While other firms including Parabel and Hinoman are already cultivating duckweed, Plantible Foods – co-founded by Dutch entrepreneurs Maurits van de Ven and Tony Martens - is cultivating a different lemna variety and then extracting the protein [an enzyme called RuBisCO] via a multi-step, easily scalable mechanical process to produce a complete protein (PDCAAS score 1) that has many of the nutritional and functional attributes of egg white and a neutral taste, odor and color.
“We are all growing a very similar crop but our end product is very different," said van de Ven.
"We don’t sell a whole food, ground up green lemna powder; we grow lemna in such a way that we have high RuBisCO content and we then extract that to remove the components in the plant material that cause color, odor, and taste and we’re left with protein and a small amount of ash, which contains vitamins and minerals.”
The nutritional and functional attributes of egg white and a neutral taste, odor and color
Martens added: “The protein is in the leaves so you need to rupture the leaf cells so the protein goes into solution. Then it’s a sequence of steps to first remove the cellulose and plant fiber material, leaving a chlorophyll-rich green juice, and then we remove the chlorophyll without using acid precipitation or heat exposure or organic solvents, as RuBisCO is a very sensitive protein, and you don’t want to denature it and lose functionality.
“Then you’re left with a pale yellow solution which contains the target protein, and then you remove the polyphenols using a natural adsorbent, and then you microfilter it and remove the water you’re left with RuBisCO protein powder.”
He added: “We have a 2-acre production facility in San Diego with raceways with a very cheap hoop house construction [metal hoops covered with plastic sheeting that keeps birds and other potential contaminants out but lets sunlight in] and have been primarily focused on R&D to prepare ourselves for scaling up and we’re now working on scaling up so we can commercialize the ingredient in 2021.”
‘During the extraction process we remove the components in the plant material that cause color, odor, and taste’
RuBisCO can give plant-based rivals a serious run for their money in the nutrition and sustainability stakes, claimed Martens: “Our mission has always been to find a plant-based protein that can really replace animal protein from a nutritional and functional perspective, and that’s what RuBisCO is. It’s a complete protein but it’s also allergen-free, and can also create foams like meringues, and is identical to what you’re getting from an egg white.”
Van de Ven added: “During the extraction process we remove the components in the plant material that cause color, odor, and taste and we’re left with protein and a small amount of ash, which contains vitamins and minerals, and some lipids.”
‘It mimics the behavior of egg whites really well’
Over the past year, Plantible has been in conversations with more than 50 companies interested in testing its ‘Rubi protein’ in everything from plant-based meat and dairy products to sports nutrition lines and baked goods, said Martens, who recently hired Joe Boutelle, former VP of product development at Soylent (where he tested multiple ‘alternative’ proteins) as Plantible’s director of product development.
“The results have been incredibly positive. It mimics the behavior of egg whites really well, and depending on how you prepare it, you can actually mimic the texture and experience of muscle meat protein, without using extrusion. It’s really good at creating emulsions at low concentrations with a similar droplet size dispersion to dairy proteins, and can also form gels at low concentrations.”
A key part of the protein’s appeal is the fact that formulators can incorporate high levels - creating plant-based milks that rival dairy, for example – without negatively impacting flavor, which can be an issue with many other sources of plant protein, he claimed.
From a regulatory perspective, Plantible is currently working on a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) determination for RuBisCO, but Martens says he is confident given the fact that Parabel has already received a letter of no objections from the FDA for its GRAS determination, coupled with the fact that RuBisCO is already a well-understood protein/enzyme that is present in leafy greens such as kale and spinach.
A free floating aquatic plant that grows without pesticides and doubles in mass every 48 hours, lemna/duckweed has obvious advantages over other plant protein sources in that it contains all the essential amino acids, grows incredibly rapidly, and can be harvested in raceways (ponds similar to those in which some algae is grown commercially) all year around, says Plantible Foods.
Clearly, COVID-19 has made life more challenging both for Plantible and potential CPG partners in recent weeks, but the Plantible team – some of whom are living in RVs and converted meeting rooms at the site of the lemna farm in San Diego – is continuing its development work, said Martens.
“Needless to say, the supply chains of some of our equipment providers have slowed down somewhat, but we don’t see anything having a lot of impact on our internal timeline. From a customer perspective, the commercial partners we’ve been working with over the last year say they are still interested in collaborating with us, although I’m sure that this [pandemic] will definitely have an impact [on innovation timelines at many food companies] down the road.
“The good thing is that in this latest round we have a strategic partner on board that has sufficient capital and resources on hand to continue to collaborate with us.”
* The latest round was co-led by Hong Kong-based Vectr Ventures and New York-based Lerer Hippeau and was supported by Kellogg’s VC fund eighteen94 Capital, and FTW Ventures. Earlier investors include Dutch angel investors, Unshackled Ventures and FTW.
“As momentum in the plant-based protein space continues to grow, there is a massive opportunity to produce a truly distinct and high performing ingredient that addresses the evolving consumer needs.”
Alan Chan, managing partner, Vectr Ventures
In a new report 'Plant Proteins: Present & Future,' Lux Research evaluated 24 crops and their attractiveness as plant protein sources, identifying soy, wheat, and rice as the top three 'staple' crops for plant protein, with pea, canola, oat, and chickpea as the 'alternative' up-and-comers.
"For North America and Europe, soy and wheat are the #1 plant protein sources, respectively, but given their extensive nonfood uses, along with the general diversification of plant proteins, pea, oat, and canola are more attractive opportunities within these regions going forward," said Lux Research.
"Gene editing or advanced breeding approaches will increase protein content in crops, while innovative extraction methods will enable new crops as sources of protein isolates and concentrates."