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Bacon made with Umaro's seaweed-based protein. Image credit: Umaro Foods

Umaro’s $3m AgFunder-led seed round hints at a ocean-based future for alternative protein

April 1, 2022

Disclosure: AFN’s parent company, AgFunder, is an investor in Umaro Foods.

California’s Umaro Foods has raised $3 million in seed funding for its technology that turns seaweed into a protein source and functional ingredient for meat analogs.

AgFunder led the investment with participation from Alexandria Venture Investments, Impact Science Ventures, Ponderosa Ventures, Clear Current Capital, Ahimsa Foundation, and Sustainable Food Ventures.

On background:

Founded in 2019 under the name Trophic, Umaro extracts protein from ocean-farmed red seaweed. Its first product is a plant-based bacon the company hopes to have in restaurants by the end of Q2 2022.

  • Umaro co-founders Amanda Stiles and Beth Zotter say their seaweed-based proteins can serve as a replacement for heme, the red, umami compound popularized by Impossible Foods that makes plant-based proteins ‘bleed’ like animal-derived meat.
  • CEO Zotter tells AFN that seaweed oils can be used for fat; in a bacon product, this would provide the desired crispiness consumers associate with traditional animal-based bacon.
  • Umaro has won $6 million in science and technology research awards from bodies including the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the Good Food Institute, and Activate Global.

Why it matters:

Zotter says the future of protein is “blue” – meaning most of it will come from our oceans as resources like cultivable land and freshwater dwindle. There are three reasons for this:

  • Seaweed is highly photosynthetic and productive. “The biggest limitations to the growth of most plants is usually water and nutrients,” Zotter says. “Seaweeds are sometimes nutrient-limited, but they’re never water-limited, so they just have higher photosynthetic efficiency.” Seaweed also has a higher protein content that many of the other plants typically used for meat analogs. 
  • Water and nitrogen are free inputs when it comes to seaweed; oceans cover roughly 71% of the planet and hold the bulk of the global supply of reactive nitrogen — the key building block of protein — in the form of nitrates.
  • Seaweed is scalable. “We don’t need any new scientific breakthroughs [to scale up],” Zotter wrote in a blog post recently. “We just need to apply basic engineering to build scalable, modern farming systems that are safe for ocean creatures.”

The bigger picture:

Bacon made with Umaro’s seaweed-based protein. Image credit: Umaro Foods

While bacon is Umaro’s current focus, the company has bigger plans for the future. “Our goal is to make seaweed the most abundant, lowest-cost, most sustainable source of protein on Earth, and we’re really looking at competing with soy,” says Zotter.

Seaweed-based alt-protein companies appear to be relatively rare in North America, where the plant isn’t considered a staple. Case in point: Zotter tells AFN that when her co-founder and chief technology officer Stiles worked at alt-milk company Ripple, seaweed never even occurred to the team as a possible novel ingredient. But elsewhere in the world, seaweed is far from a novel ingredient. “In Asia, millions and millions of tons are produced a year,” says Zotter. 

What’s next:

Umaro eventually hopes to supply the enabling technology for other companies to extract valuable proteins and oils from seaweed.

In the near term, the company will use its $3 million in seed funds to launch its plant-based bacon this year. In a statement, the company said it was “the ideal food to showcase the potential of seaweed protein in the future of plant-based meat.”

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