Motif FoodWorks raises $27.5m to help build its fermentation-based protein platform

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: GettyImages-Ankabala
Picture: GettyImages-Ankabala

Related tags: Protein, Microbial fermentation

Boston-based Motif FoodWorks (formerly Motif Ingredients) - which is deploying synthetic biology to engineer microbes to produce proteins with a fraction of the environmental footprint of their conventionally-produced counterparts – has raised $27.5m in a funding round led by General Atlantic, with participation from CPT Capital.

Powered by Ginkgo Bioworks’​​​ platform for biological engineering, Motif FoodWorks ​will engineer dozens of proteins derived from dairy, egg, meat, and plants, but is not saying at this stage which ones it will commercialize first.

The cash injection – which comes hot on the heels of a $90m funding round​ announced in February - will be used to “add to and accelerate the product pipeline; expand academic collaborations across a broad set of molecular food science disciplines; scale its science and regulatory staff; and deepen its research and development efforts​,” said CEO Jon McIntyre.

"Since launching the company we've seen an incredible response from the industry; it's clear that the movement towards animal-free is no passing fad.”

The new brand name reflects the Motif's roots in the food industry and recognizes its technology partnership with bioengineering platform Ginkgo Bioworks, said the company, which also announced new additions to its leadership team: Janet Collins as head of regulatory, government and industry affairs, Julie Post-Smith as director of business development, and Morgan Keim as business development manager.

In the future, a ‘higher proportion of animal protein will come from fermentation’

If printing out DNA sequences that instruct yeast or bacteria to express proteins identical to those in eggs or milk in big fermentation tanks sounds a little ‘unnatural,’ consider how natural, sustainable, or indeed ethical, it is to continue to produce animal proteins on an industrial scale the way we do currently, McIntyre told FoodNavigator-USA back in March.

Growing plant proteins, meanwhile, also requires energy, water, and arable land, which is finite, said McIntyre, a former SVP of R&D at PepsiCo. “We’re not anti-meat or anti-animals or anti traditional agriculture. We’ll still have dairy and eggs in the future, but a higher proportion of animal protein will come from fermentation. ​​

“We feel pretty strongly that for most food-based proteins, we would be able to read their DNA, write it ​​[print DNA sequences], and place it in an appropriate organism to express it and secrete that protein."​​

He added: “We need to be thinking about alternate ways to produce healthy protein in a more efficient way – to produce protein without all the other things ​​[the parts of crops and animals we don’t use].”

What is synthetic biology? Gingko Bioworks​​​ (strapline: biology by design) co-founder Jason Kelly likens synthetic biology to computer programming, only with genetic sequences. DNA is effectively serving as a computer code (which can be now be printed surprisingly cheaply) that can be inserted into microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria so they express proteins, sweeteners, flavors, cannabinoids such as CBD, or basically whatever you have ‘coded’ or ‘instructed’ them to produce.   ​

The engineered micro-organisms will not be in the final product

Asked whether the ‘GMO factor’ could prove a barrier to Motif’s progress, he added: “We’ve had that pushback​​ [on any foodstuff involving genetic engineering] for years now, but the conversation has to change.​​

Jonathan McIntyre
Jonathan McIntyre: "It's clear that the movement towards animal-free is no passing fad.”​

“The microbes express the proteins and secrete them and we then recover them from the broth, but the​​ [genetically engineered] micro-organisms will not be in the final product.”​​

‘The idea that technology may need to play a role in food is becoming more and more acceptable’ ​

Instead of getting bogged down in questions about GMOs and Frankenfoods, what we should be asking is the following, he said: “What are the benefits to the consumer? Does it mean clean food? Does it mean great tasting food? Highly nutritious food? Environmentally sustainable food? And do you know exactly where it came from?”​​ And these are all questions that Motif Ingredients can answer in the affirmative, he said.

“I’ve also seen that with​​ [high-tech plant-based meat co] Impossible Foods​​​ and a dozen other companies, people are asking questions about how we are going to be able to optimize the ag food supply chain in a way that can feed 10bn people that all need protein.​​

“The idea that technology may need to play a role in food is becoming more and more acceptable, and it’s coming from the places that started the clean food movement anyway, which is kind of interesting.​​

“So let’s talk about what the technology is and what it does instead of trying to play a lot of games ​​[over terminology such as synbio and GMOs]. Let’s just be clear and honest about what we’re doing.”​​

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