- Precision fermentation company Michroma has raised a $6.4 million oversubscribed seed round.
- Its synthetic biology platform produces natural colors and flavors for food.
- Supply Change Capital led the round with participation from Be8 Ventures, CJ CheilJedang and others.
- US-based Michroma will use the funds to commercialize its line of natural, fungi-derived food colorants, starting with red.
- Dyeing for a change:
Food dyes have caused controversy for decades. Though they’re in countless packaged and processed foods, they don’t actually add any nutritional content to items. And critics have linked them to health problems, particularly behavioral issues, and hyperactivity in children.
So far, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has found “no causal relationship” between the health issues and food coloring, but the tide could be changing. New research (and legislation) has surfaced in recent years bolstering claims around the health dangers of Red 40, Yellow 5 and other colorings. Consumers are also driving change with demands more natural ingredients in their food; sales of natural food coloring are on the rise.
In Europe, colors like Red 40 require a warning label affixed to the foods they’re in; other colors are banned outright.
It’s against this backdrop Michroma is set to launch its natural food colorings, starting with a Red 40 alternative called Red+.
Michroma’s big pitch is that its natural dyes are more stable than the current generation of alternative ingredients for dyes. The company’s temperature-resistant colors can survive common processes like pasteurization and extrusion, for example.
How it works:
Michroma derives its natural colorants from filamentous fungi. Because they are very sophisticated microorganisms, these fungi are more difficult to edit and ferment than something like yeast, says Mirchoma co-founder and CEO Ricky Cassini. “But they provide great advantages in terms in terms of yields and also secretion system.” he adds. “Fungi can also reach much higher titer and have the best secretion system among all microorganisms.”
The Michroma process creates “industrial biofactories” out of natural strains of fungi using synthetic biology, techniques like CRISPR, and the company’s own synthetic biology toolbox. These biofactories can produce small molecules like color and flavor. Cassini says precision fermentation makes the process “highly scalable.”
Through this process, Michroma gets a powdered color product it can sell to other ingredients and CPG companies for use in their offerings.
From a price point, Red+ will be competitive with other natural colors, though more expensive than chemical-based food coloring.
The cost issue, however, isn’t something Cassini frets about. “[Food companies] are switching from synthetic options to natural ones because of consumer pressure, and also stricter regulations. So we believe in the future the switch is going to be complete sooner or later.”
“We still have to work to be cheaper than synthetic dyes, but I think that’s something that we can do in the next few years.”
Beyond food coloring:
In many ways, Michroma’s greatest value lies not in alternative food dyes but in the production platform itself. After successfully producing Red+, the team realized it could produce other colors. It’s starting out with warm ones like yellow and orange; Cassini says blue, white and others are in the future.
The company hopes to evolve beyond colors to also producing flavors and fragrances through the same synbio-process.
Eventually, Michroma wants to sell combinations of these novel colors and ingredients in packages to food and ingredient manufacturers. Theoretically, at least, such packages could address multiple needs from other companies, rather than only providing color or flavor.
“We want to create a portfolio of ingredients to provide integrated solutions [for food companies],” says Cassini. “These will provide a big differentiation compared to other companies.”
Near term, Michroma will invest its new capital into commercializing Red+ and scaling its process from pilot scale to industrial scale.
Following prototyping with some of the world’s largest food companies, Michroma is currently negotiating agreements for Red+.
The company will also go through the regulatory process, submitting color additive petitions to the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). For now, these are the company’s two markets.