Moolec Science wants to bring sustainable animal protein production to the farm. Not through the cattle pasture or henhouse, but through crops.
Using a genetic engineering technique known as molecular farming, the company believes it can leverage the scale of production of crop farming to create animal proteins more cost effectively than other forms of cellular agriculture – like cultured meat – can do today.
The technique, which uses genetically-modified crops like tobacco or safflower to produce proteins, has been used since the 90s in the pharmaceutical industry. However, using molecular farming for production of animal cell protein through crops for use in food is relatively new and something Moolec’s predecessor company has spent years working on.
Moolec is a spinout of Argentina-based bioscience conglomerate Bioceres SA, which has already developed a technology for producing an enzyme used in the production of cheese called chymosin. While chymosin originally was produced through traditional animal agriculture (it’s found in the intestines of cattle and goats), in recent decades cheese producers have sought more sustainable approaches such as fermentation-based production of chymosin. The technology developed by Bioceres – and now Moolec – is a hybrid approach that enables them to produce the same animal-cell chymosin through plants like safflower.
The process to create chymosin originally developed by Bioceres was patented in 2015, and the company already sells the enzyme to cheese processors in markets across Europe. By spinning off Moolec, the creators of the technology hope to now extend its use to create recombinant animal proteins through new crops like soy and pea.
“Molecular farming is not yet a fully explored technology in the alternative protein space,” said Moolec CEO Gastón Paladini in a Zoom interview with The Spoon. “We do all the science up front from the lab to use genetic engineering to express animal cells.”
I asked Paladini why the company decided to create a new company separate from Bioceres, a well-resourced corporation publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. He told me the founders, including the CTO Martin Salinas who led the research into the chymosin through safflower, felt a new company would bring focus and help them build out their technology.
“We started thinking about how we could use all the experience and R&D from all these years to explore new products for this new alternative protein space,” said Paladini.
There’s no doubt that the team also sees opportunity in a white hot alt-protein space where venture capitalists are looking for any new spin on alternatives for traditional industrial farmed animal protein, in part because there is huge demand for plant-based proteins for use in making alternative meat products.
The company sees two crops in particular that they are excited to extend their process for animal-cell protein through plants: soy and pea.
“Soy and pea isolates and concentrates are the stars in a plant-based landscape,” said Paladini. “They are the main raw material to make plant-based products. We are actually doing the same process but with animal cells inside.”
However, unlike the company’s safflower-based products, which they can derive revenue from immediately, the development of the newer product lines will take some time. According to Paladini, they expect that the new proteins expressed through molecular farming to be on the market by 2025, slowed in part by the long approval process required for genetically modified food products.
2025 is a ways off, but Paladini said the company will be able to start to monetize alt-based animal proteins sooner. They have already started working on another process to bring the same animal proteins to market sooner through precision fermentation.
Spoon readers may know that precision fermentation is the technology that the Good Food Institute (GFI) sees as the bridge between the current plant-based alt-protein market and the world of lab-grown meat, where technology is more nascent. Unlike lab-grown meat that uses in vitro animal cell cultures, companies like Perfect Day and Geltor engineer microbes to produce protein that is essentially identical to that produced by animals.
The technology is already producing proteins at scale and the GFI expects the cost of precision fermented proteins will be lower than that of animal-produced proteins.
For Moolec, its fermentation technology also is just a quicker route to market, and embracing both approaches gives them an intermediate term (precision fermentation) and long term (molecular farming) monetization strategy, something no doubt important to investors.
And having a diversified revenue strategy makes sense for a company looking to raise capital. While Biosceres pre-seed investment gave them enough to start the company, Paladin told me they plan on exploring capital markets immediately to secure a seed round in 2021.
“Hopefully we could go to our seed round very soon so as to expand our lines and also to explore new proteins,” said Paladin. “The idea is to probe what we’re doing, and at the same time to go to the capital markets and some strategic partners to start building this new adventure.”
Paladin believes part of the company’s appeal to investors is due to the fact that’s while it technology is new and cutting edge, it could help secure a future for the oldest producer in the food ecosystem – the farmer – going forward.
“The technology is quite straightforward in the end because we aim to bring farmers back to the equation,” said Paladin. “Because we put all our science up front, but at the end the biology, the sun and the land do the rest. We are using all the efficiency of the plants of a very low tech, a non tech-technology.
“This is farming.”