Protein Fermentation: What Are The Opportunities and Challenges?

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By Nicole Junkermann

FoodTech innovators have developed alternative proteins using different fermentation methods, but which one can satisfy the world’s demand for a meat-free diet?

Fermentation has been used in food production for thousands of years; to preserve foods, to create alcoholic beverages, and to create all manner of products from yoghurt to tempeh. Recently, FoodTech innovators have used fermentation techniques to produce alternative proteins in an effort to satisfy the rapidly growing vegetarian and vegan markets. As Prince Charles has made clear, contemporary consumers are more aware of the environmental impacts associated with animal farming and are keen to reduce their environmental footprint

Alternative proteins can be produced through:

  • traditional fermentation 
  • biomass fermentation 
  • precision fermentation

Traditional fermentation is the most ancient form and typically refers to the use of micro-organisms such as lactobacillus to make products such as beer, wine, yoghurt, sauerkraut, and cheese. For protein production, this method uses fermentation to add extra taste, texture, and nutrients to plant-based ingredients. 

Alternatively, biomass fermentation involves developing microorganisms which themselves contain high amounts of protein. The process starts with microscopic or unicellular bacteria and ‘protists’, and develops them into large ‘extremophiles’ which are high in protein. For example, Quorn have applied this method to grow large amounts of filamentous fungi which constitute the primary ingredient in its products. 

Precision fermentation, in contrast, uses bio-engineered micro-organisms to produce complex organic molecules such as protein. Scientists are able to program the micro-organisms to produce the exact substances they need, whether it be whey and casein proteins, egg whites, collagen, or proteins found in breast milk. 

Globally, companies experimenting with fermentation have received significant attention from investors. In 2019, fermentation companies received $274 million in venture capital funding, which rose to $435 million in the first seven months of 2020 alone. 

However, investors must be careful and ensure that they pick the cream of the crop. The protein fermentation market has grown rapidly, and producers are competing for a small, albeit growing, market. Most importantly, producers must overcome scalability, regulatory, and cultural challenges if they are to capture the mass market. Their products must conform to food standards regulations, they must be attractive and tasty to customers, and the production methods must be economically viable. 

About the Author

Nicole Junkermann is a leading international entrepreneur and investor, focused on disrupting traditional business models through industry-defining technologies. Junkermann is the founder and Principal of NJF Holdings, a London-based private investment company with a portfolio across Europe, the U.S., and Asia. NJF Capital, the venture capital arm of NJF Holdings, has assembled an investment portfolio of more than 40 companies across industries as diverse as healthcare, FinTech, FoodTech, and Deep Tech. With experience sitting across both sides of the investment table, Junkermann brings a unique perspective to identifying visionary entrepreneurs with pioneering business ideas.

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