Generations ago, sauerkraut, beer, wine, kimchi and yogurt all came into being because microbial cultures made their way into food items and transformed them.
Put another way, these fermented foods were all the results of accidents. Good accidents — but accidents just the same.
Kendall Dabaghi, co-founder and CEO of New York-based Kingdom Supercultures, said his company is doing much the same thing in a very different way through technology.
"Instead of taking another thousand years to randomly stumble upon the collection of microorganisms that will turn oat and coconut into a really compelling plant-based yogurt, we can speed through these combinations and start to span that really complex design space very quickly in the lab using computation and different experimental approaches," Dabaghi said. "Ultimately, what we're doing is really just speeding up these natural serendipitous discoveries."
Kingdom Supercultures, which Dabaghi started last year with his Columbia University classmate Ravi Sheth, isolates the microbial cultures that ferment food, then reassembles them into "supercultures" that can do many things: create a better plant-based yogurt, make a unique tasting sauce or less intoxicating alcoholic beverage, or reduce added sugars.
Sheth, who serves as the company's chief scientific officer, said he sees Kingdom Supercultures' Brooklyn lab as a "Willy Wonka factory for natural foods."
"We're able to kind of use these microorganisms to do really, really magical things and take bases and transform them into something entirely new," Sheth said. "[We] make natural products that perform just as well as artificial chemical-based products, that access tastes and flavors that in many cases may not have ever been tasted or understood before."
While Kingdom Supercultures has largely operated under the radar, investors and large manufacturers are taking notice. The company today announced a $25 million Series A funding round led by Shine Capital. Other funders in the round include Valor, Tao, Lux, Salt, Reference and Digitalis, and the company received personal investments from the founders of Daring Foods, Good Culture, Hungryroot, RXBar and Waterloo. Kingdom Supercultures plans to use these funds to expand R&D. Last month, Kingdom Supercultures moved its lab into a much larger space.
"We're able to kind of use these microorganisms to do really, really magical things and take bases and transform them into something entirely new. [We] make natural products that perform just as well as artificial chemical-based products, that access tastes and flavors that in many cases may not have ever been tasted or understood before."
Co-founder and chief scientific officer, Kingdom Supercultures
Sheth and Dabaghi could not disclose many specifics about the companies they are working with, but Kingdom Supercultures did provide some of the cultures for the unique fermented components on the new all-vegan menu at exclusive New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park. Dabaghi said they are currently working with some of the largest CPG companies on several projects, including the plant-based dairy and alcoholic beverage spaces. But, Sheth said, that's only the beginning.
"The vision is much, much larger than that, and we think that these ingredients will be a core part of the products that we interact with every day," Sheth said. "Many of those are yet to be invented, but we can only dream of what that will look like."
Using microorganisms like Lego blocks
Kingdom Supercultures does work that is scientifically complex, but easy to explain.
It identifies and isolates microorganisms. And then, with an end product or result in mind, it assembles those microorganisms into "supercultures" to produce it. Sheth said the process works somewhat like Legos.
"So for us, our individual Lego blocks are these individual cultures, and then we can assemble them together into very intentional, high-performance ingredients," he said. "... It's really this new approach that's only possible in the last five years or so, that in our minds really represents a step change in how we think about natural ingredients and fermentation-based processes."
Sheth and Dabaghi stressed that their process is non-GMO and involves absolutely no bioengineering. They aren't changing the cultures that exist. Instead, they're combining them to get better, more customized results.
Part of Kingdom Supercultures' process is using custom analytical equipment that takes precise measurements of each microorganism — its effects on taste, texture and health benefits of different base ingredients. The company uses machine learning and a computational algorithm to help it design supercultures with the desired functionality.
Dabaghi says he sees businesses like Kingdom Supercultures, which use science and biology to create a new class of all-natural ingredients, as the future of food.
"Petroleum-based chemical ingredients revolutionized the consumer packaged goods industry in the 20th century," he said. "We believe the 21st century is going to be the century of biology, where we can use the natural microbial communities to completely transform the way that we eat and live."
Dabaghi started out his career in business, co-founding web security platform ArmorHub and positive online social engagement platform A Plus. But he'd always had food allergies, autoimmune disorders and digestive issues. Fermented food was the only thing that could improve his symptoms, so he got interested in its health potential. He became a microbiome researcher at Columbia, where he met Sheth.
Sheth had dedicated most of his career to microbiome research and was on track to become a professor. His career path changed when he spent a summer working on malnutrition issues with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. There, he worked on ways to address global malnutrition through healthful food, which made him excited about the practical nutritional aspects of cultures and fermentation.
The duo started their business last year with a grant from the National Science Foundation's Small Business Innovation Research program. They unveiled their fermented sauce platform — in use at Eleven Madison Park — in April 2020. And they officially launched at seed accelerator Y Combinator's summer 2020 Demo Day.
More demand, more impact on the way
Kingdom Supercultures is just getting started and most consumers haven't experienced the company's products. But Dabaghi said that it is structuring so that they will be in consumer products someday. The company plans to be exclusively an ingredients supplier. Its expertise is in the science of working with cultures, he said, not in building products, marketing and distribution.
"In our current incarnation as an ingredient supplier, we can work across plant-based yogurt and cheese, alcoholic beverages, plant proteins, personal care, beauty," he said. "We can we can work in a whole host of different areas and we believe we're still just getting started."
One ingredient the company is working on is called Monarch Superculture, made especially for kombucha. Dabaghi said that while many people love the fermented tea for its health benefits, in order for it to both be tasty and functional it often needs quite a lot of sugar and careful refrigeration. It also contains alcohol. Monarch Superculture makes a kombucha with the same health benefits but no sugar or alcohol, and it is shelf stable. It also takes away the somewhat cloying, sharp taste that the fermented tea tends to have, giving the kombucha what Dabaghi described as an effervescent and light flavor, more like a seltzer. He said the company is talking with kombucha makers and there should be products on shelves soon.
Kingdom Supercultures' new lab, which is a massive size upgrade from its previous location, and the new funds will give the business the boost it needs right now, Sheth said. Its program has gained traction with many manufacturers, he said.
"Right now, we literally cannot build the lab in capacities fast enough to meet demand from many of our partners," Sheth said. "I think what our customers see in what we're doing is this vision and this exciting technology, able to deliver natural precision, high-performance ingredients that clean up the labels of products, that deliver really amazing consumer experiences. That's something that just cannot be accomplished with other technologies on the market in a clean, natural way."