It sounds like a bizarre science fiction tale: Scientists researching for NASA what organisms can survive in harsh conditions stumble upon microbial life forms that thrive in Yellowstone National Park's unforgiving volcanic springs and turn it into food.
But that is a condensed version of the backstory of Sustainable Bioproducts, an up-and-coming player in the alternative protein category. The company, founded in 2016, received $33 million in Series A funding from the venture capital arms of Archer Daniels Midland and Danone, and is gearing up to have some products on the market next year, CEO Thomas Jonas told Food Dive.
But what kinds of food products can be made from organisms that thrive in volcanoes? And what does it look like? Jonas wouldn't give too many details about what his company first plans to launch, though he said they have developed savory, sweet, liquid and solid applications. While Sustainable Bioproducts is likely to seek partnerships with some established players in the food space, Jonas said what the company will be launching on its own is "center of plate" type of fare.
And the question lingering for many: How does something like this taste?
"I'm French," Jonas said. "We don't mess up the food. The taste aspect is absolutely fundamental."
An unconventional backstory
The Sustainable Bioproducts website doesn't look like it belongs to a food company.
With pictures of volcanoes, geysers, mountains, rivers and uninviting bright orange lakes, it could be from a land management company, an extreme travel magazine or Yellowstone National Park itself. The page introducing members of the company's C-suite looks like it could belong to a scientific consulting firm. Many of the company's leaders have impressive research backgrounds not often found in the top ranks of food companies.
The researchers behind the company had gone to Yellowstone, which has some of the most extreme conditions on the planet. The project was studying what can survive in an environment unlike Earth, and Jonas said they trekked out to an area of the park that is so dangerous, it is closed to the public. They examined an acidic spring, with a pH similar to a car battery, to see what was there.
Despite the harsh environment, life has found a way to survive there. One in particular caught their attention. Jonas said this fungus is 60% protein. It isn't just naturally high in protein, but it's also a complete protein, presenting all of the amino acids that are required for human life.
"Just like eggs, just like meat, just like dairy, ... which is really rare to find outside of the animal world," Jonas said. "It's in very few plants, but it's very rare to find one thing that has it all."
Not only does this organism innately have the type of protein needed for good food, but it also organizes itself in a filamented way that resembles muscles, giving it a meat-like texture, Jonas said. It's also efficient in using resources to sustain and propagate itself. They can take one ton of starch, and this organism can turn it into two tons of a meat-like product.
Several high level science organizations in the U.S. government — NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation and the USDA — recognized this discovery as "breakthrough science," Jonas said, and helped Sustainable Bioproducts develop a specialized fermentation process.
This protein grows quickly, provides the nutrients people need and is more efficient than traditional farming and food systems, Jonas said.
While he said he respects farmers and the work they do, it takes a lot of work and effort to get food. A farmer plants corn in spring and tends the plant until it's ready to harvest close to the fall. The plant has grown to about 7 feet tall by then, Jonas said, but all the farmer wants are the grains in an ear of corn. And, he said, taking the farming analogy further, if those grains are fed to a cow, 90% of them end up coming out as waste and not going toward the meat or milk that the cow could produce.
"We'll be providing, in what I call 'burger equivalent,' the same amount that you will get out of cows grazing on 7,000 acres. That's the amount of land that you will need. And we're going to do that in the city of Chicago in just one plant."
CEO, Sustainable Bioproducts
Sustainable Bioproducts ferments its protein, meaning it can be produced 365 days a year without regard to the weather or other environmental factors. It also needs less land and fewer resources. Jonas said the company, which works out of a lab facility in Bozeman, Montana, is currently putting together its pilot manufacturing plant in Chicago.
"We'll be providing, in what I call 'burger equivalent,' the same amount that you will get out of cows grazing on 7,000 acres," Jonas said. "That's the amount of land that you will need. And we're going to do that in the city of Chicago in just one plant."
But will people eat it?
It's one thing to be able to produce a large amount of something that is both edible and good for consumers. But as anyone in the food business knows, it's another to make a product that consumers want to eat more than once.
Jonas is not concerned with either of these things. The company is currently working on building its manufacturing plant, which can produce the supply of its products. He said he is confident it will taste good.
Extensive work helped the company develop the different flavoring and texture applications. In that way, Jonas said, it's like soy — something that can be solid, liquid and included in many diverse products with different flavors.
He also said he's sure people will eat this product. While the backstory is unconventional, he said consumers are fairly adaptable. And they are looking for things that are good for them and good for the environment, especially millennials and Generation Z.
To prove his point, he brought up two examples. Not even 20 years ago, sushi was something that many outside of Japan said they were unwilling to try. Now, consumers often pick sushi up at any convenience store. And about a century ago, yogurt was considered odd and only sold in pharmacies. Now, it's an $84.5 billion global business, according to Statista.
"There has always been more flexibility in diets than we thought," he said. "What was once strange and different and weird is now common, accepted."
Jonas said Sustainable Bioproducts is working to get products to market next year and told Food Dive there should be announcements of launches and partnerships coming in the next few months. He anticipates both independently produced products and partnerships with other big manufacturers, but said nothing more.
To gear up for that, the company brought on several industry experts to its team.
"There has always been more flexibility in diets than we thought. What was once strange and different and weird is now common, accepted."
CEO, Sustainable Bioproducts
"We're putting together the Justice League of food here," Jonas said, alluding to the superhero team of DC Comics and movies fame. "We really want to get the best talent to help us bring a food that's natural, that's leveraging nature's own technology and that enables us to come back to something that's very real."
That team includes former Kraft Foods CEO Tony Vernon, who is a member of the company's board. Jonas said his deep understanding of the food and beverage market, plus his deep interest in the biotech space, makes him a good fit. The new Chief Marketing Officer Karuna Rawal was behind P&G's "Like A Girl" campaign, and a good person to tell Sustainable Bioproducts' unique story, Jonas said.
Jonas said he's not sure how other manufacturers will react to his company's products when they come on the market. After all, he's not sure who will view them as a competitor.
"In many ways we're inventing this space, right? We are our own thing," Jonas said. "And, you know, there's beauty in that we're kind of creating this, this fresh new category, which is the most efficient protein on the planet."