Veggie ‘meat’ start-up backed by Nasa wins financing from tech moguls and Silicon Valley climate fund

  • Chicago-based Sustainable Bioproducts has raised US$33 million in financing from premier venture capital funds and other investors
  • The funds will be used to help support commercialisation of a new way to grow edible plant-based protein
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2019, 6:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2019, 6:00am

A Chicago-based biotechnology company working with Nasa to develop a new form of plant-based protein fit for supporting space exploration has received US$33 million from venture capital firms, including an energy tech fund backed by Bill Gates, Jack Ma and Jeff Bezos.

The funding will support the development and commercialisation of the animal protein alternative, according to Sustainable Bioproducts co-founder and chief executive Thomas Jonas.

The climate-friendly protein is a product of research into extremophile organisms that live in Yellowstone National Park’s volcanic springs.

“That work led to the development of an innovative fermentation technology, which can grow protein with great nutritional value and minimal impact on the environment,” the company said in a press release.

The fundraising, which represents the company’s maiden round of institutional financing, was led by Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm 1955 Capital. Also taking part was Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a US$1 billion tech fund led by Bill Gates, with the support of tech moguls including Alibaba Group Holding executive chairman Jack Ma, SoftBank Group’s founder and chief executive Masayoshi Son, and Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos. Alibaba is the owner of the Post.

The market for global plant protein is forecast to grow to US$16.3 billion by 2025 from US$10.5 billion in 2017, according to consumer data provider Statista.

Jonas, who undertook business studies in the early 1990s at the international business school HEC Paris, said one application for the plant-based protein is as a meat substitute for use in traditional Chinese pork buns.

“I’d love for us to make[buns] that would taste just like the animal version. Our protein is very versatile and can be adapted into a lot of formats and cuisines. It is an extremely high quality protein, with all essential amino acids made from nature … and without antibiotics or cholesterol,” said Jonas.

Other investors include Danone, a French multinational food products company, and Archer Daniels Midland, an American food processing and commodity trading company. Both companies made the investments through their venture-investing arms. Several family offices from Hong Kong have also invested in the company.

Sustainable Bioproducts was set up in 2013 with financial and in-kind support from Nasa, alongside US government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture as well as non-government agencies such as the Montana State University and the State of Montana.

Jonas said the company’s nearly two dozen employees are in collaboration with their counterparts at Nasa to support the agency’s space travel and exploration programme. He added that the collaboration was mainly with the Nasa’s life support and habitation systems, which are tasked with researching ways to sustain humans beyond Earth.

“Our technology is based on leveraging the strategies used by microorganisms, which have learned to use the very limited resources available in their environment very efficiently,” said Jonas.

By studying these microorganisms, the company is now capable of using a variety of plant-based feedstocks, such as starch, to grow organisms that are naturally very high in protein, he said.

Andrew Chung, founder and managing partner of 1955 Capital, said he was impressed by the company’s ability to demonstrate that its product and technology is highly versatile.

“The management has demonstrated that their technology is capable of being applied to a variety of tastes and textures, across a wide spectrum of diets and cuisines,” said Chung.

1955 Capital is a US$200 million fund focusing on investing in technologies from that can address climate change as well as energy, food and health issues in developing markets.

Shifting to a plant-based diet and away from animal-based foods would boost the global food supply by 49 per cent without requiring more land for farming, while also helping to reduce the production of greenhouse gases, according to research by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Sustainability Committee.

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