Farmless—a Dutch startup using carbon dioxide and hydrogen, rather than sugar, to fuel its fermentation-based food production platform—has raised €1.2 million ($1.3 million) in a pre-seed round led by Revent, Nucleus Capital, and Possible Ventures.
Other backers include HackCapital, Sustainable Food Ventures, VOYAGERS Climate-Tech Fund, and TET Ventures, says the firm, which was founded by physicist Adnan Oner last fall with a mission to “decouple food production from agricultural land.”
Oner is not sharing details about the production process given that he is currently filing a patent, but tells AFN he is growing a protein-packed strain of bacteria that has multiple food applications.
Unlike precision fermentation startups that genetically engineer microbes to express target ingredients and then extract them from the fermentation broth, Farmless is using a Non-GMO strain of bacteria that naturally produces high levels of complete protein (70%+). It then harvests the whole biomass to create a highly versatile ‘carbon negative’ whole food ingredient, says Oner.
“We haven’t revealed the source of carbon dioxide yet, but basically, we’ve synthesized C02 and hydrogen into a liquid feedstock and then we use ammonia as a source of nitrogen and some minerals.”
So how does this compare to some other players in the fermentation arena such as US-based Air Protein and Finland-based Solar Foods, which also make protein using elements in the air (as opposed to sugar) as feedstocks for their microbes?
“The idea is similar,” says Oner, who has recruited scientists with experience of industrial scale fermentation at firms including Corbion and FrieslandCampina. “But the technology is different.
“Hydrogen is a gas and there’s a gas to liquid mass transfer problem. This basically means that your gases go into your bioreactor too slowly to support the growth rates of your organism, so you need to circumvent that by increasing the pressure in your bioreactor. This in turn means you need special vessels, which will increase your capex. Gases are also difficult to transport, so you’re bound by geographical constraints.
“By having a liquid feedstock, you get over these problems and you can run your operation anywhere that can be powered by renewable energy.”
The business model
At just six months old, Farmless is still working at the laboratory-scale, he says, noting that the funding round will help the company experiment with larger fermentation vessels, expand the team and work on regulatory approvals.
It’s early days, adds Oner, but the plan is to operate as a branded b2b ingredients supplier “similar to Perfect Day.”
‘One of the cheapest sources of protein in the next decade’
While the challenges in securing capital and capacity for scaling up novel biomanufacturing businesses are well-documented, investors are excited about Farmless’s focus on decoupling food production from arable land and agricultural feedstocks such as corn, he claims.
Asked how efficient Farmless’s microbes are at producing protein, he said, “If you look at feed conversion rates, what we’re doing is significantly more efficient than [producing protein by growing] plants or animals.”
As for energy costs, he says, “Renewable energy is getting cheaper and cheaper, and because of that, it makes sense to create food out of energy. At a large scale, what we need is primarily renewable energy and some minerals, because all of our feedstocks can be derived from energy.
“The C02 can be pulled out of the air with energy, hydrogen can be made with energy, and ammonia can be made with energy. So based on the premise that renewable energy will get cheaper and cheaper, this could be one of the cheapest sources of protein in the next decade.”
“We’re specifically interested in food technologies with high scalability and the potential to rapidly outperform on the cost per kg of protein. Across both of these dimensions Farmless shows great potential.” Lauren Lentz, general partner, Revent
Do consumers want bacterial protein?
But how appetizing is bacterial protein, and how should food manufacturers talk to consumers about it? US biomass fermentation startup Superbrewed Food, for example, describes its protein-packed bacteria as a ‘postbiotic,’ a word that many consumers do not necessarily understand (yet), but associate with something good for them (probiotics).
“While I’m a bit hesitant about using the word ‘bacteria’ with consumers, we are seeing more food companies talking about adding good bacteria to food,” says Oner.
“But I think the way to communicate is to talk about fermentation and fermented proteins, as consumers are generally very positive about fermented foods.”