulation, so I won’t put a number on how long, but it’s probably a couple of years before we have products in the market. Fortunately, our investors are familiar with the process and knowledgeable of that.
As for competition, there are other companies in this space—I’m not going to name them. And there are other approaches that people are using. So there are definitely other folks thinking about this.
You’ve spoken a lot about the need for science and engineering rigor in the food sector, particularly protein alternatives. But in the consumer world, there’s this backlash against processed and engineered foods. How do you balance those things as an entrepreneur?
It’s a bit of a challenge. There was a good article in Wired recently about processed foods and how maybe we shouldn’t be so scared of that term. So there is probably some consumer education that’s needed in terms of what “processed” means. For example, your steak may be a whole food, but it’s processed. The strawberries you eat—someone tested the color and texture before putting them in a box and getting them to the supermarket.
I’m a scientist, and I’m also someone who really enjoys food and thinks food should be healthy, affordable and accessible. And I really don’t think we’re going to be able to feed nine billion-plus people in 2050 without using advanced technology.
Want to have coffee or (a chai latte) with me in the Netherlands to discuss the future of food? Reach out firstname.lastname@example.org