The plant-based protein market has two new contenders with the launch of the first products from food-tech startup Nature’s Fynd: dairy-free cream cheese and meatless breakfast patties, both made from a fungi protein with roots in Yellowstone National Park’s volcanic springs.
The crux of Nature’s Fynd—which was founded in 2012 and has so far raised a collective $158 million to create its fermentation technology that turns the fungi into protein—is what it’s named Fy, the fungi-protein derived from a microbe called Fusarium strain flavolapis. Mark Kozubal, the company’s chief science officer and cofounder, discovered that microbe on a research trip to Yellowstone, where he was looking for extremophiles (microorganisms that can survive extreme conditions that would be inhospitable to other life-forms) as part of work supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA.
“It’s an organism that is a master adapter,” says CEO and cofounder Thomas Jonas. “It has adapted to this incredible environment, and what it’s had to do—which is something that I think is very relevant to where we are today—is that it has learned to do more with less. It’s learned to adapt to an environment where there were very limited resources.”
Since that discovery, the Nature’s Fynd team has been working to turn the microbe into a protein through fermentation. Inside a warehouse in Chicago’s stockyards (once the meatpacking district of the city) Nature’s Fynd grows and ferments the Fy, which is fed with carbohydrates, on trays. Once harvested, it comes out in sheets that resemble chicken breast. “It naturally has a filament structure that kind of mimics muscle filaments,” Jonas says. This process, which creates a complete protein with all the essential amino acids, requires 99% less land and 87% less water than beef production, while emitting 99% fewer greenhouse gases.
Jonas believes this fungi protein could be the new soy: a building block for an entire catalog of meat and dairy alternatives. “Just like you can have soy milk, a soy burger, a soy nugget, we can do all of these adaptations,” he says. That’s what Nature’s Fynd is hoping to communicate with this product launch, by releasing a dairy and meat alternative at the same time. The cream cheese and breakfast patties are being sold together as a “Fy Breakfast Bundle” for $14.99 plus shipping.
Since the base fermentation process is already developed, the company could release its next products on a shorter timeline; it doesn’t have to do more research or redesign its entire manufacturing process to make a new food item. While the idea of eating something derived from a fungi found in a Yellowstone spring may not initially sound all that appealing, Nature’s Fynd execs are confident that customers will be open to Fy.
“Five years ago we would have been having a very different challenge than we do now, because consumers are used to probiotic yogurts, they’re used to kombucha, they’re used to seeing plant-based take off,” says CMO Karuna Rawal. “All of that bodes well, for the time is now to change how we eat if we’re going to do something about climate change and the impact on our planet.”