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Dr Mike Leonard, CEO, Motif FoodWorks
"Impossible is wasting resources, creativity, and opportunities through a failing litigation strategy.” Dr. Mike Leonard, CEO, Motif FoodWorks. Image: Motif FoodWorks

Motif FoodWorks explores molecular farming for heme proteins as precision fermentation capacity bottleneck bites

March 1, 2023

Is it more efficient to make “animal-free” meat and dairy proteins in plants or fermentation tanks?

Motif FoodWorks, which currently makes myoglobin via precision fermentation, is now exploring whether corn could also serve as an effective host via a partnership with molecular farming startup IngredientWerks.

A heme-binding protein found in the muscle tissue of cows, myoglobin helps to deliver the “flavor and aroma of real meat,” and is attracting interest from companies wanting to create meatier meat alternatives. Motif makes myoglobin using microbes, instead of cows, via precision fermentation.

Given the well-publicized costs and capacity challenges in fermentation, Motif is also exploring whether using corn as an expression system might make economic or environmental sense, said the firm in an announcement Thursday.

“If successful, enabling crop protein production for use in Motif’s ingredient strategy will lower both production costs and the carbon footprint created by manufacturing the ingredient. While precision fermentation is and will remain a driving force of the plant-based and alternative food protein industry, the number of companies leveraging this approach outnumbers the available production capacity.”

Motif: ‘The number of companies leveraging precision fermentation outnumbers the available production capacity’

Spun off from biotech firm AgriVida last year, Woburn, Massachusetts-based IngredientWerks has just announced seed funding from Open Prairie and ARCH Venture Partners. It joins a small group of molecular farming startups expressing animal proteins in genetically engineered plants and has filed patents covering the expression of  myoglobin, leghemoglobin, and casein in corn.

IngredientWerks CEO Matt Plavan told AFN that he had been speaking to Motif for “quite some time before formally engaging. They employed a rigorous evaluation of our program before consummating our partnership.”

According to Plavan, IngredientWerks’ approach can be scaled at a fraction of the cost of precision fermentation.

“The IngredientWerks’ protein production system operates at a cost and carbon footprint well below that of fermentation production, which is capital intensive, operationally complex, and for which very little capacity exists today capable of processing alternative proteins.” Jim Schultz, founder and managing partner, Open Prairie

The economics of molecular farming

But even if it’s cheaper and easier to grow animal proteins in food crops, where there’s already established processing infrastructure and a market for the other parts of the crop (eg. starch, sweeteners, oil), isn’t there still a significant cost to extract and purify the proteins?

Even with extensive processing requirements, it still pales in comparison, from a capex standpoint, to what it takes to stand up a fermentation facility, ​claimed Plavan.

According to Plavan, corn is an ideal host for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that there are ethanol producers everywhere who separate the starch and protein from corn, providing a built-in infrastructure. Corn varieties developed by IngredientWerks have also delivered high yields of animal proteins such as casein and myoglobin, he said.

While the regulatory pathway for approving new GM crops can be lengthy, he conceded, the team at IngredientWerks already has experience of going through the US regulatory process to commercialize ingredients from genetically engineered corn when they worked at AgriVida, which brought three such products to market.

As for labeling, he said, while the animal proteins are expressed by GM crops, they would not likely require bioengineered labeling in the US because the end product would likely not have any detectable modified material in the final product.

'Molecular farming’ startup IngredientWerks has developed corn varieties that express animal proteins
‘Molecular farming’ startup IngredientWerks has developed corn varieties that express everything from casein proteins to meaty-tasting heme proteins, in an approach it claims is more efficient than precision fermentation for producing ingredients for the next generation of meat and dairy alternatives. Image credit: istock/lamyai

High-impact ingredients for meat and dairy alternatives​​

Motif FoodWorks — which has raised $345 million since spinning off from synthetic biology firm Ginkgo BioWorks in 2019 — has thus far commercialized two ingredients: HEMAMI ​​​myoglobin and APPETEX​​​, a hydrogel combining plant-based proteins and carbohydrates that Motif claims can replicate the “springiness, juiciness and bite associated with animal-based connective tissue​.”

The foodtech firm — which laid off staff last year — has also acquired exclusive access to technologies enabling plant-based cheese to “melt, bubble, and stretch,and oleogels enabling more authentic fat textures in plant-based meats.

More recently, it has developed its own finished products utilizing HEMAMI and APPETEX, a move that has brought it into direct conflict with Impossible Foods. The latter has accused Motif of patent infringement​​​ in a lawsuit described by Motif as a “baseless attempt to stifle competition.”

‘We’re working with several customers who intend to launch products to consumers this year featuring HEMAMI’

Motif CEO Mike Leonard told AFN: “We’re working with several customers who intend to launch products to consumers this year featuring HEMAMI. We’re producing it in metric ton quantities with a manufacturing partner and we’re in a position today to supply customers that want to scale quickly. We also have customers very close to finalizing formulations with APPETEX.

“With respect to our own finished products, foodservice operators still see plant-based as a whitespace opportunity and we’re going to be launching unbranded beef, chicken and pork for the foodservice market later this year incorporating HEMAMI and APPETEX, and cheeses using different technology.”

He added: “The momentum and interest in HEMAMI as an important component to plant-based meat formulas has been recognized by folks who are trying to develop products and just can’t get the experience they want without it.”

Motif CEO: There’s a recognition that it’s a mistake to bail on the meat alternatives category’

Asked about the recent slowdown in sales of meat alternatives in US retail, he said: “I think the primary driver is that the products still don’t taste good enough.

“We’re still on the left side of Moore’s technology adoption lifecycle chasm of not having enough scale to drive economics and not having enough scale to drive awareness. And frankly, we’ve been kind of uncoordinated as an industry on messaging what we’re about to consumers.

 “The majority of consumers are still to be reached with plant-based foods, and the reason we haven’t crossed that chasm is because of taste, texture, and nutrition. That’s one of Motif’s fundamental hypotheses, and why we’re so focused on developing solutions.”

When it comes to market confidence in meat alternatives, he said: “In 2020 and 2021, the capital markets were very frothy for companies coming up in this space, and we’re going to see some consolidation. Short-term volatility is a natural consequence of the technology maturation cycle. But I don’t see a secular shift in how plant-based is going to be viewed.”

Asked about attitudes among retail and foodservice companies, he says, “We’re not really seeing that [doom and gloom] sentiment reflected in customer demand; there’s a recognition that it’s a mistake to bail on the category.”

Further reading:

Keep calm and carry on: Navigating the trough of disillusionment for plant-based meat

Gap in fermentation capacity is holding back the bioeconomy  

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