- Israeli startup Brevel has completed a $18.5 million seed round to expand its algae-based ingredient production platform. This includes $8.4 million converted from grants and convertible loans into shares, announced last year.
- The round was led by NevaTeam Partners and supported by the European Union’s EIC Fund, as well as other food and climate funds and food industry strategic partners and “includes significant funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 program and Israel’s Innovation Authority in the form of non-dilutive grants.”
- The first products featuring Brevel’s neutral-tasting protein — dairy-free cheeses from Vgarden — are expected to hit the market in 2024.
Multiple high-value ingredients
Algae is an exciting source of food and nutrition, with some firms cultivating it outdoors in open ponds or in glass tubing to make ingredients such as spirulina and astaxanthin. Others such as DSM produce lipids such as omega-3 DHA indoors via ‘dark fermentation’ (ie. without light).
Attempts to make an economically viable food protein from algae have been less successful, however, adds Brevel, which claims to have developed a high-yielding process combining LED lighting and sugar-based (dark) fermentation. This enables it to “attain almost triple the profitability from the same microalgae, making it feasible to price the protein competitively in the market.”
Brevel’s process yields a neutral-tasting complete protein (50%+ of the biomass), and co-products including carotenoids, fibers, and polar lipids that can serve as emulsifiers, cofounder and CEO Yonatan Golan told AgFunderNews.
“We are not yet disclosing the specific pigments, but these are carotenoids used as food-additives at high quantities and not ones used in cosmetics or nutraceuticals, which are profitable, but have a small market in terms of volume. We also extract soluble fibers which are required as an ingredient in the food industry.”
Golan added: “Brevel uses non-GMO strains which are already approved by the FDA and are not considered novel foods in Europe. The light does not alter the DNA in any way, but induces the microalgae to produce functional proteins, functional lipids, pigments and more simply because the photosynthetic complex is active and not dormant as would be the case in dark fermentation.
“The photosynthetic complex is where the large majority of functional proteins produced by microalgae exist and where microalgae are unique compared to other microorganisms such as yeast, bacteria and mycelium.”
‘Indoor LED-lit microalgae is not relevant in any way as a protein source for the food industry’
Asked to place Brevel’s approach in context, Golan acknowledged that Australian startup Provectus Algae and companies such as Algalif, Vaxa, Yemoja and others “have taken the outdoor photobioreactors indoors and are using LEDs instead of sunlight for a more controlled process.”
While this is ideal for high-value ingredients such as nutraceuticals and cosmetics, he claimed, the unit economics don’t make sense for protein. “Even if very cheap energy is used [Algalif and Vaxa use cheap thermoelectric energy in Iceland], the amount of light needed [even with efficient LEDs] simply drives the cost of production way higher than outdoor cultivation into the 100s of dollars per kilo. This means that indoor LED-lit microalgae is not relevant in any way as a protein source for the food industry.”
Firms using dark fermentation, meanwhile, typically focus on “omega-3 DHA, which does not require light, and is a relatively high-value product, or they aim for yellow/golden/white chlorella biomass as a food additive for high-end products,” he claimed. “But the overall value you can extract from the microalgae is very limited and therefore, as a protein source they are simply unable to reach price targets relevant for the mainstream food industry and are sold today at $30-40/kg biomass. The target should be $2-7/kg protein, where soy and pea are.”
“Brevel’s innovative technology enables the cost-efficient production of high-quality protein extracted from microalgae, which is crucial for the future of sustainable food production.” Shai Levy, managing partner, NevaTeam Partners
‘Biomass with fermentation at yields 100 times higher than light-based cultivation’
Brevel, he claimed, “is the first and only company globally which has been able to combine fermentation and light in a single process… This means that Brevel can produce biomass with fermentation at yields 100 times higher than light-based cultivation (indoor or outdoor) and also produce all of the commercial value and quality that comes from having light in the process.”
The protein produced by Brevel is also “very different from that produced by dark fermentation as it is much more functional,” he claimed. “A lot of the functionality comes from proteins produced in the photosynthetic complex such as RuBisCo, and the content is much higher. Additionally, light enables the production of valuable co-products alongside protein which significantly increase profitability.”
“We identified Brevel as an ambitious company with breakthrough technology which can provide significant impact. After the Horizon 2020 non-dilutive grant, the EIC Fund made the decision to further support and join Brevel with an equity investment.” Svetoslava Georgieva, chair of the EIC Fund Board
Neutral-tasting protein at price parity with plant proteins
According to Brevel, which was founded by Yonatan (CEO), Ido (CTO), and Matan (COO) Golan in 2016, the algae protein does not have the off tastes associated with plant proteins such as soy and pea and can serve as an effective replacement in dairy alternatives.
“Other plant-based protein sources such as soy are allergenic and often have overpowering flavors, making them less efficient for use in plant-based milk and cheese,” said Golan, who has not yet disclosed the algal strain the company is using. “Brevel’s protein can be seamlessly incorporated, significantly boosting nutritional value and enhancing texture without compromising on taste, color, or cost.
“This technological breakthrough tackles the primary barriers to market penetration for new protein sources: taste, functionality, and cost, creating the most suitable protein for the plant-based industry.”
He added: “Our protein concentrate comes as a dry powder which can be added directly to formulations. Our partners today add it in different forms, either directly as powder, or they apply processes such as homogenization or secondary fermentation to increase its solubility, extract additional flavors and more.
“In terms of functionality, beside its nutritional value, our protein acts as an excellent emulsifier; it can replace eggs in products such as mayonnaise; it can serve as a foaming agent in pastries and other applications; and we are now diving deep into additional functionalities such as gelation and binding.
“The protein has a full amino-acid profile similar to that of eggs, is non-allergenic, highly soluble and with high digestibility.”
Scale up plans
Brevel currently operates a 500-liter pilot plant, but will shortly move into a 5,000-liter commercial-scale factory. said Golan. The next step will be constructing a 900,000-liter capacity facility (30x 30,000-liter reactors) in the south of Israel in 2025 with joint venture partner Kibbutz Yotvata.
“The production volume is expected to be 3,000-4,000 tons of dry biomass annually, roughly 50% of which is protein,” said Golan, who noted that all manufacturing systems and biological processes have been built in-house.
“Additional, larger JV facilities will follow, eventually reaching manufacturing capacities of hundreds of thousands and millions of tons that are needed in the global food industry. Brevel is progressing with additional JV partners in Europe, the US, UAE and Asia.”