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

The very best 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 an alternative, per Enifer CEO and co-founder Simo Ellilä, the paper business’s engineers have been attempting to provide you with an answer to air pollution brought on by mills dumping manufacturing waste (“sidestreams”) into native waterways.

“It principally began from the truth that individuals within the lab realized that for those who left these things over the weekend on the lab bench it could 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 strategy of biorefining and utilizing fermentation to develop and harvest the fungus at business scale. However the principle aim was nonetheless waste water therapy. Which is why Pekilo fell out of use within the early Nineties when the paper business switched to incinerating its waste.

The engineering firm that developed it additionally went bankrupt and information 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 group have been biotech scientists, skilled, educated in Finland, and we’d by no means heard of this factor,” he advised 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 thought: revive this misplaced proprietary mycoprotein and lengthen manufacturing to yield food-grade (not simply feed-grade) protein.

“It was really because of a really senior R&D director, who’s already retired — who’d labored at Valio, the native dairy firm — who type of remembered this course of and was considering, ‘Oh, might we make the most of this?’” recounted Ellilä. “Myself and certainly one of my co-founders got here throughout this public R&D venture 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?!”

Lots of old skool detective work adopted to get well as a lot manufacturing info as potential. “We began digging up all the things we might discover. There was nonetheless quite a lot of paper sources for those who knew the place to look,” he stated. “We’ve performed quite a lot of unimaginable detective work — like we’ve actually gone to previous telephone books discovering a few of these individuals.”

The motivation driving the founders is obvious: Various proteins are a way more substantial business 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 finest days might but lie forward.

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

First manufacturing unit absolutely funded

The startup has simply closed out a Collection B funding spherical to finish and operationalize its first manufacturing unit — at a complete value of €33 million — situated in Kirkkonummi, Finland, near the ocean (which supplies 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 it’s good to take away that warmth.”

Enifer says the manufacturing unit would be the world’s first business plant to supply a mycoprotein ingredient from meals business sidestream uncooked supplies — or, put one other method, 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 non-public 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 assist the venture. 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 unit absolutely 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 can take about three years to get to full manufacturing capability. If all goes nicely, extra factories might comply with.

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

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

Whereas the alt protein area can appear fairly crowded nowadays, with many types of plant-based and mycoprotein already out there, 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 significantly attention-grabbing 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 further 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 clients within the meals business.

On pricing, Ellilä says they need the product to be cheaper than pea protein — suggesting, if profitable, Pekilo might 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 finest).

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

Making use of for novel meals clearance

Earlier than Enifer’s mycoprotein may be folded into meals for human consumption, the startup might want to acquire 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 doubtless goal Singapore subsequent, adopted by the US.

He sounds assured they are going to — “finally” — get the inexperienced gentle to promote Pekilo as a novel human meals. “I do really feel that we now have an exceptionally sturdy case… as a result of a mycoprotein shouldn’t be fully new,” he argued.

“It’s one other species of fungus. However, nonetheless, it’s not, you realize, 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 now have 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 positive we’ll get it will definitely.”

Enifer can also be growing Pekilo to be used in pet meals which supplies it a market it may well entry in the intervening time. Plus it’s nonetheless contemplating animal feed use-cases, too — reminiscent of Pekilo’s origins — however the economics are more durable to stack up so companions can be wanted.

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

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