One company’s trash is another’s treasure. Such is the case with defatted sunflower seeds — the hulls and fiber left behind after the seeds have been pressed for oil — which most companies use to feed livestock. Aleh Manchuliantsau, however, saw an opportunity for a lot more.
A food scientist by trade, Manchuliantsau and his co-founder began experimenting with defatted seed in late 2016. They realized that the byproduct (mostly hulls and fiber) had a high protein-per-pound price: defatted sunflower seeds are around 35 percent protein and cost $170/ ton, while soy protein is 90 percent protein — but costs a whopping $5,000/ton. Unlike soy protein, defatted sunflower seeds also contain a good bit of fiber, and, since they’re a byproduct, are more sustainable.
Seeing a business opportunity, Manchuliantsau began experimenting with post-processed sunflower seeds to create a product palatable for humans. In late 2016, Planetarians was born.
Planetarians’ first product was a chip made out of the defatted seed powder, which they developed while participating in TechStars last year. In spring 2018, they launched the chips, in Sriracha and BBQ flavors, on Amazon, where Manchuliantsau said they’ve seen good growth and popularity.
But the chips are just the start. Manchuliantsau and his team are currently developing a much more versatile flour mixture using 30 percent defatted seed powder. “The goal is to make something that you can replace 1:1 with all purpose flour in baking,” he told me. As with their chips, Planetarians is working on a quick timeline: the team is currently raising funds for scalability test of the flour and hopes to showcase it at some point this fall.
Unlike their chips, Planetarians plans to sell their new flour directly to big corporations with large volumes of baking orders. The startup recently joined the Amazon Accelerator Program, which works with new food companies to make exclusive products for their online marketplace. Manchuliantsau said they were going to develop some basic mixes — muffin, cake — featuring their sunflower flour to sell through Amazon.
So far Manchuliantsau said that the company has raised $295,000. They have a full-time staff of three and several copacking facilities around the U.S. Eventually, they plan to expand their upcycling repertoire and experiment with products made out of other defatted seeds, such as cottonseed and canola.
Upcycling food byproducts (which would normally go into landfills or to feed livestock) is a burgeoning industry, especially as public interest in food waste grows. Aeropowder is turning poultry feathers into compostable insulation sheets for food delivery, Tyson Foods’ Yappah! snacks are made out of chicken breast trim and juice pulp, and Regrained repurposes spent beer grain as energy bars.
But upcycled food products aren’t always welcomed with open arms. “There’s a lot of pre-judgment for food made out of food waste,” Manchuliantsau told me, explaining that people are sometimes wary of consuming products that are typically reserved for animal feed (see also: algae and bugs).
However, Planetarians also brings high protein and fiber to the table, giving it a nutritional boost in addition to a sustainability one. If they can fulfill their promise to make a good-tasting and versatile flour (admittedly, quite a high ask), and produce it at high enough scale to sustain a B2B business with high-volume corporations, Planetarians will be successful in their mission to turn this waste product into treasure.