Some companies such as Motif FoodWorks use synthetic biology to write DNA sequences that can be inserted into microorganisms to ‘instruct’ them to produce animal proteins; others such as Sustainable Bioproducts have identified microbes that naturally produce ‘new to the world’ proteins; while others such as Noblegen are working with microorganisms that can be coaxed into producing multiple high-value ingredients without using genetic engineering.
Based in Pleasanton CA, Air Protein is one of a handful of companies converting the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (which can be recycled from industrial waste) into proteins (other players in this emerging space include Solar Foods, NovoNutrients and Deep Branch Biotechnology).
Air Protein utilizes single-cell organisms called hydrogenotrophs first studied by NASA in the 1960s, which can convert core elements from the air - notably carbon dioxide (coupled with water, nitrogen, and oxygen) - into complete protein, producing large quantities of biomass “in the dark, in any season, in any geography,” co-founder and CEO Dr Lisa Dyson told FoodNavigator-USA.
‘We’re not using synthetic biology’
A spinoff of Kiverdi, which is using microbes to produce a variety of products from oils to fish food, Air Protein is dedicated to commercializing a whole food ingredient produced by one particular hydrogenotroph (which could be described as a bacterium), which contains 80% protein with all the essential amino acids; minerals and vitamins including B12 (which many vegans struggle to get through their diet); and small amounts of oil and fiber.
“We’re not using synthetic biology at all. We did the hard work to discover which of these microbes could be used for which purposes but also to fine tune a process in order to make a product with 80% protein content,” explained Dr Dyson, who has a PhD in physics from MIT, and started researching hydrogenotrophs in 2011 with Kiverdi co-founder Dr John Reed.
The inspiration behind Kiverdi (which is licensing its technology around protein production for human food applications to spinoff Air Protein) came from NASA projects dating back to the 1960s exploring how single-cell organisms called hydrogenotrophs could convert waste carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts into food, producing an endless cycle of nutrients, says co-founder and CEO Dr Lisa Dyson (pictured left).
‘Commercially attractive economics’
She would not comment on potential pricing for air protein at this stage, but noted the efficiencies and sustainability benefits of a product that can use a recycled greenhouse gas as its core input, producing large quantities of protein ‘to order’ in a matter of hours, without using vast tracts of land to grow crops or feed animals.
She also noted that many other fermentation processes require sugar (which requires land to produce) as feedstock, whereas Air Protein is literally making food out of thin air.
“We’ve already hit commercially attractive economics for the air protein production process.”
Food applications: Meat alternatives, protein-enriched pastas, sports nutrition products
The ‘light-colored and flavored’ protein rich whole food ingredient – which Dyson described as ‘air protein flour’ – can be used in a variety of products from meat-alternatives to protein-enriched pastas and cereals, nutrition bars, sports nutrition products and protein shakes.
“We’re actively in our product development phase with our corporate partners. We’ve made burgers, bacon, stir fries with meat-free chicken, and we’re seeing a range of things we can do with this ingredient.”
“By 2030, the US dairy and cattle industry will have collapsed,” as ‘precision fermentation’ – producing animal proteins more efficiently via microbes – disrupts food production as we know it, predicts think tank RethinkX, which critics argue is living in “a vegan fantasyland.”
Regulatory pathway ahead
Asked about the regulatory pathway to market, given that the protein has not previously been in the human food supply, she said the company was working on a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) determination.
On the IP front, she said: “Kiverdi is licensing out its core technology specifically around protein, to Air Protein. Air Protein has exclusive rights for food production using the Kiverdi technology, and we have IP around that.”
Labeling on pack
As for how the protein might be listed on a food label, she said that nothing had been finalized yet, but added: “We could look at Quorn as an example of a [single celled] microorganism [from a filamentous fungus, called Fusarium venenatum] that is listed as mycoprotein on food labels.”
Business model and timetable
So what’s the business model?
The initial plan is to make branded consumer products – which could be marketed via the company’s own brand or via partnerships with branded companies – said Dr Dyson, who noted that the manufacturing of the core protein would remain in-house, although finished products utilizing the protein would likely be made by partners.
“We are also getting a lot of interest for that ‘air protein inside’ option as well [air protein as a branded ingredient],” she added.
As for funding, Dr Dyson said Air Protein is “talking to many investors and corporate partners right now, but we’re not making any announcements at the moment.”
Asked about the commercialization timetable, she said: “One of the reasons we formed Air Protein was because of the all the inbound interest we were getting about food, so we’ve been trying to manage that and work with corporate partners on different products. We’ll be making some announcements very soon.”
Watch Dr Dyson’s TEDtalk: