John Penno and his wife Maury Leyland Penno realized about six years ago that it was time to dedicate their lives to something that's better for the environment.
It was a major life decision for the pair, who were both executives in New Zealand's dairy industry. John Penno had co-founded dairy nutritional company Synlait, and Maury Leyland Penno was an executive at Fonterra. They wanted to take their knowledge and passions — as well as their agriculture-focused viewpoint from their home country of New Zealand — into the alternative proteins space. But they weren't sure just what their venture would be. After all, there were many players in plant-based protein, and it seemed unlikely that they would be able to break into the crowded soy or pea ingredients space.
Then Maury Leyland Penno took her husband to a hackathon. They listened to a researcher talk about a project from the 1980s that dealt with leafy greens. And that got them both thinking.
"Leafy crops are very, very productive, these perennial plants," John Penno said. "You mow them off and they just keep coming back with the light. And the protein production in that leafy cropping system is enormous. It's a very, very efficient way of harvesting sunlight, water and nutrients and producing protein and carbohydrates and all the other things you want to produce."
The substance that makes leafy greens such a life force is a protein known as rubisco. It is required for photosynthesis, and researchers have said it is the most abundant protein in the world. The Pennos started Leaft Foods, a company that extracts rubisco out of leaves and turns it into a green protein gel, which it can process into a tasteless and odorless protein powder. Rubisco, which has a similar amino acid profile to beef, is a powerhouse ingredient that can be added to any food product, and that can supercharge the nutritional value of any plant-based dish, according to the company.
Last month, Leaft closed a $15 million Series A investment round. The round, led by Khosla Ventures, saw participation from NBA star Steven Adams, New Zealand indigenous investor Ngāi Tahu and the Climate Change Impact Fund of New Zealand sovereign health provider ACC. The funds will be used to build Leaft's R&D, help the company grow, and begin to establish a global value chain starting in the U.S.
From a kitchen experiment to sports nutrition
Rubisco is already in every plant. When consumers eat a salad, they are getting a dose of its high-quality protein. Herbivores, including large ones that need a lot of nutrients like gorillas, get a lot of their protein that way.
Humans do eat some leafy greens, Maury Leyland Penno said. But we don't eat enough to get the concentration of rubisco that could fully meet dietary needs — and the human body isn't exactly built to digest the large amount of leafy greens to get that much rubisco.
Leaft's proprietary process takes the rubisco and concentrates it so it can be in the amounts that could meet humans' protein requirements.
John Penno said that rubisco is unique in several ways. It isn't like a protein that comes from a legume, including pea or soy, or from a grain, like wheat.
"It's active. It's much more like an animal protein in that," he said. "...It has wonderful properties. In its pure form, it's tasteless, odorless. And while that sounds boring, for a protein as an ingredient or a drink, it's marvelous building block for foods. It's got a great amino acid profile because, again, it's a functioning live protein. It's got work to do and it's working inside."
Before the company was officially started, Maury Leyland Penno did an extensive review of scientific writings about rubisco. She had been able to get a green rubisco gel out of kale leaves in their kitchen. So the next step, John Penno said, was finding people who had the food science knowledge and ability to improve the company's product.
Today, Leaft still performs that first step: removing the green juice that contains rubisco from the plants it harvests. Then, similar to dairy milk, Leaft takes that juice to a processing plant, Maury Leland Penno said. Some of the processes to extract the rubisco and turn it into what looks like a white powder are actually similar to those used in dairy plants worldwide, she said.
While John Penno said the company's ultimate goal is changing the world, Leaft is starting out by making rubisco protein isolate and concentrate products. He said these are similar to the whey and soy proteins that are popular in the sports nutrition market. The rubisco protein that Leaft is making now looks and behaves very similarly, except it's plant-based, eco-friendly, allergy-friendly and easily digestible, according to the company. It also goes through a limited amount of processing and is on its own a very powerful protein, Leaft says.
John Penno said it makes sense for Leaft to start with a direct-to-consumer product in this segment to get the company out there. He's also planning for this launch to take place in the United States, which has a large sports nutrition market. This kind of launch will also give Leaft the opportunity to do consumer research, finding out what people think of the product and how they want it to be used. Leaft is seeking a U.S. team to direct this, and Maury Leland Penno said they are targeting a 2023 U.S. launch.
An ingredient for everything — including sustainability
While rubisco protein powder is Leaft's first planned launch, it's just the beginning. The Pennos said they think their rubisco will eventually become used as an ingredient in a wide variety of products.
"It's an unusual product because it's quite well known," John Penno said. "So when you talk to the big food manufacturers of the world, they know about the protein. They know its potential, its functionality, its amino acid profile. It's a very high-potential protein, and it's been looked at and researched. They just needed to learn how to commercialize it."
First, he said, Leaft needs to get to the volume and scale to fill the potential demand, as well as figure out what rubisco protein can do. The company has a test kitchen that has been exploring the possibilities. Maury Leyland Penno said they have been able to make a meringue-like cake from their rubisco protein, which can gel like egg whites.
While there are other yet-undiscovered uses of Leaft's rubisco, it has one characteristic the Pennos are certain of: sustainability. Because rubisco is in every leafy green plant, there is a wide variety of potential sources that can be planted to harvest it. Maury Leyland Penno said they are focused on planting nitrogen-fixing crops — which help naturally fertilize soil — as a source.
"What we're dealing with is the protein that's in the living cell. And it's a live protein. It's active. It's much more like an animal protein in that. ...It has wonderful properties.
Co-founder, Leaft Foods
Right now, she said, they have been working the most with alfalfa, but that is likely to change as they learn more. There does not seem to be much of a difference between the rubisco product that comes from different types of plants, John Penno said. It's more of a matter of what plants grow the best and fastest to create leaves rich in the protein, as well as the other products that could be created from those plants. After the rubisco is removed, the leftover plant fiber could make a nutritious animal feed, said Maury Leyland Penno. But there may also be other useful components in those fibers, like sugars or other ingredients to extract.
The Pennos are excited about the potential of rubisco, but they said Leaft's current work is only the beginning. For millennia, John Penno said, plant agriculture has been about the same things: growing legumes, cereal crops and grains and using just a portion of what is harvested for food. Leaft looks at those plants in a wholly different way.
"In 30 years' time, I have no question that the production of leafy crops and what comes from it will result in a whole lot of different foods and food production systems," he said. "As we learn about it and unlock it, it's just such an efficient way of harvesting sunlight, nutrients and water. This is going to unlock, we think, that step change that we need from our agricultural systems."