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Phytolon's co-founders: Halim Jubran, CEO (L) and Tal Zeltzer, CTO (R). Photo credit: Phytolon

Shana tova! Israel’s Phytolon ferments its way toward a technicolor of food with $4.1m funding

September 23, 2020

The US Food & Drug Administration reckons that, over the last 50 years or so, use of artificial dyes in foods has risen by roughly 500%. Has the increased role of these substances — often petroleum-based — led to nefarious health effects?

The answer is contested chemical by chemical, but the top line trend is this: regulators, scientists, and consumers alike are becoming more averse to their use.

Leaving aside whether such concerns are accurate or overblown, natural alternatives have traditionally had their problems too, in terms of taste profiles, stability of consistency at differing temperatures, color richness, and cost.

That said, there could be a miracle brewing in Israel that helps swing the balance in favor of natural food dyes. Phytolon, based just outside of Haifa, has been working on a proprietary, fermentation-based technology to produce its own spectra of plant-based food colorants.

A ferment of purple

The process is based on technology licensed from the Weizmann Institute of Science. It involves tweaking the genes of yeast so that as the yeast ferments, it starts producing specific colors useful to the food industry.

Betalains, for instance, which in nature give beets their deep red coloring, are becoming popular for plant-based meat producers looking to replicate the appearance of a rare-cooked beef burger or lamb cutlet. As it happens, they are already sometimes used as color enhancers in animal meat products too.

The favorite color of Phytolon CEO Halim Jubran is of this betalain family: the vibrant purplish shade of betanin, he told AFN.

“I love the purple – it’s widely used in plant-based meats. It’s in fashion right now,” he said during a colorful interlude between disclosing the details of a major milestone for his company: namely, that Phytolon secured another $4.1 million in funding, just in time for Jewish New Year at the end of last week.

‘Real growth, real value’

Present on the investor sheet is Millennium Food-Tech: a new R&D partnership, formerly known as NextFood, that’s listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and invests in foodtech companies which have reached their second round of funding.

Also in the fray is EIT Food — the EU’s main food innovation initiative — and Consensus Business Group (CBG), a company set up by UK-Iranian property magnate Vincent Tchenguiz which owns just over 1% of housing stock in the UK. Tchenguiz is also a limited partner in Trendlines, an Israeli-Singaporean investment group focused on high-growth medical and agrifood technologies which also invested in this round. Other participants include Yossi Ackerman, former president and CEO of defense tech firm Elbit Systems, and the Israel Innovation Authority.

In a statement, Tchenguiz expressed how his team “are delighted with the success of Phytolon,” calling it “an exceptional platform for significant development and real growth, with real value for CBG’s [$400 million] investment portfolio in Israel.”

Millenium Food-Tech’s Chanan Schneider added how consumers “are looking for products with more natural and healthier ingredients and are even willing to pay a premium for them.” Phytolon, he said, “brings a patented solution perfect for the food color sector.”

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