What if there was a single solution to food supply issues, plastic waste and soil degradation — and it was something that’s in front of you right this very second?
Hayward, California-based Kiverdi is working to solve a variety of daunting problems facing our planet by leveraging carbon filtered from the air. Kiverdi co-founder and CEO Lisa Dyson was looking for solutions to solve climate change on Earth when she stumbled upon a technology that NASA was exploring to feed astronauts over long interplanetary journeys. Scientists discovered particular single-cell organisms, that, when fed carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen from the air, would output protein in a process she called carbon fermentation. In 2011 Dyson and her co-founder John Reed decided to use this technology to solve food supply issues on Earth and started Kiverdi.
“We built this company to be able to commercialize solutions to the world’s tough issues,” Dyson told me over the phone this week. Those issues include protein supply, of course, but that’s only one facet of Kiverdi’s business. The company is also using carbon fermentation to create sustainable fish feed, fertilizer and palm oil. It’s even transforming waste through a very rad-sounding process called “gasification,” in which plastics are broken down into carbon and hydrogen, then reformed into biodegradable materials.
The whole process may sound something you need to have a PhD in science to understand (and Dyson does), but she described it to me as very similar to brewing beer or making yogurt. The company currently has over 46 patents granted and pending on their technology.
Dyson said that they’re going to commercialize through partnerships and enter the market over the next few years through multiple verticals. She couldn’t name any specific air protein partnerships that are in the works, but did mention meatless meat and protein powder as potential products. Kiverdi also has several investors and some government funding, though Dyson wouldn’t disclose exact funding numbers.
It’ll be a while — probably two years or so — before anyone gets to bite into a plant-based burger made with air protein. The company is not going to commercialize until their product is “economically attractive,” as Dyson put it. And for that to happen, they’ll need to scale up significantly.
The company currently ferments all of its protein in-house in its manufacturing facility. But since their technology relies on so few outputs (air, water, and electricity) and requires no land, they can actually scale up relatively easily. All they have to do is add more fermentation tanks and voila — more protein.
Kiverdi’s technology is akin to gas fermentation, a technology we’ve covered before on the Spoon in which genetically engineered microbes turn air, water and electricity into edible proteins. The process is used by companies Solar Foods, Novo Nutrients and Deep Branch Biotechnology, but Dyson claims that Kiverdi’s technology separates itself from the pack since it uses a unique metabolic pathway.
Solar Foods seems to be Kiverdi’s closest competitor, as they’re the only other company using gas fermentation to make protein meant to go into marketable foods. The Finnish company plans to have its protein to market by 2021, so they’re on a similar timeline to Kiverdi.
But Solar Foods seems to be slightly further ahead in certain ways: it has already started pre-engineering on its factory, and has applied for a novel food license in order to legally sell its ingredients in Europe. Kiverdi hasn’t disclosed anything so concrete in terms of manufacturing or timeline, though Dyson did say that she didn’t anticipate any regulatory hurdles since their production methods are very similar to that of yogurt, beer, and even Impossible Foods’ heme, all of which are FDA-approved. Kiverdi’s protein is currently approved for specific applications in Europe.
Then again, I don’t think competition will be too much of an issue at first. Solar Foods is based in Europe while Kiverdi is in California. And when it comes to a food ingredient as novel — and sustainable — as protein made from air, odds are there will be ample market opportunity.
That’s just on Earth: Solar Foods is currently developing technology for the European Space Agency and Kiverdi is working with SRI International. But while gas and carbon fermentation could help sustain astronauts traveling through space, they also have the potential to solve pressing issues here on Earth. Good thing we’re not running out of air anytime soon.