Big investors are putting their money toward a company making a meat substitute out of thin air.
ADM Ventures, Barclays and GV (formerly Google Ventures) led a $32 million funding round for Air Protein, a startup that uses fermentation to make a meat alternative out of elements in the air. The company, founded by former strategy consultant Lisa Dyson, who also has a doctorate in physics, is built around 1960s-era NASA research about how astronauts could convert carbon dioxide into food.
“With this funding, we will be able to accelerate our work towards providing innovative, environmentally friendly, highly nutritious alternatives that will play an important role in meeting the growing global demand for alternatives to animal protein,” Dyson said in an emailed press release. “We are commercializing a novel technology platform that is capable of scaling to large-scale production to help feed the world’s 10 billion people by the year 2050, in the most sustainable approach available today.”
Air Protein will use the funds to launch an innovation R&D lab, accelerate product development and commercialization, and recruit a dedicated team. In an email, Dyson said Air Protein has been been leveraging staff from sister company Kiverdi, which uses similar technology for plastic recycling, soil enriching, creating feed for aquaculture and developing closed-loop systems that reuse other industries' waste products. Dyson plans to bring on a dedicated team for Air Protein, including a meat R&D staff, as well as positions in finance, marketing and HR.
While Air Protein's entire premise may sound like science fiction, it's outlined in a 1967 NASA report about how to support human life during a space mission longer than a year. The space agency looked at hydrogenotrophs — common microbes, some of which live in the human gut — that can be used to turn carbon dioxide into a physical protein. NASA considered harnessing these microbes to convert the carbon dioxide that astronauts would exhale into something they could eat.
In 2016, Dyson gave a TED talk about how the technology works. After Air Protein was spun off from Kiverdi in 2019, she told Food Dive the company had developed fermentation vessels that can rapidly and efficiently convert gases to what looks like a protein-rich flour. She said these facilities are similar to breweries.
Sustainability is one of the biggest benefits of Air Protein's production process, which requires very few resources, Dyson said. It's also one of the key reasons investors backed the company's latest financing round.
“At GV, we’re drawn to invest in the future of sustainable food, and Air Protein provides a unique protein source with proven yields and production efficiency,” Andy Wheeler, general partner at the venture arm, said in a written statement. “Air Protein holds considerable potential as a modern meat alternative, and we’re looking forward to seeing what CEO Lisa Dyson and the founding team create in the company’s next phase of growth.”
Currently, Air Protein is only pursuing meat substitutes, Dyson said in an email. She would not give specifics about potential products or launch timelines, but said "interest across all possible paths has been tremendous." Photographs from the company show items that look like chicken substitutes.
Since its launch, Air Protein has been working to perfect its process and product. Dyson said the company spent 2020 developing texture and taste profiles, and has had successful consumer taste tests. It wants to perfect the fermentation process to create its signature protein ingredient as well as scale up for the product launch. Dyson said Air Protein has also started the process of getting GRAS certification for its protein ingredient so it can be sold to U.S. consumers.
ADM Ventures provides a key partnership to Air Protein through this funding round. The ingredients giant has funded several tech-heavy protein startups in recent years, including animal-free dairy company Perfect Day, alternative protein maker Nature's Fynd — previously known as Sustainable Bioproducts — and animal-free ingredient producer Geltor. ADM Ventures will use its expertise in fermentation for ingredients and developing products for other uses to help Air Protein bring its offer to market, Managing Director Darren Streiler said in a release.
As Air Protein develops its products, it also is developing its messaging. To many consumers, food from air may sound more like a magic trick than a product. Dyson said the company will likely be focusing on the product's high protein levels — it is about 80% protein — and sustainability.