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Meet the Finnish biotech startup bringing an extended misplaced mycoprotein to your plate

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The most effective recognized mycoprotein might be Quorn, a meat substitute that’s quick approaching its fortieth birthday. However Finnish biotech startup Enifer is cooking up one thing even older: Its proprietary single-cell fungus-based protein, branded Pekilo, was initially developed within the Nineteen Sixties and ’70s — by, of all issues, the native paper business.

The main focus again then wasn’t on producing another protein for human consumption, because the startup intends — though the unique Pekilo product was bought for animal feed. As a substitute, per Enifer CEO and co-founder Simo Ellilä, the paper business’s engineers have been making an attempt to give you an answer to air pollution brought on by mills dumping manufacturing waste (“sidestreams”) into native waterways.

“It mainly began from the truth that individuals within the lab realized that when you left these items over the weekend on the lab bench it might begin to develop fungus — and in order that was just like the ‘ah-ha’ second,” he defined.

After discovery on a lab bench, manufacturing of the mycoprotein was developed over some 15 years — with paper business engineers making use of a technique of biorefining and utilizing fermentation to develop and harvest the fungus at industrial scale. However the primary aim was nonetheless waste water remedy. Which is why Pekilo fell out of use within the early Nineteen Nineties when the paper business switched to incinerating its waste.

The engineering firm that developed it additionally went bankrupt and data of Pekilo was misplaced, as Ellilä tells it — “very actively forgotten” — including a Tolkien-esque ring to this alt protein’s lengthy historical past. “Our founder crew have been biotech scientists, skilled, educated in Finland, and we’d by no means heard of this factor,” he informed TechCrunch. “So, rather well forgotten.”

Somebody remembered, although. And that was how Enifer’s biotech founders stumbled throughout Pekilo — sparking their choice, in 2020, to spin out an organization from the VTT Technical Analysis Centre of Finland. The concept: revive this misplaced proprietary mycoprotein and prolong manufacturing to yield food-grade (not simply feed-grade) protein.

“It was really due to a really senior R&D director, who’s already retired — who’d labored at Valio, the native dairy firm — who form of remembered this course of and was pondering, ‘Oh, may we make the most of this?’” recounted Ellilä. “Myself and one in all my co-founders got here throughout this public R&D challenge the place this gentleman was concerned. And we thought it was fascinating — critically, paper engineers have been making various proteins within the ’70s?!”

“We thought it was fascinating — critically, paper engineers have been making various proteins within the ’70s?!”

Quite a lot of old skool detective work adopted to get better as a lot manufacturing data as doable. “We began digging up all the things we may discover. There was nonetheless a whole lot of paper sources when you knew the place to look,” he stated. “We’ve performed a whole lot of unbelievable detective work — like we’ve actually gone to outdated telephone books discovering a few of these individuals.”

The motivation driving the founders is evident: Various proteins are a way more substantial industrial finish, in and of themselves, nowadays — on rising demand for sustainable options to meat. Enifer is bullish there’s a long-term alternative to revive Pekilo. In essence: The mycoprotein’s greatest days might but lie forward.

Pekilo mycoprotein as a uncooked ingredient (Picture credit: Iiro Muttilainen)

First manufacturing facility totally funded

The startup has simply closed out a Collection B funding spherical to finish and operationalize its first manufacturing facility — at a complete value of €33 million — positioned in Kirkkonummi, Finland, near the ocean (which offers a supply of cooling water to maintain fermenter tanks on the proper temperature).

“The fungal metabolism is de facto lively,” Ellilä famous. “It’s just like the fungus is on a treadmill in there. So it’s actually producing warmth and that you must take away that warmth.”

Enifer says the manufacturing facility would be the world’s first industrial plant to supply a mycoprotein ingredient from meals business sidestream uncooked supplies — or, put one other approach, this biorefining enterprise is about turning waste into prime quality protein. (Whereas the fungus that produces Quorn is often fed with glucose.)

The Collection B consists of €15M in fairness funding led by the Finnish personal fairness fund Taaleri Bioindustry Fund I, with follow-on investments from current shareholders Nordic Foodtech VC, Voima Ventures, and Valio (the aforementioned dairy large).

The Finnish Local weather Fund has additionally prolonged a €7M junior mortgage to help the challenge. Plus Enifer secured a €2M Local weather and Environmental Mortgage from Finnvera. It additionally beforehand reported a €12M recycling/reuse funding grant from Enterprise Finland, making its first manufacturing facility totally funded.

As soon as as much as full scale the fermenting and processing plant will produce 500kg of the alt protein per hour. It says it expects to have the ability to begin ramping up operations in 2026 however Ellilä confirmed it is going to take about three years to get to full manufacturing capability. If all goes nicely, extra factories may observe.

The primary Pekilo manufacturing facility (Picture credit score: Anssi Rantasalo)

One of many key variations with Pekilo for food-grade consumption is the sidestreams used. Wooden pulp was positive for animal feed however new sidestreams are required to increase the product’s utility. Dairy business waste — corresponding to lactose — is one Enifer says works nicely as a feedstock for the fungus, so you may see why Valio is investing.

Whereas the alt protein area can appear fairly crowded nowadays, with many types of plant-based and mycoprotein already accessible, one other factor that’s comparatively novel about Pekilo is it’s processed right into a dry powder (steam is used to dry the fungus after it’s harvested).

Ellilä says that makes it notably fascinating to the meals business — as a long-shelf life ingredient that may simply be dropped into current recipes and processing strategies.

The food-grade model of Pekilo additionally has a gentle and impartial taste — making it appropriate for a variety of makes use of, from savory meals to candy. “The feed-grade product does have a really attribute taste however we have to do some additional processing to make it food-grade and there the flavour is totally misplaced,” he famous.

One pattern product he mentions they provide to guests is a chocolate cake with flour swapped out for Pekilo. Different potential makes use of embody patties, chilly cuts and even yogurts and cheeses. Enifer intends to stay a B2B participant, although — its culinary experiments are purely to showcase the mycoprotein’s potential to prospects within the meals business.

On pricing, Ellilä says they need the product to be cheaper than pea protein — suggesting, if profitable, Pekilo may nibble away at another alt protein’s marketshare (though he additionally notes there are dietary variations that may imply utilizing a mix of alt proteins is greatest).

“How I like to consider it’s what we wish to obtain is making an attempt to contribute each to bringing down the price of these merchandise and enhancing the standard of the subsequent era of plant primarily based,” he added.

Making use of for novel meals clearance

Earlier than Enifer’s mycoprotein might be folded into meals for human consumption, the startup might want to achieve regulatory clearance for Pekilo as a novel meals. So there’s an extended software course of forward of it.

Ellilä says they’re getting ready an software to file with regulators within the European Union, and can probably goal Singapore subsequent, adopted by the US.

He sounds assured they may — “ultimately” — get the inexperienced gentle to promote Pekilo as a novel human meals. “I do really feel that we’ve an exceptionally robust case… as a result of a mycoprotein is just not fully new,” he argued.

“It’s one other species of fungus. However, nonetheless, it’s not, you already know, one thing outrageous. It’s really not that distantly associated — as an organism — to Fusarium, which Quorn makes use of. After which there’s mounds of proof of its security in pigs and hen and all types of organisms.”

“We’ve got so many a lot scientific materials from again within the day. Which isn’t the case for a lot of different candidates,” he additionally recommended, including: “I’m certain we’ll get it will definitely.”

Enifer can also be growing Pekilo to be used in pet meals which provides it a market it might probably entry in the intervening time. Plus it’s nonetheless contemplating animal feed use-cases, too — paying homage to Pekilo’s origins — however the economics are tougher to stack up so companions can be wanted.

Ellilä says they’re speaking with corporations with giant volumes of sidestreams they’d prefer to upcycle over potential partnerships. “We undoubtedly haven’t given up on animal diet,” he stated, including: “We’re in talks with a whole lot of corporations to say let’s construct a three way partnership… after which we wouldn’t need to chip in all of the capital.”

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