Scaling its business from a startup launched in July 2019 to a global ingredients company has been a rapid, non-stop journey for Merit Functional Foods, said co-CEO Ryan Bracken, who left Manitoba Harvest (acquired by Tilray in 2019) to start the company with Shaun Crew and Barry Tomiski.
The Merit team quickly realized its need for hefty investment to bring its patent-protected pea and canola protein ingredients to the $4.5bn plant-based alternative foods market. Since its launch, Merit has secured a combined $95m debt financing package from a consortium of lenders including Export Development Canada, Farm Credit Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
"As you’re scaling something new and different like we are doing it takes a lot of fortitude, and it takes a lot of capital. That’s why bringing a partner like Bunge on board speaks very loudly and clearly about the business case itself," Bracken told FoodNavigator-USA.
"We’re very happy to have them not only from a pure capital perspective, but also for the branding and the name behind Bunge. They're an international ingredient powerhouse, and they want to see us be successful, which is great."
The CAD$30m investment from Bunge will help expedite the construction of Merit's state-of-the-art, 94,000-square-foot production facility in Manitoba, Canada, where it will produce its canola and pea proteins for global food and beverage players. Earlier this year, Merit announced a joint development agreement with Nestlé to scale and commercialize its portfolio of plant proteins with the goal of using the startup's novel ingredients in food and beverage products.
"Now it’s just a matter of finalizing electrical and mechanical and process piping, and we’ll be starting up [and testing] processing equipment in October. The first foreseeable product out the door will be at the end of this calendar year," said Bracken.
Merit will use the next couple of months to ensure its plant proteins are ready for prime time in terms of taste and function in a variety of product applications, said Bracken.
"We’re assessing our proteins monthly against the competition using third party sensory professionals to evaluate our proteins. We know that we are just coming to market so we need to make sure we have everything nailed from a process perspective. And every single month, it seems like we keep improving our sensory profile."
Canola protein, a plant protein gamechanger?
Using extraction technology patented by joint venture partner Burcon NutraScience, Merit's canola protein (available in three variations, Puratein, Puratein HS, and Puratein C) will not only be among the first ingredients of its kind (DSM is planning a launch of its own canola protein, CanolaPRO) to come to market but a gamechanger for the industry, which is in need of better-tasting protein alternatives with high functionality in finished products, claimed Bracken.
"There are many, many food and beverage companies that are knocking on our door and wanting to try the canola proteins, and have heard all about the functional differences, and we’re all game," Bracken told FoodNavigator-USA.
A major advantage to Merit's canola protein-- Puratein C -- is that when combined with pea it contains a PDCAAS (Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score) of 1, meaning that it has a complete amino acid profile and high digestibility.
"That’s obviously very, very important when you’re calling out protein on both front and back of package," said Bracken.
From a functional perspective, Puratein canola protein is highly soluble, which makes for a smoother, neutral-tasting product free of the grit that accompanies other plant proteins such as pea.
"Albeit our pea protein has high solubility as well, but not nearly as high as our canola protein," Bracken noted.
Puratein HS has "exceptional" whipping capacity and stability making it ideal for frozen dessert applications, according to the company. When combined with its pea protein, the canola protein has strong water binding capacity, and a hydrocolloid-like effect on the management of ice crystals to create products like dairy-free ice cream.
In terms of viable product applications, Bracken noted that its canola protein can support nearly any formulation from meat to dairy alternatives -- "think of things likes barista blends and ice cream alternatives."
"Ultimately our goal is to improve functionality of anyone’s final application, whether it be meat alts or dairy alts or any other type of food and beverage offering," said Bracken.