Tapping into the increasingly sophisticated market for meat alternatives, the Swedish synthetic biology startup Melt&Marble has raised €5M in seed financing to fund the development of a fermented fat ingredient that mimics the complex properties of beef fat.
Companies are racing to enhance the flavor, melt, and mouthfeel of meat alternative products such as plant-based meat. To reach this goal, startups hailing from countries including Belgium, France, Spain, the UK, and Australia are creating animal fat alternatives using techniques that range from fermentation to cell culture to the adaptation of existing plant oils.
The common aim is to provide an environmentally friendly, healthier fat ingredient that, in some cases, may even improve the planet’s biodiversity by reducing reliance on traditional plant-based sources such as coconut and palm oil.
This week, Melt&Marble raised a €5M seed round to scale up technology that can brew fat ingredients like beer. The company produces the fats by feeding plant sugars to engineered strains of yeast. By selecting the type of enzymes made by the yeast, the firm can program the organisms to turn the sugars into custom types of fat for the food industry.
Co-founder and CEO, Anastasia Krivoruchko, told me that the firm’s fermented fats are free of unhealthy cholesterol, trans fats, and contaminants and can be tailored to incorporate healthy fatty acids.
“It’s a lot more efficient to produce food ingredients via fermentation compared to raising animals, meaning lower land use, less pollution, no antibiotics, and less water and energy needed,” Krivoruchko explained. “I believe that in the coming years we’ll be seeing more and more fermentation-based ingredients coming to the market.”
Melt&Marble’s €5M funding adds to the €750K the company raised in August last year and will be used to expand its research and development, scale up production, and expand its team. The investment round was led by early-stage venture capitalists Lever VC, with new investors Be8 Ventures and Good Startup joining existing investors Nordic Foodtech VC, the Paulig incubator PINC, and Chalmers Ventures.
Melt&Marble decided to lead with a beef fat alternative as beef is one of the most unsustainable meats and because plant-based beef products are already abundant.
“A key feature of beef fat is the way it melts — it tends to melt over a broad range of temperatures, so that when you eat a burger you get a slow flavor release and lingering juiciness,” Krivoruchko said.
“Coconut oil melts faster, resulting in faster flavor dissipation and products that appear drier. This is a huge pain point right now and something that was key for us to replicate with our product.”
Melt&Marble expects to launch its product in late 2023/2024 but will face stiff competition in a growing market. Last March, for example, the Australian firm Nourish Ingredients raised €10.4M ($11M) for its own fermentation-based fat, also produced using yeast.
Several startups are also exploring the potential of fats grown in different cells to yeast. One example is the UK-based Hoxton Farms, which raised €3.2M (£2.7M) in seed capital last year, and another is the Spanish player Cubiq Foods, which aims to produce ‘smart fats’ in bioreactors. Meanwhile, Belgium’s Peace of Meat, which aims to produce cultured fat directly from animal cells, was acquired for €15M in 2020 by Israel’s Meat-Tech 3D, a company that aims to produce real meat without harming animals using bioprinting technology.
Over in France, the firm 77 Foods is making bacon and lardons from soy protein and sunflower oil. The startup claims the products produce 21 times less carbon dioxide than the animal-derived versions, while having eight times less saturated fats.
Krivoruchko believes Melt&Marble’s research could lead to the first fermentation-based beef fat alternative on the market. The company has a lot of expertise in the field as it began as a patent-holding company for a research group at the Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. The early days were devoted to providing yeast engineering services to client companies before developing the firm’s own products.
“Our approach in general is quite unique since it’s based on a technology platform that has been in development for over a decade,” said Krivoruchko.
As sustainability becomes a focus for increasing numbers of consumers, meat alternatives are moving from strength to strength with a surge of funding in the last few years. Cultured meat is one of the fastest-growing arenas with funding hitting record levels in 2021. Developers of fat alternatives are likely to see a growing prominence as the cultured meat space strives to reach the taste of genuine meat.
9 May 2022: Correction made to the description of 77 Foods’ technology.rnrnCover image via Shutterstockrnrn