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This startup uses an ancient microbe to turn CO2 into ingredients for food

The result is a protein that is actually carbon-negative, and requires little to no processing before being added to products like veggie burgers.

This startup uses an ancient microbe to turn CO2 into ingredients for food
[Source Images: iStock/Getty Images Plus, Alexyz3d/Getty Images]

Inside bioreactors in a Vienna-based lab, the startup Arkeon Biotechnologies is reimagining farming: Using a single-step process of fermentation, it’s turning captured CO2 into ingredients for food. Unlike other fermentation processes—such as brewing beer—it doesn’t start with sugars from plants. Instead, the company uses a microorganism with the unique ability to directly transform CO2 into the building blocks for carbon-negative protein.

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“The unique feature of the microorganism we’re using is that it’s producing all of the amino acids that we need in human nutrition,” says Gregor Tegl, the CEO of Arkeon, which just raised a seed round of $7 million from investors, including Synthesis Capital and ReGen Ventures. “And it’s also spitting them out of the cell just naturally, which is an insane thing to do.”

[Photo: courtesy Arkeon]
Evig, a Berlin-based “company builder” that spins out startups designed to take on the environmental and ethical challenges of using animals to make food, brought together three scientists—Tegl, Simon Rittman, and Guenther Bochmann—to create the new venture. Rittman, a researcher at the University of Vienna, had spent more than a decade pioneering ways to use Archaea, an ancient microorganism that evolved to survive in extreme settings like underwater volcanoes. One strain of Archaea, he discovered, was capable of making all 20 of the essential amino acids that make up the protein humans need to survive. Rittman and Bochmann, later joined by Tegl, worked together to develop a patented process to efficiently harness the microbe’s ability.

The resulting ingredients could be used in alternative protein products, such as plant-based milk or meat. Right now, if a food company is making a plant-based burger with something like pea protein, it involves a complicated process of purefying the protein to remove unwanted flavor, and often also involves adding additional ingredients to help mask the taste. By creating amino acids from the bottom up, so they’re already pure, Arkeon eliminates processing and additives. The amino acids can then be combined to create tailored ingredients that mimic the mouthfeel and flavor of meat, which the company thinks can help expand the number of alt-protein foods on the market. The ingredients can also be used directly in protein drinks and infant formula.

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Because the fermentation process also works without any inputs like sugar, it can avoid the environmental impact of growing and harvesting crops. “Basically, it has the potential to bypass agriculture,” says Michael Mitsakos, principal at Evig Group. That efficiency will make the amino acids cheaper than what’s on the market now, he says. Arkeon has also calculated that using its bioreactors to produce protein takes 99% less land than traditional agriculture—potentially creating the opportunity for farmland to turn into forests to help fight climate change—and uses 0.01% of the water in traditional farming. Since the production process uses captured CO2 and few other resources, the ingredients are carbon negative.

That’s a huge contrast with protein from animal agriculture, one of the most climate-intensive industries that exists. “Protein production using animals is the most inefficient and at the same time the most cruel process you can imagine,” says Tegl, who is vegan. “And that’s exactly our motivation, why we started Arkeon—because we saw the potential of technology to actually make that obsolete.”

In a few weeks, the company will expand to a pilot facility to begin producing its ingredients at a larger scale. It’s partnering with breweries to use CO2 captured in the brewing process; breweries can use some of the CO2 themselves for carbonating drinks, but typically only use a fraction. The company can also use CO2 from bioethanol production. In both cases, the CO2 is pure, so it doesn’t have to be refined further before it can be used in food. The startup is also working on getting regulatory approval, which it says will be easier in Europe than it would be for some similar companies because its microbes aren’t genetically engineered. Eventually, it will begin large-scale production in larger tanks. “It will actually look very similar to breweries,” Tegl says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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