Plant protein that behaves like animal protein? Lemna-fueled Plantible Foods raises $21.5m, gears up for 2022 launch

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

RuBisCO is actually the most abundant protein in the world because it's in every leafy green...' Image credit: Plantible Foods
RuBisCO is actually the most abundant protein in the world because it's in every leafy green...' Image credit: Plantible Foods

Related tags: Plantible Foods, lemna, Duckweed, Protein 2.0, Protein

Plantible Foods - a startup producing protein from lemna, a fast-growing aquatic plant that can be harvested all year round, has raised $21.5m in a series A round* led by Astanor Ventures, as it gears up for a commercial launch in 2022.

The cash injection, bringing its cumulative funding to $27m, will enable Plantible Foods​​​ (currently operating at pilot scale in San Diego) to build its first commercial facility (in the Midwest) and introduce food formulators to a plant-based protein that has many of the nutritional and functional attributes of egg white and a neutral taste, odor and color, said Tony Martens, who co-founded the company in late 2016 with fellow Dutch entrepreneur Maurits van de Ven.

While other firms​ are already cultivating lemna (a.k.a. duckweed), Plantible Foods​​​ is cultivating a different lemna variety and then extracting the protein, ​an enzyme called RuBisCO (‘Rubi protein’), via​ a multi-step 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, Martens told FoodNavigator-USA.

“We’re basically rupturing the cells and removing the chlorophyll and the polyphenols. Relatively we are able to charge a premium for it versus some other plant protein sources, but we're still on target to achieving our cost estimate of being price competitive with eggs.”

'It mimics the behavior of egg whites really well'

Martens – who has increased the team from six to 16 people in recent months - explained: “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.”​​

Over the past year, Plantible has been in conversations with scores of 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.

“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. 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.”

Tony Martens co-founder Plantible Foods
“Currently available plant proteins don’t pull their weight when it comes to competing with animal-based products on taste and nutrition. By combining plant science, biochemistry and engineering, we are able to create drop-in replacements for these widely used animal-derived proteins without forcing consumers to sacrifice on either taste or nutrition.” Tony Martens, co-founder, Plantible Foods

While RuBisCO is in all leafy greens, it’s never been commercialized before

A key part of the protein’s appeal is the fact that formulators can incorporate high levels  - creating plant-based products that rival dairy, for example – without negatively impacting flavor, which can be an issue with many other sources of plant protein, he claimed.

“While RuBisCO is in all leafy greens, it’s never been commercialized before. But our Rubi protein is like a drop in solution for eggs… it's even better than egg albumin, so you can easily replace that in all the applications that is being used in. But its emulsifying and binding properties also make it very interesting to create dairy-free creamers, sour cream, cream cheeses, whipping cream, heavy cream. Our protein is unique in that it can create those creamy textures we’re used to from animal based dairy products, so we see some unique opportunities.

“We also see opportunities in plant-based meat because of the emulsifying and gelation properties that allow us to create interesting textures that are currently not yet available with the meat space.”

Plantible-Foods
Plantible co-founders Maurits van de Ven (left) and Tony Martens (right) explained the extraction process to us in a 2020 interview: “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.”

GRAS determination​​: ‘RuBisCO is actually the most abundant protein in the world’

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.

 “RuBisCOis actually the most abundant protein in the world because it's in every leafy green, it's basically the catalyst in the photosynthesis process, it captures carbon dioxide from the air and then converts it into sugar so that the plant can grow. So if you're eating kale or spinach or if you're eating lettuce, it's already in there.”

The labeling has yet to be determined, said Martens, “Based on the FDA regulations, it will probably be listed as lemna leaf protein.”

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, he added.

* Participants in the series A round include Piva Capital, CJ CheilJedang, Good Friends, Bradley Horowitz(SVP of Product at Google), Trevor Martin (Founder of Mammoth Biosciences) and Chris Bryson (Founder of Unata) along with returning investors Vectr Ventures, Lerer Hippeau, eighteen94 capital (Kellogg Company’s venture capital fund), FTW Ventures and Unshackled Ventures.

“Beyond the transition away from animal-based protein, the diversification of plant-based protein sources is fundamental to ensuring that the agrifood system will not depend on a set of monocultures.”

Christina Ulardic, partner, Astanor Ventures

 “Tony and Maurits have tenaciously pursued a unique approach to Lemna cultivation and RuBisCO extraction, producing a plant-based protein that is more affordable, better functioning and more planet-positive than any other protein source.”

Bennett Cohen, partner, Piva Capital

Interested in alternative proteins?

To learn more about Plantible Foods, join us on September 15 for FoodNavigator-USA's Protein 2.0 webinar​ featuring:

  • Tony Martens​​, co-founder at Plantible Foods​​​​which is extracting RuBisCO protein from lemna, a fast-growing aquatic plant  
  • Adam Noble​​, co-founder and CEO of Noblegen​​​​, which is growing an ancient micro-organism called euglena gracilis that naturally produces a range of ingredients from proteins, to beta-glucans with immune health benefits 
  • Dr​​ Bryan Tracy​​, co-founder of Superbrewed Food​​​, which is growing a whole food ingredient from a bacteria that’s very high in protein that works particularly well in dairy-free cheeses and other products
  • Barb Stuckey, ​​president and chief innovation officer at Mattson​​​, a product innovation company that has worked with scores of players in the food and beverage industry from startups to multinationals 
  • Nick Cooney​​, founder and managing partner at Lever VC​​​​, a venture capital fund making early stage investments in alternative protein companies

Learn more and register HERE

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