While Nova Scotia based Smallfood is sometimes described a microalgae company, this is not strictly accurate, as the organism it is growing is "completely unrelated to microalgae," says CEO Marc St-Onge, who is working with a single-celled marine organism or protist belonging to the Thraustochytriidae family, that is not strictly animal, plant, or fungi.
“It’s more closely related to brown seaweed than it is to actual microalgae,” said St-Onge, who is currently producing pilot-scale quantities of protein concentrates and isolate samples (“kilos a week”) for food and beverage manufacturers to experiment with.
“We spent years bioprospecting, exploring what’s the perfect protein and asking what microorganism – the planet’s most energy efficient biological production system - can produce it?" he told FoodNavigator-USA.
A 'protein that more closely mirrors the amino acid profile of beef than plants'
He added: “So that required sequencing more than 20,000 unique microorganisms, which produced one candidate that produces a protein that more closely mirrors the amino acid profile of beef than plants.
“It’s a wild type strain so there’s no genetic modification [unlike some microbial proteins that are currently being produced with the aid of synthetic biology], but there’s a process of domestication; we had to learn how to grow it in an optimized way to ensure it remains happy and productive in a controlled environment.”
At industrial scale, the protein concentrates will be price competitive to plant-based protein concentrates and isolates, while offering superior functionality and nutrition, claimed St-Onge, who has raised more than CAD$20m to date, and is now raising a Series B round to fund commercial scale production.
“We’re at the stage where we're ready to do industrial scaling of the technology. We’ve got a number of external collaborations, but we have a core team of 12, which will grow considerably as we move through an 18-month construction phase.”
The organism produces protein, carrageenan-like carbohydrate, and long-chain omega-3s
The organism Smallfood is working with is pretty unusual in that it produces high levels of protein (about 60%) as well as carbohydrates, and coveted long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which St-Onge is also looking to commercialize.
While some companies growing microbes with high protein content are harvesting the whole biomass and selling a whole food ingredient, Smallfood is extracting the protein via a proprietary solvent-free process to make protein concentrates (80% protein) and isolates (minimum 90% protein, PDCAAS score: 1), said St-Onge.
“I think the market for the whole food/biomass is fairly small compared with the market for the protein concentrates and isolates. We can also deliver high-value lipids [long-chain omega-3s] and carbohydrates [in the form of sulfated polysaccharides similar to carrageenan] to the market.
Protein remains '100% soluble at a fairly high concentration'
If you drop the protein isolate – which has a very light amber tint and slight umami flavor - into a glass of water, meanwhile – it “remains 100% soluble at a fairly high concentration,” with no sedimentation, he said, with applications ranging from RTD and powdered beverages to dietary supplements, baked goods, meat analogs and “anything where you see high-quality protein fortification.”
Smallfood proteins can also be blended into plant-based products for improved nutrition and functionality, he said. “We’re still doing a lot of work to understand functionality of our protein.”
The carbohydrate portion “behaves like carrageenan, but is not identical,” and has some potentially interesting food applications, he said.
'We have a doubling of the biomass about every 2-3 hours'
While there has been rapid growth in capacity for plant-based proteins over the last 12-18 months - from pea protein to barley protein from spent grains – microbial proteins that can grown in bioreactors have some advantages, argued St-Onge.
First, these microbes grow quickly and efficiently (“We have a doubling of the biomass about every 2-3 hours”), which means you can effectively make protein to order, anywhere, regardless of the weather, said St-Onge, who is moving to a semi-continuous process whereby it can do a daily harvest.
“We can fill an industrial-sized fermentor in less than a day.”
The proteins are also “best in class from an environmental impact perspective with minimal fresh water and land input,” he claimed.
Smallfood's microorganism – which requires a saline growth medium - can consume lots of different types of sugars, he said, and is highly efficient at converting them into protein.
“We’re using agricultural waste streams as feedstocks; I can’t say precisely what at this stage, but we want to be part of the circular economy, to form partnerships around these critical supply chains.”
Food manufacturers are looking for planet-friendly proteins
So what kind of feedback has he had from potential customers?
The feedback has been “pretty exciting,” claimed St-Onge, who said food and beverage manufacturers are always keeping an eye on new “planet-friendly” Non GMO protein sources, with room in the market for a variety of products, from plants, microbes, and cell-cultures.
Pea proteins are improving all the time, and work well in meat alternatives, for example, he said, but they can still present sensory challenges in products such as ready-to-drink beverages, where they can fall out of suspension, have a gritty quality, or require flavor masking. They must also be combined with other proteins such as rice to balance out amino acid profiles.
“We’re talking to top tier food and beverage manufacturers around the world, and we essentially have the first plant sold out.”
Labeling and regulation
So how do you talk to consumers about eating proteins from microbes (not something you'll find in the average American pantry), and how will Smallfood’s protein be described on an ingredients list?
This is still something of a work in progress on both fronts, acknowledged St-Onge, given that it's not strictly accurate to describe his protein as 'plant-based,' and it's not a fungi.
However, he said, the fact that it's sustainable and Non-GMO is appealing to food companies, who are going to have to find ways of talking to consumers more generally about the growing number of ingredients produced by microscopic microbial food factories in the future as arable land becomes more scarce and more of our food is locally grown in vertical farms, bioreactors, raceways, and other systems.
As for labeling, Smallfood is in conversations with regulators, but firms using its proteins will likely have to list the name of the microorganism along with the term 'protein isolate,' for example, said St-Onge, who has completed initial toxicology work demonstrating safety, and is putting together a GRAS determination.
Smallfood is the first licensed cellular aquaculture company in Canada, explained St-Onge. "This required an amendment to Canada’s aquaculture licensing because it never contemplated marine single-celled organisms. The process took about a year but paves the way for company to legally grow and sell marine microbes in Canada and export outside the country."
Smallfood is one of a series of startups harnessing the power of microbes (yeast, bacteria, fungi, algae, and other microorganisms) to produce protein, with some firms engineering microbes using synthetic biology to produce specific proteins such as whey or egg albumin (eg. Perfect Day, Geltor, Clara Foods, Motif Foodworks, Change Foods); others extracting protein from 'wild type' microbes that have not been genetically engineered (eg. Smallfood); and others growing protein-rich whole food ingredients by harvesting the whole biomass (eg. Nature's Fynd, Air Protein, Meati Foods, Atlast Food, Superbrewed Food, and Triton Algae Innovations).