The startup Protera is moving from Santiago de Chile to Paris following a €5M Series A round that will let the company scale up the production of an antifungal protein food preservative to the pilot scale.
The Series A round was led by the European venture capital firm Sofinnova Partners, and will allow the company to commercialize a more eco-friendly version of the chemicals used to prolong the shelf-life of food.
Protera was founded in Chile in 2015 and joined the US startup accelerator IndieBio one year later. The company’s headquarters are now officially in Paris, though it still has a lab in Chile and the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the moving process. The decision to move its executive operations to France was partly based on the high amount of industrial biotech expertise in the region, which will help it to attract new talent and partner companies.
“In France, there are more facilities and a greater record of experience regarding large-scale fermentation processes,” explained Leonardo Álvarez, CEO of Protera. “You will find some partners in South America, maybe in Brazil, but Europe is the right place to do work on this aspect, with many years of experience producing enzymes and other recombinant proteins.”
Protera’s lead product, called protera guard, is a food preservative specialized for use in baking products, and is produced via fermentation. Protera developed the product with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) tools that can predict protein structures from amino acid sequences. These tools then allow Protera to infer a protein’s features, such as solubility, thermal stability, and how efficiently the protein will be produced through fermentation.
“We can analyze billions of protein sequences that are in nature. Then we can find the one that will have the performance we are targeting,” said Álvarez.
According to Joško Bobanović, Partner at Sofinnova, Protera’s AI approach and its focus on natural, sustainable products with a broad range of applications proved irresistible for the French VC firm.
“Another attraction is the initial focus on food safety and prevention of spoilage, a huge societal and environmental problem that they can address with a more efficient, natural, and cheaper solution,” Bobanović told me. “Beyond that, there are lots of other applications they are exploring that will slowly come into the spotlight.
In addition to food preservatives, Protera has also set its sights on identifying enzymes that can convert standard vegetable oils into a sustainable alternative to palm oil.
“When we started the company, that was our first target. We know that producing palm oil through fermentation, like others have tried, is very inefficient today,” said Álvarez.
Palm oil’s uniquely high melting temperature has made it the additive of choice for many solid foods. However, the huge demand has led to the extensive destruction of rainforests of the tropical equatorial climates where palm trees grow. Álvarez thinks an alternative would relieve pressure on these habitats.
“Releasing pressure from using palm oil is a first step, which is something we believe we can accomplish short-term,” he added. “It’s similar to an old process that is called chemical hydrogenation. The difference is that we are not generating any trans fats and it’s a natural process. That also means we’re not harming consumers with the final product.”
Sofinnova has a history of supporting industrial biotechnology, having established a €125M fund in 2018 solely focusing on industrial biotechnology. In April, the firm demonstrated that the Covid-19 pandemic hadn’t reduced its appetite for green biotech by leading a €6.4M Series A round raised by the Swedish synthetic biology company EnginZyme.
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