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Finally Foods cofounders Dr Basia Vinocur (left) and Dafna Gabbay (right).
Finally Foods cofounders Dr Basia Vinocur (left) and Dafna Gabbay (right). Image credit: Finally Foods

Casein… from potatoes? Molecular farming startup Finally Foods emerges from stealth

April 2, 2024

Finally Foods—an Israeli molecular farming startup producing dairy proteins in potatoes—has emerged from stealth with pre-seed funding from The Kitchen FoodTech Hub (TKH) by Strauss Group and the Israeli Innovation Authority.

Founded by Dr. Basia J. Vinocur (formerly VP R&D at computational biology company Evogene), and Dafna Gabbay (who previously founded a startup making copper-based antimicrobials), Finally Foods leverages AI-powered technology from Evogene it claims will speed up and optimize the process of developing plants expressing high levels of casein proteins.

Evogene holds a c.40% stake in the company, with the remaining ownership divided among TKH and the founding team.

While some players in the ‘animal-free dairy’ space such as Nobell Foods (molecular farming) and Change Foods (precision fermentation) are building consumer brands, Finally Foods is a b2b business, Gabbay told AgFunderNews [disclosure: AgFunderNews’ parent co AgFunder is an investor in Nobell Foods].“We’re definitely not going to be a B2C company. We are an ingredient company.”

Armed with an undisclosed amount of pre-seed funding from The Kitchen, she said, Finally Foods’ immediate focus is building out the protein expression system and extraction protocols.

“In parallel to that, we’re working on finding partners for scaling up initially in Israel, where Evogene already has greenhouses where we can start developing the concepts.” Longer-term, she said, the company will be looking to secure regulatory approvals in the US market.

Finally Foods cofounders Dr Basia Vinocur (left) and Dafna Gabbay (right).
Finally Foods cofounders Dr Basia Vinocur (left) and Dafna Gabbay (right). Image credit: Finally Foods

Computational predictive biology

While several companies are now engineering microbes to produce animal proteins via precision fermentation, Finally Foods and others in the emerging ‘plant molecular farming’ space argue that the unit economics of growing some of these high-value proteins in genetically engineered plants—which require less CapEx and OpEx—can be more favorable.

That said, the regulatory pathway is potentially more burdensome, while US regulators have also warned startups in the field that expressing animal proteins such as egg and dairy proteins in genetically engineered crops such as soybeans will require strict allergen management.

It takes longer to grow potatoes than microbes, potentially lengthening the R&D cycle for molecular farming vs precision fermentation, acknowledged Gabbay. However, by modeling biological systems computationally using tech developed at Evogene, Finally Foods is able to simulate how these systems behave under different conditions and predict how they might change with certain modifications, “taking the trial-and-error” out of the plant breeding process and enabling a more efficient and targeted approach, she added.

Put another way, she said, Finally Foods can simulate the effects of different modifications on the potato plant’s growth, development, and protein expression levels in order to optimize the tech before moving to real-world testing (eg. growing potatoes).

Once a new plant variety has been developed, meanwhile, scaling up is potentially cheaper and easier than it might be with precision fermentation, which presents new challenges every time you move to a larger fermenter, noted Gabbay.  “Whereas scaling up in molecular farming just means having more fields.”

Expressing multiple casein proteins in one plant?

When casein molecules are formed in cow’s milk, they fold up into a spherical ‘micelle’ structure in which individual proteins—alpha 1, alpha 2, beta, and kappa—are suspended in a solution along with calcium and other minerals.

Unlike firms using microbial expression systems, where each individual casein protein has to be produced separately by a different microbial strain, molecular farming companies can potentially produce more than one casein protein in the same plant, said Gabbay.

It is not yet clear whether growing all four casein proteins in one potato is possible, but this is Finally Foods’ aim, she said. “For more complex proteins, molecular farming is best. Our goal is to [develop potato varieties that] produce all four casein proteins [in one potato].”

Downstream processing and purification

But why use potatoes, vs, say, lettuce, or soybeans, as a host?

One key advantage over soybeans, claimed Vinocur, is that the downstream processing and purification process for extracting and purifying casein proteins from potatoes is simpler. Finally Foods is also developing varieties specifically with downstream processing in mind, she said.

“We are not aiming to supply the market with a mixture of casein proteins and other proteins from the host plant [unlike Moolec Science for instance, which plans to sell soy proteins with animal protein embedded in the matrix for ‘meatier’ meat alternatives]. We will be producing clean, pure casein proteins without DNA [from the genetically engineered host] so that the final product is not a GMO. What we are developing is a system that will allow us to extract and purify the casein proteins in a way that is cost-effective.”

Asked whether the material left following the dairy protein extraction could be used for animal feed given that it might contain milk allergens, she said: “Our philosophy is to utilize as much of the plant as possible. We don’t want potatoes to be disposable bioreactors.”

What is molecular farming?

There are varying definitions, but companies deploying plant molecular farming are typically genetically engineering plants to make them produce something they wouldn’t typically make (think vaccines made in tobacco, growth factors made in barley, dairy proteins expressed in soybeans or lettuce, chymosin made in safflower).

Rather than modifying the plant to confer a beneficial agronomic property such as disease resistance, stress tolerance, increased yields, or improved nutrition (eg. purple tomatoes); molecular farming companies use plants like bioreactors in order to produce specific high-value ingredients.

In recent years, multiple players have emerged producing so-called ‘animal-free’ proteins through molecular farming, which they argue is more sustainable, ethical, and potentially more efficient than industrialized animal agriculture.

Techniques vary, with some players such as Iceland’s ORF Genetics developing transgenic crops where foreign DNA that codes for the target protein is inserted into the plant’s genome such that its ability to produce the target protein (in this case, growth factors, costly signaling proteins used in cell culture) is passed along to the next generation.

Other players such as US-based Forte Protein use transient or temporary expression systems whereby the gene of interest is introduced into the plant cells such that they express the target protein (Forte is working on proteins including lactoferrin and bovine serum albumin), but the plant’s genetic makeup remains unchanged.

Other players to watch in the molecular farming space include:

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