With billions in funding pouring into meat and dairy alternatives—part of a plant-based gold rush fueling projections that the emerging industry will reach $100 billion in the next decade—the vast majority of money and time has been spent on companies manufacturing and marketing burgers and milks.
But taste and texture are still issues for most of these venture-backed brands as they try to compete with the real thing. The biggest problem, says Horizons Ventures investor Chris Liu, is finding a fat to bind these alternative proteins together.
He believes he’s found the startup with the solution: Nourish Ingredients.
The two-year-old company, started by Australia-based scientists Dr. James Petrie and Dr. Ben Leita, is using a proprietary fermentation process to develop vegan fats for plant-based foods—without using common replacements like palm oil or coconut oil. Today, it announced an $11 million seed round led by Horizons, the venture firm of Hong Kong-based billionaire Li Ka-Shing, and the Australian government’s Main Sequence Ventures. The startup, currently in the prototype phase, will use the funding to commercialize several kinds of lipids it is testing.
Horizons has provided crucial checks to many of today’s leaders in the alternative protein industry: Impossible Foods, Eat Just and its lab-grown meat spin-off Good Meat, as well as 30 Under 30 honoree Perfect Day. But Liu says he has seen all struggle with finding the right fat for their formula.
“Out of all of the companies I’ve been fortunate to have been involved with… it’s an impossible task. Fats from a chemistry perspective is a really hard problem,” Liu says. “It’s not just tissue engineering. There’s so many complexities and it’s so different.”
Petrie and Leita met while researching lipids in 2013 at Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Petrie, initially a row crop specialist, created the world’s first plant-based source of omega-3, through canola oil. Leita is a chemical engineer who previously made a bio-based bottle for PepsiCo. The pair started Nourish in 2019 after realizing the emerging plant-based foods industry needed a sustainable source of non-animal fat.
The potential market is huge: Fats can make up between 4% to 80% of dairy products on a weight basis, and between 5% to 20% in meat products, while providing a functional role for taste and texture standards that consumers demand.
It’s competing with a coconut-based fat alternative from Spain’s Cubiq Foods and other research around the world.
These plant-based alternatives are highly processed—and can take a lot of iterations to get right. Most of what’s currently sold at restaurants and grocery stores will have a new formula next year. Other ingredient startups for plant-based foods like Motif FoodWorks have been sprouting up to bridge the gaps, while publicly traded companies like IFF and ADM both are looking to win over brands, too.
Nourish is betting it will play a role in those new recipes. It claims there are dozens of companies that have already requested samples.
“The biology of the animal is locked in by the organism,” says Nourish CEO Petrie. “It’s not the best that we can do. We can do something heaps better than that.”
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