If you’re seeking out plant-based dairy, odds are you’ll be able to track down pretty tasty vegan versions of yogurt, milk, butter, and ice cream. But the Holy Grail of dairy alternatives, which at least this writer thinks has yet to be cracked, is vegan cheese.
New Culture, a New Zealand-based company that recently relocated to Silicon Valley, is trying to make an animal-free cheese that tastes just as good as the real thing. Only instead of turning to plants, they’re using biotechnology to reverse engineer cheese’s main ingredient: milk.
According to New Culture’s founder Matt Gibson, there’s a good reason that we haven’t yet been able to make dairy-free cheese that would fool anyone: the cheesemaking process super complicated.
Broadly speaking, milk is made up of water, fats, sugars (lactose) and proteins (casein + whey). When acid is introduced to the milk the proteins coagulate and bond to make water-resistant micelles, which are basically curds. Smoosh those curds together and you’ve got the makings of cheese.
But without casein, it’s really, really hard to make a cheese that tastes, cuts, and melts like the real deal. “Proteins are what we love about dairy cheese,” Gibson explained me over Skype.
As of now, there aren’t any plant-based options that can mimic casein well enough to fool anyone. So New Culture’s team decided to make it themselves using something called “recombinant protein technology.” The company uses genetically modified microbes — like yeast — and “trains” them to produce certain proteins, like casein. The team then adds water, plant-based fat, sugar, and minerals to the casein, which creates something that acts and tastes a lot like milk. “From there, it’s a pretty standard cheese-making process,” said Gibson.
First up, New Culture will be tackling mozzarella, which Gibson called “the gold standard of cheese.” I’m partial to a sharp cheddar myself, but this makes sense from a proof of concept perspective. Mozzarella doesn’t have a whole lot of flavor to hide behind, so it’s a good blank canvas to prove just how good New Culture’s technology is. Gibson’s goal is to make a product that’s good enough to stand on its own on a cheese plate, not just as a melted pizza topping.
The company has got a ways to go before they’ll get there. As of now, they haven’t even made cheese from their own proteins yet. While they’re making milk through the aforementioned recombinant protein technology, they haven’t made enough proteins to do their own mozzarella R&D. So for now, New Culture is also purchasing pre-made casein micelles to supplement their development efforts.
The six-month-old startup is currently in science accelerator program IndieBio. Gibson told me they hope to have a cheese sample made with their own proteins ready for Demo Day on June 25.
New Culture isn’t the first company to use this type of technology to make cow-free dairy. Most notable is Perfect Day, a Berkeley-based startup that is also creating milk proteins in a lab by creating casein and whey with genetically modified microbes.
But where Perfect Day is targeting a B2B market, selling their “dairy” to big CPG companies, Gibson said that New Culture will have more of an Impossible Foods model. He plans to debut their cheese in a San Francisco high-end restaurant to validate the product before expanding into more mid-range food spots and maybe even retail. Gibson wouldn’t commit to an exact timeline, but said they plan to do their first taste test “at least 18 months from now.”
The thing is, Perfect Day — which has been around 5 years longer than New Culture — initially also had a B2C go-to-market strategy. However, in 2017 they pivoted to a B2B model so they could focus their efforts on R&D and also scale more quickly. They’re currently partnering with ADM to debut a whey protein powder, so that strategy seems to be paying off.
I wouldn’t be surprised if New Culture makes a similar pivot down the line. For a company that hasn’t even successfully developed a product, it’s pretty ambitious to say that they’ll have their own branded line of cheese in a restaurant in a year and a half. It’s also just a huge lift to simultaneously develop a product, create a brand strategy, and forge restaurant and retail partnership.
Sure, cheese is more expensive than milk or yogurt and they’ll be debuting at a fancy restaurant, so their price point doesn’t have to be super low. But eventually it will have to be, especially if they want to capture the attention of flexitarians.
New Culture is also working with a pretty lean team and comparatively little funding: as of now it’s just Gibson and two other founders. The company received $250k from IndieBio as part of the accelerator and has already raised an undisclosed amount of funding from “an international VC firm” over the past few months.
Regardless of whether they end up changing go-to-market strategies, New Culture is still getting into the dairy alternative space at a good time. Consumer demand for plant-based dairy is on the rise: according to Research and Markets, the global dairy alternative market is projected to reach $26 billion by 2023. And while Perfect Day may have a head start, there’s plenty of space for two (or more) players in the alt-dairy space. Especially if it means better tasting dairy-free cheese.