Join the Newsletter

Stay up-to date with food+ag+climate tech and investment trends, and industry-leading news and analysis, globally.

Subscribe to receive the AFN & AgFunder
newsletter each week.

Dr. Gregor Tegel, Arkeon Co-founder & CEO Image credit: Christoph Öhlknecht, Arkeon

Meet the founder: Arkeon CEO Gregor Tegel on creating food ingredients out of air

February 11, 2023

Arkeon is quite literally making proteins out of air! Well, it’s not as simple as that, but the Austrian company, founded by Dr. Gregor Tegel, Dr. Günther Bochmann and Dr. Simon Rittmann, claims to be the only company creating 20 proteinogenic amino acids by feeding carbon dioxide to single-celled micro-organisms called archaea – without the need for genetic engineering.

So what was behind Arkeon’s creation? Most alternative protein startups rally behind achieving circularity and promoting sustainability in food production. But Tegel believes this space is very limited when it comes to ingredients that startups can use.

“We want to really diversify the ingredients available for consumer-facing companies,” Tegel tells AFN. 

Following the recent $2.9 million (€2.75 million) investment in Arkeon from global Israeli specialty minerals company ICL Group, AFN spoke to Gregor Tegel (GT) about Arkeon’s uniqueness in successfully combining ingredients with amino acids as well as its intentions of applying its one-step patented process beyond the food industry.

Hadar Sutovsky (HS) VP of external innovation at ICL group also chimed in with her notion that Arkeon has found the holy grail in alternative protein, without shifting carbon emission footprints to other food producers.

AFN: Why did you and your team see the need to create Arkeon?

GT: We can’t sustain the way of producing food. If we look into the future like 2050, we all see the numbers approaching 10 billion people roughly by 2050 and having the food production system being responsible for roughly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That is the main issue that actually took us as a team over 10 years ago to start researching on more sustainable ways of producing goods on this planet.

The transition we are having towards non-animal-based products is not the end solution, but an intermediate step.

We see substantial challenges in using the existing protein ingredients in the space and really having ingredients in place that allow us to be more creative to produce proteins that taste 100% well. Now we have a lot of products that taste 80% well at the moment.

Protein is a major issue that we always have to work around with our formulations and recipes because they come with all flavors to come with all functionalities and that is exactly the reason why we also focus on creating the next generation of protein ingredients and archaea.

HS: I think Gregor is absolutely right and this is why we saw Arkeon as a new frontier because everybody now is looking for an alternative to reduce emissions and replace chemicals with functional proteins with the aim of creating clean-label ingredients.

When we encountered Arkeon, we saw they were creating new ingredients that have a negative carbon footprint and that was amazing for us. This is why we chose to collaborate with this technology because that’s a major challenge.

If you look at the value chain, people are trying to replace animal proteins but they never think that they’re just shifting the burden of the footprint and the emissions to the other side. If you can create circularity — and this is what Arkeon has done — then you have the holy grail.

AFN: How do you actually create protein derived from carbon?

GT: It’s all about this crazy microbe and that was the microbe discovered by my co-founder and CSO of Arkeon, Simon, that is capable of producing all these proteinogenic amino acids we need in our nutrition, and it’s also naturally spitting them out and is feeding on CO2. It sounds like an alienated kind of life but all it does is live in extreme habitats. It’s a so-called extremophile, meaning it’s usually growing in underwater volcanoes and that’s where it evolved ita incredible metabolism.

The process itself is just the reverse of beer brewing? If you imagine a process like beer brewing where you have an organic substance that grows on arable land, you feed it to the yeast, the yeast will produce alcohol and CO2. But then you take alcohol out of the equation and that’s exactly what our organism does.

It’s just taking the CO2, putting the equation in a different direction and it’s producing these organic compounds, in our case being all these amino acids.

So this is how the process more or less works. It’s fairly uncomplicated when it comes to bioprocess engineering. It’s off the shelf bioreactors. We’re operating – and maybe that’s already a nerdy thing for a bioprocess engineer – but we are operating at atmospheric pressures which is something that is quite unique for gas fermentation.

Usually with gas fermentation you want to have very high pressures in your vessel to ensure that the availability of gas is increased for the organism, but actually our organism is so efficient that it doesn’t care.

HS: Gas fermentation is not unique. There are already companies that are doing gas fermentation.

What is so unique here is that only Arkeon can produce not only the full wholesale protein like the other companies but this is the only technology that can produce the 20 amino acids essential for human nutrition.

Arkeon is able to create innovative ingredients or flavoring components with combinations of free amino acids or enrich foods and beverages with free amino acids. This is something unique. There is no other company that has reached this blue ocean with gas fermentation.

GT: We’re at this stage where we try to demystify gas fermentation and this is very correct. It’s very different to the status quo of gas fermentation and food that we are aware.

Still, the process itself is a fairly uncomplicated one but seven years of research went into it.

AFN: Why did you choose to be an ingredients company? Why didn’t you just decide to be a fully-fledged product company?

GT: I think what we saw in the last year was a lot of consumer-facing companies popping up with products, one being better than the other but still not quite there and the bottleneck is always the ingredients.

I compare that often to building a legal castle and building legal constructs. You can imagine if you have two legal breaks that you can build your tower with, you can only be that creative, right? But if you have a lot of variety here you can actually be very creative. You can very diversify and that’s exactly the part that is currently missing in the alternative protein space; we have a very restricted amount of ingredients that we can source from, especially on the protein.

What’s actually scaled nowadays? It’s soy and pea depending on the geographies you have. This is why we want to really diversify the ingredients available for consumer-facing space in companies.

AFN: Have you launched in the market and who are your main buyers right now?

GT: Currently, we are establishing partnerships. We have a very exciting project with vegan cheese going on. We’re also working on quite exciting applications with ICL in the food sector.

In the non-food sector – of course, we focus on food, but the ingredients and the potential of the ingredients go beyond food – we have decided this gas fermentation producing the amino acids can also produce short peptides with the aid of an enzyme technology that allows us to specifically connect amino acids to specific peptides.

This is something very attractive for the cosmetics industry for example so we actually currently in the process of partnering with players in the cosmetics industry.

AFN: Now that you’re identifying partners, which markets will you be targeting?

GT: Food and cosmetics first.

Food is really our core and we want to create a difference in the food space and we see the importance. So having a nutritional component like a protein source that actually can be used as such, but also for different applications like flavors or even texture properties.

This is where we see a huge differentiator as Hadar mentioned, it’s not only the biomass that can be used. Our main products are all the amino acids that have such diversified functionalities and scope of applications. So this is what we are most excited about and where we focus most.

But then of course also in regard to creating revenue traction for Arkeon, it’s important to find markets that are low in volume, and high margin. The food market is the opposite for many compounds.

This is why we are fortunate enough to have the technology with the peptide production outlines that makes it very attractive for the cosmetics industry to source more sustainable ingredients from companies like Arkeon.

Cosmetics is generally what I would call a ‘vitamin market’ and not a ‘painkiller market’. It’s nothing you need to sustain your life. That’s why this industry can really move forward to create a premium, which is something that does not work anymore in the food space food. This is why this is also a very attractive early market for us.

AFN: And are there any particular regions that you will be focusing on?

GT: Yes and no at the moment. We are very much focused on the European, Mediterranean, and North American spaces, but we also have collaborations with Asia initiated.

A few months from now it’ll be different and we’ll have other geographies added. At the moment we’re dialing up our business development task force and with that, we’ll also be more in-depth geography-wise.

AFN: Could you give me some insight into your choice of geographies? Is it because of regulatory approval? Or is it a factor of demand?

GT: Demand and innovation are the main contributors. Definitely not regulatory because if regulatory would be one aspect, we would definitely ignore Europe.

We’re seeing a lot of activities happening in places like Israel which is an amazing hub of innovation. We’re having a lot of context to founders there and are connected with some. This is automatically a space where we are also very actively talking to different startups, but generally, in Europe and North America there’s a lot going on.

They all require a larger pool of ingredients ultimately for their products, so this is the main reason.

AFN: What do you want to see Arkeon achieve?

GT: Arkeon is a company that wants to create pain-free ingredients for the planet. It’s all about planetary health. It’s all about human health.

What we have to do to make that happen is to produce things smarter and with less impact to the planet. This is what we are striving for and this is why we chose the food space to be our ‘impact hub number one’, but actually want to go beyond the food space. We want to diversify in due time and in a smart way.

There are so many possibilities in converting CO2 into value-added ingredients for all the different kinds of sectors and this is what we’re striving for.

Join the Newsletter

Get the latest news & research from AFN and AgFunder in your inbox.

Join the Newsletter
Get the latest news and research from AFN & AgFunder in your inbox.

Follow us:

AgFunder Research
Join Newsletter