It took Impossible Foods years–and deep expertise in biotech–to develop a plant-based burger that looked and tasted like beef. Other companies, like Just, also have multimillion-dollar labs. But a new startup now wants to make it easier for the other companies to enter the world of plant-based or cell-grown meat, dairy, and eggs.
“There’s a clear trend of consumer interest in alternate proteins and animal-free versions of fish and burgers and chicken nuggets and all of these things,” says Jason Kelly, the CEO and cofounder of Ginkgo Bioworks, the biotech company that spun out the new startup, called Motif Ingredients. “And these companies are kind of being asked to do this impossible thing, which was like, hey, build a brand, develop a new product, and while you’re at it, why don’t you boot up a biotech R&D team to make some of these key protein ingredients that you’re going to need to actually make these things.”
The startup will work with Ginkgo to identify ingredients, including vitamins and proteins found in foods like milk or meat, and will then produce them with engineered yeasts and bacteria in a fermentation process similar to making beer. This type of work is difficult for a startup (or even an established food giant) to do on its own. “Proteins are very hard to formulate in food,” says Motif’s CEO, Jonathan McIntyre, who previously led R&D at Indigo, an ag-biotech company, and in divisions at PepsiCo. Gingko’s platform uses automation and software to help it quickly sequence genomes and produce ingredients from microbes. (Other products Gingko created include a rose fragrance made by extracting rose genes, then genetically engineering yeast to make a scent that smells exactly like an actual rose.)
The company will work on solving challenges such as replicating the taste, texture, and nutrition of animal-based products. If a particular plant protein isn’t a “complete” protein, meaning that it doesn’t provide all of the amino acids needed in the human diet, Motif can make a complementary protein, for example, to make the final product healthier. It will work both on ingredients for plant-based versions of meat and dairy and “cultured meat” grown from animal cells in bioreactors. It may also create animal-derived ingredients that could be used in something otherwise made from plants, leading to interesting questions about what makes something vegetarian in the first place.
Motif raised $90 million in its Series A round of financing–the largest amount to date by a food-tech company–from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Bill Gates’ fund created to fight climate change, the global dairy company Fonterra, Louis Dreyfus Company, and Viking Global Investors.
“I think what we’re seeing is just a broad awareness among investors that a squeeze is coming,” says Kelly. “There are going to 10 billion people on the planet. We just need a lot more protein than we have right now, period, from just a global nutrition standpoint. That’s number one. Then number two, you have the kind of millennial consumer who’s saying I want to be flexitarian. I want to eat more plant-based stuff in my diet, I want to be more nutritious. I want to have less of an impact on the planet and the foods I choose. Those two things together are sort of a perfect storm that’s driving a lot of growth in plant-based products.”
At the same time, he says, startups are struggling to create the next products because of the technical challenges. By providing ingredients both to startups and to larger food companies that are entering the space, the company hopes to accelerate the speed to bring affordable new products to market. “We’ll put these ingredients in people’s hands and they can be creative,” Kelly says. “They can launch products; it’s not that expensive to launch a new branded product. It’s expensive to go do a giant R&D project up front. What we want to do is make it so that there are so many of these new products coming out that it’s inevitable that one of them’s a hit.”