“We want to essentially replace cows and other animals as inefficient factories for converting plants into meat and dairy,” said Oliver Zahn, PhD (linkedin strapline: ‘Astrophysicist interested in making Earth a better place’), who has just raised $7.5m in seed capital* to help turn his dream into a reality.
“Existing efforts in this space have only scratched the surface," Dr Zahn told FoodNavigator-USA. "There are over 100,000 plants and hundreds of them that could be commercially sourced at scale, and many proteins, flavor active compounds, and precursors of flavor active compounds…
“If you use something like fermentation, you can convert a set of chemicals and proteins to another set, and some will have flavor activity, some will contribute to the texture of the food, so there are an infinite number of ways to convert those many thousands of ingredients to foods that have better textures, flavors, nutritional density and price points.”
Impossible Foods, Google, Eat Just…
To skeptics wondering if the world needs another starry-eyed startup promising to fix the broken food system, a brief glance at Dr Zahn’s jaw-dropping resumé suggests he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt (previous jobs include head of data science at Google; senior data scientist at SpaceX; lead data scientist at Impossible Foods; and director of cosmological physics at UC Berkeley).
Chief operating officer Caroline Love was previously VP of operations at Eat Just Inc; while VP of chemistry and analytics Dr Pavel Aronov previously directed chemistry and analytics at Impossible Foods.
“Aged cheese has been a challenging category but the data-driven approach of Climax Foods has created prototypes like nothing I’ve ever tasted on or off the market.”
Leah Volger, Manta Ray Ventures
‘It’s about using machine intelligence to simplify the formulation process’
So what’s the business model?
The plan is to build a platform that could be applied to any animal-based food, from meat to milk, although the initial focus will be on cheese, said Dr Zahn - who has also attracted Professor Rick Gerkin, a chemosensory data scientist at Arizona State University and an expert in olfaction psychophysics, machine learning, and neuroinformatics – to his team.
“Our technology consists of multiple synergistic frameworks, data science frameworks, simulation frameworks, machine learning frameworks, meaning predictive model frameworks that will lead to products that are available and affordable within a couple of years.”
Put more simply, this means using computers to model what happens when you combine certain proteins with certain fats with certain carbohydrates, and predict what the texture, smell, or functionality might be, experimenting with hundreds of thousands of small molecules, something that would take millennia to test for real, he said.
“It’s about innovating faster, using machine intelligence to simplify and speed up the formulation process, to optimize flavor, texture, nutrition and price, because right now, a lot of plant products are not better than animal products and in some cases they are actually worse.”
Novel or familiar plants?
While the food industry has only utilized a fraction of what the plant kingdom has to offer, we should not necessarily infer from this that Climax Foods’ products will be packed with exotic plant species from the Amazon hitherto unexplored by the food industry, he stressed.
“For sure there are functionalities in plants that have never been screened at all, but there are also ways to process existing familiar plants and leverage them more effectively to create the desired functionality.”
“Climax Foods is using data science to produce a new category of foods that will not merely compete with, but out-compete, animal products in terms of taste, nutritional density, and price.”
Sanjeev Krishnan, chief investment officer, S2G Ventures
Why make animal foods the benchmark?
But why use animal foods as the benchmark? Put another way, if you can harness the infinite potential of the plant kingdom, why limit your horizons to precisely mimicking a chicken nugget, beef burger, or Cheddar cheese?
Ultimately, says Dr Zahn, there is no reason why burgers and cheese should be the mainstay of any diet, plant-based or otherwise, but in the short-term, Climax Foods wants to meet people where they are, and like it or not, a lot of people base their diet around a fairly limited set of meat and dairy items.
“We think about this a lot,” said Dr Zahn. “Humans have probably only eaten cheese for a couple of thousand years at most and there is no evolutionary reason [why we should eat it]. But people love it, and we’re trying to meet people where they are, to convert folks that are in love with the textures, flavors and price points of animal foods.
“But further down the line, we are in this to make the best products, even better versions of these foods that are tastier and more nutritious. Imagine the Camembert that you love having a floral note, or imagine the saturated fat in your mouth is not so sticky.”
Plant-based foods vs microbial fermentation vs cell-cultured meat?
But why use plants as your building blocks to make ‘animal’ products when advances in synthetic biology mean you can now engineer microbes (yeast, fungi, bacteria, algae) to produce animal proteins and other components without raising, milking, or slaughtering animals, whether it’s collagen (Geltor) or whey or casein (Perfect Day)?
And if precisely matching the flavor and texture of animal products is the goal, why make an approximation from plants when you can make the real thing from culturing real animal cells, outside of an animal (from Memphis Meats to TurtleTree Labs)?
It’s a fair question, said Dr Zahn.
“I’m a tech person so I am excited about those efforts for sure, but we believe that the plant kingdom has enough biodiversity [to enable Climax Foods to achieve its aims] and these approaches [ie. cell-cultured meat, dairy proteins and fats via microbial fermentation] are not going to be necessary, as there are thousands of functional [plant] proteins and flavor active compounds out there and existing companies have only scratched the surface in terms of what we can create with them.
"We’re just excited about the rich biodiversity that plants offer naturally.”
Dr Zahn, who says all Climax Foods products will be certified with the Non-GMO Project verification seal, added: “There are also consumer perception issues around genetically modifying micro-organisms, although I’ve nothing negative to say about that.”
Why team up with the Non GMO Project?
But why would a company led by scientists from Impossible Foods - which is very open about its use of genetic engineering to create its flagship ingredient ‘heme’ – team up with the Non-GMO Project?
And why cut off the option of using engineered microbes to produce components found in plants if it’s more sustainable to produce them in a fermentation tank rather than devoting acres of agricultural land, water, and energy to growing a plant that contains microscopic levels of a desired compound?
According to Dr Zahn: “I absolutely do not believe that it’s [genetic engineering] a bad thing, but for us, I think it’s just a lack of necessity, plants have an overabundance of things we can leverage, so we are not using it. Right now, the recombinant route to produce [animal proteins] is also orders of magnitude away from being at parity with animal products in terms of price.”
'A bunch of prototypes...'
So what’s the plan for the next 12-18 months?
“We’ll focus the next year or so on deep R&D and then we’ll decide what categories we want to go with first," said Dr Zahn. "But we already have a bunch of prototypes that we’re developing in different categories, and when we’ve done blind tastings they are very competitive, but I know how much better we can make them.”
As for the business model, he said, Climax Foods is working on finished food products, but as to whether it plans to be a CPG company, an ingredients supplier, or a tech company that licenses its technology to others, the business model has not been set in stone yet, he said.
“A lot of technologies we’re building could be used by other companies we could build partnerships with.”
* Investors include At One Ventures, Manta Ray Ventures, S2G Ventures, Valor Siren Ventures, Prelude Ventures, ARTIS Ventures, Index Ventures, Luminous Ventures, Canaccord Genuity Group, Carrot Capital and Global Founders Capital. The oversubscribed seed round also includes several mission-aligned angel investors.