Archer Daniels Midland is partnering with Air Protein to help the food tech startup make healthy food out of thin air.
The two companies have entered a strategic development agreement in which ADM will lend its researchers, ingredients insight, technologies and strategy to help Air Protein develop products for commercialization. The partnership also includes mutually exclusive rights for ADM and Air Protein to collaborate to build and operate a commercial-scale Air Protein plant.
ADM has previously invested in Air Protein with its venture arm co-leading the company’s $32 million Series A funding round in 2021.
“They have thousands of ingredients. They have thousands of people working on commercializing different ingredients, different products, formulations throughout the world,” Air Protein’s co-founder and CEO Lisa Dyson said. “We're now able to leverage all that greatness to help bring Air Protein to life.”
Air Protein is built on 1960s-era NASA research to use hydrogenotrophs — common microbes, some of which actually live in the human gut — to turn carbon dioxide into a physical protein. The research, done during the early days of space travel, had been shelved for decades. Dyson rediscovered the research, proved and perfected it. She and co-founder John Reed started Air Protein to eventually turn this protein into consumer products.
Air Protein has generated both buzz and investment. The company says it has raised about $107 million in cumulative capital. And it has gained many influential investors. Other than ADM, the Ford Foundation, Barclays Sustainable Impact Capital and GV (formerly Google Ventures) have invested in Air Protein.
In the last several years, ADM has played an active role in several food technology companies’ development through investments and partnerships. These include animal-free dairy maker Perfect Day, fermented meat and dairy analog maker Nature’s Fynd, animal-free collagen maker Geltor, animal-free cheese maker New Culture and cultivated meat maker Believer Meats (formerly known as Future Meat Technologies).
Ian Pinner, ADM’s senior vice president for strategy and innovation, said last year the company gets into these partnerships to leverage its expertise and help new companies with promising technologies get off the ground — and be better able to work with ADM and others in the food and beverage ecosystem.
In an email this week, Pinner said this partnership with Air Protein furthers that broader strategy: Bringing ADM’s capabilities together with Air Protein’s novel technology to support a secure and sustainable food system for the future.
”We look forward to working together on supporting the research, development and scalability of cost-effective ingredients for new alternative meat offerings,” he wrote.
Food ‘completely decoupled from supply chains’
Air Protein is leaning into what makes it truly unique, Dyson said: The fact that it’s completely disconnected from farms or any other traditional supply chain.
She noted that every other aspect of the food business today requires something grown on a farm. Even other companies using biomass fermentation to create mycelium-based meat analogs need sugars to feed their fermenters. But all Air Protein needs is carbon dioxide and energy.
“We’re completely landless from an arable land perspective, and decoupled from price volatilities that come along with that,” Dyson said. “Whether it's because of climate, geopolitical issues, there's all kinds of volatility. ... We're decoupled from supply chains. i
“In addition to that, we’re making an ingredient that's a carbon-negative process,” she continued.
Air Protein is working on several product lines. The company has long been planning to launch meat analogs — including Air Chicken and Air Seafood — made from the protein they produce.
But they’re also looking to become an ingredient provider. Dyson said they plan to sell protein ingredients to food companies as dependable supplier of protein that can add nutrition to products and boost sustainability. Dyson said Air Protein’s ingredients can help companies meet their Scope 3 emissions goals, which require sustainable suppliers.
Air Protein is still working on building up its scale and getting approval for its products, so it’s unclear when any products — meat analogs or ingredients — may launch.
“We're literally making protein from air, so it's not an easy process. It's not a fast process,” Dyson said.
The company has done its scientific research and affirmed itself that the protein it makes keeps with the FDA’s generally recognized as safe standards, Dyson said. The company has submitted the research to the FDA and is awaiting a GRAS ruling from the government.
Building out Air Farms
Earlier this year, Air Protein opened its first manufacturing facility in San Leandro, California. Dyson calls it an Air Farm because it is capable of producing large amounts of food without needing any farmland
The Air Farm is currently in the commissioning phase, Dyson said. It will serve as both the R&D hub and the scale-up facility as the company gets ready to launch new products.
As Air Protein grows, Dyson said similar Air Farms can be built around the world. They can be constructed nearly anywhere and operate in any kind of weather because they don’t need farmland or agricultural inputs.
While the Air Farm will be where Air Protein develops and scales up new products and ideas, Dyson said the California facility also will be able to make a small-scale amount of protein for the company’s first launches.
However, as Air Protein’s technology and scale increase, the small facility won’t have the capacity to make a large quantity of ingredients. The agreement with ADM also involves building a commercial-scale facility. Dyson said the companies are currently aligning their timelines and technological know-how, as well as discussing what is best for both ADM and Air Protein to start the preliminary phase of planning.
“Because we're so strategically aligned, it allows for us to work together on that first commercial facility and beyond,” Dyson said.