When looking at futuristic possibilities for tomorrow's food industry, Air Protein stands out.
The company was built from 1960s-era NASA research on how to feed astronauts on long-haul space missions. According to this research, carbon dioxide could be transformed into a physical protein through a fermentation process harnessing common microbes called hydrogenotrophs.
Air Protein Founder and CEO Lisa Dyson, a former strategy consultant with a doctorate in physics, picked up on this research. She worked with John Reed, who has a doctorate and advanced degrees in materials science and engineering, to make it a reality. First, they created Kiverdi, a company that uses carbon dioxide-made proteins for applications including transforming plastics into biodegradable polymers, and making organic crop nutrients and fishmeal. Then, in 2019, they created the first Air Meat — a chicken analog using a similar process — and spun off Air Protein.
In the last two and a half years, Air Protein has been busy behind the scenes, creating and perfecting better meat analogs, improving its process and wooing investors, manufacturers, retailers, restaurateurs and consumers. The company closed a $32 million funding round led by ADM Ventures, Barclays and GV (formerly known as Google Ventures) last year. The money has been used to help the company scale up both its production and staffing levels.
Air Protein hasn’t yet tipped its hand to when it may launch products, what they might be and where they may be available, but Dyson said that the company has been in full swing getting ready for it during the pandemic. In a wide-ranging conversation with Food Dive, she shared her enthusiasm — both for the work that the Air Protein team is doing and for its greater possibilities in the way of sustainability. After all, she said, carbon dioxide is plentiful, and using a purified version of the gas to make food through fermentation has much less of an impact on the planet than traditional animal agriculture.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
FOOD DIVE: How are things coming and how's 2022 shaping up?
LISA DYSON: We've been able to make it through the pandemic. That's important. We're scaling up our production process. I think we've seen the supply chain issues that everyone has seen during this process, but happily we've been able to leverage our partners and have a team that's been quick to make changes and pivot in order to get through the supply chain disruptions that we're seeing in the space.
FOOD DIVE: What can you say about products that you might be starting with and places they might start launching?
DYSON: In terms of products, we've been doing product development on chicken. We've been doing product development on seafood. So we have a bunch of different meat forms that we're working on. Our goal is to create products that meat eaters love. We have a unique, differentiated protein that allows us to do that. It's looking like we're going to launch in foodservice first and expand quickly into retail, and grow that channel shortly thereafter.
FOOD DIVE: How does it taste?
DYSON: The Air Meat that we make is not only carbon negative, but it tastes good. There's many trials to get there. We’ve done hundreds of iterations and formulations. And then when we have the tasting bill, that's when we have the chefs involved, and they're really working their magic — those have been pretty good. And I'm biased, of course, but the last tasting that we had, comments that came out were, 'If I fed this to my family, they wouldn't even know it wasn't chicken.' And from an executive of a large foodservice chain, that person said it was ready for retail. So we got some good feedback, but of course, it didn't start there. That's just where we've arrived.
FOOD DIVE: Air Protein was born out of research that was done more than a half century ago. I'm not a scientist, and when I first read about it, I thought it sounded like science fiction. When you saw the research, what did you first think?
DYSON: The original look at this research, when we were thinking about taking elements of the air and making products, it was a bit surprising to me, thinking about what was possible. My first thought was this would be amazing if we could get this to work and scale it up. And I have to say that I was [ready to] work to make that happen.
In a startup, you have highs, you have lows, and through the lows, I just was reminded about how much I thought this can have an impact if we were able to get it to work and get it to scale. So that's what kept me going to the point where we are now. We’ve got great investors, we’re scaling the technology, we're bringing it to market, we've demonstrated that we can make really high-quality protein with all the essential amino acids as well as bioavailable minerals and vitamins through this really efficient and low-cost process.
FOOD DIVE: How hard was it to take this conceptual research that was done so long ago and actually make it into something?
DYSON: It was challenging in that there were a lot of twists and turns along the way in terms of what to focus on. ... The fact that we need to feed 10 billion people by 2050, [makes] it critical to figure out how to do that in a way that doesn't produce harmful gases and doesn't clear our rainforest. We happen to be at a moment where companies, investors, consumers are all making choices that are more environmentally friendly, and so this happens to be a great time for us to scale.
FOOD DIVE: How did you first start talking to people outside of researchers about Air Protein, and how did you convince them that this was something that was real, and could happen and really could make that impact?
DYSON: My role is to talk to the people that aren’t scientists and to translate the science that is being done into the impact that it can have on the world. ...How we do it is with this new way of doing fermentation, this fermentation reimagined, as it were. And the way that we reimagine it really has that huge impact, that it will be able to make protein in a way that is significantly better from an environmental footprint versus the other ways that are used today.
FOOD DIVE: How did you get past the initial, 'What? No way'?
DYSON: I think it is going back to the science. It’s going back to the simplicity of it. It is a new way of producing food, but it's very similar to the way we've produced food ever since we realized that beer and wine taste good. ...It's associating it with fermentation of yogurt, and whey is a protein powder from making yogurt. There's ways of getting protein from a fermentation process that we already know about, and that exists today. Similarly, Air Protein is getting protein from a fermentation type of process, but it's just a reimagined way of doing fermentation.
FOOD DIVE: What are the potential investors more interested in: return on investment? The sustainability aspect?
DYSON: I wouldn't say it’s an interest in return on investment. I would say that they, like me and our team, we're all aligned. We want to have an impact in the world, and the way that you have the impact is to scale. And the way to scale is to be economically attractive. It's just the way the world works, that cost matters. So if we make something that's too expensive, then it would just be premium. Happily, our cost is an advantage, which leads us all to believe — based on the data, based on the analysis — that this could be one of the lowest-cost proteins at scale.
FOOD DIVE: Your company, like many right now, is in transition. What is your plan for going to step B, where you have a product that goes to consumers?
DYSON: There's different types of people that you need. They have different expertise for the goals of the company at different phases. We will always have R&D because we're a tech company and it is our foundation. And then we have a chief marketing officer. We have a VP of marketing. We have a head of go-to-market. There's different types of skill sets that one brings on board to expand your company to go on to do different things. I think that's primarily the thing that we have done and that we'll continue to do, is just expand the minds that are working on this and building this and creating the partnerships, hiring the people, building the teams, running the teams that do things other than research.
FOOD DIVE: Is there a company in the food business or elsewhere that you would want to emulate as you are going from concept to product?
DYSON: I'll highlight a company because that company did things that people couldn't imagine, and that's Apple. They would come out with these new innovations that were just so different than the way other people had done it, whether it's a watch, whether it's a phone, whether it’s this object that can fit all of your songs onto it and you put it in your pocket.
I think similarly, Air Protein is all about reimagining the standard. ...The standard way of making a steak is for two years of development of that steak — with lots of greenhouse gasses along the way, lots of land and lots of water. ...We're using a very different technology. ...We want to create solutions that drastically improve on anything we've done before, and stay at the cutting edge of innovation.
FOOD DIVE: When you're talking to funders, others in the food business and potential consumers, how do you tell them what you have planned and what Air Protein can do without over-promising or saying something that you might not be able to live up to?
DYSON: There's aspirations and there's reality. As we're scaling and adding more and more customers to our list as we're growing, those customers will taste our products. As I mentioned before, the taste tests we've had so far have been very positive. And I'm biased, of course, but others have positively made lots of great comments about the tastes and flavors of our food being just like they’re used to. So that is required. You’re grounded in reality. Reality would be the senses.
FOOD DIVE: Fast forward a decade. Where do you see the food industry?
DYSON: I am excited by so many companies that are in this space to reimagine how we make food, make protein, make meat. ... In our case, we're focused on a new way that leapfrogs the other ways in terms of carbon footprint, in terms of manualization. No arable land required. No inputs that require sugar or plants for our protein production. I'm excited to see this type of technology grow and scale — and for Air Protein to be a leader in that, of course — but I'm excited to see that we [are] having a smaller footprint as our population continues to grow.