For years, advanced research on proteins has been taking place — but most of it has been done in the name of medicine.
Jasmin Hume, a scientist and engineer with her Ph.D. in materials chemistry, thought that this type of research also should be done in the food space. After all, she said, it's clear that the current food system has deep and detrimental impacts on the environment. Traditional animal agriculture for meat, dairy, eggs and functional ingredients has sustainability challenges. And common ingredients such as palm oil and coconut oil may not be derived from animals, but are grown and farmed in ways that have been known to harm the environment.
Hume realized that the most important thing she could do is use technology to make the food system more sustainable — and in effect, slow climate change. To work toward that goal, she founded Shiru, an ingredients company with the mission of using science to create more climate-friendly alternatives.
"Combine [the threat of climate change] with the advent of certain technologies that have really reached maturity over the past couple of decades — including fermentation — there's a huge opportunity to make ingredients in a way that doesn't leave a disastrous effect on our planet for future generations," Hume said.
Shiru's mission and application of cutting-edge technology to the food industry have been attracting a lot of attention. The company just closed a $17 million Series A investment round led by S2G Ventures, bringing the company's total funding to more than $20 million. Returning investors include Lux Capital, CPT Capital, Y Combinator and Emles Venture Partners. New investors include The W Fund, SALT and Veronorte.
Hume said these funds are going to help scale up Shiru, giving the company the space and R&D capacity to create the kind of ingredients that can shift many food manufacturers' reliance from animal-based products. The company is building out a new facility in California, which it expects to finish in April. Shiru also has made six plant-based protein ingredients that have similar gelation properties to those that come from animals. Hume said the company is in preliminary talks about partnerships, and hopes to be able to deliver some samples early next year.
Shiru, which currently has 24 employees — many of whom have advanced degrees and years of experience in disciplines including food science, bioinformatics, molecular biology and chemical engineering — is on the cusp of changing how the food system works, Hume said. A year from now, she expects Shiru's ingredients to be on their way to becoming part of many products.
"We tick a lot of boxes, and we allow food manufacturers to formulate vegan products that enable the customer to not have to sacrifice on taste or texture — which is extremely, extremely critical for the whole success of this industry and this movement," Hume said. "If you're going to ask people to sacrifice on those things, these products are never going to work."
Finding what looks like the proteins in meat (and other animal-based food)
Shiru takes a lot of techniques, publicly available research and analytical tools to get down to the basic building blocks of what makes animal-based ingredients work.
While a single ingredient has several different uses — eggs, for example, have gelling, binding and thickening properties — Hume said it is not Shiru's mission to find a plant-based equivalent that can do all of those things. Instead, the company looks at an animal-based ingredient's function — thickening, for example — and works to create a plant-based alternative that does the same thing.
To do this, Shiru uses existing databases and bioinformatics to analyze which proteins provide the desired function in an animal-based ingredient. Then it uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to find which of these proteins also exist in plants and can perform a similar function.
Next, Shiru uses precision fermentation to produce more of the same protein, and then puts it to the test.
"There are lots of other proteins that can do those things, but before we had this type of discovery capability, nobody had been able to find them," Hume said. "And we're excited that we can leverage our technology to create solutions for a lot of different food application categories in a way that hasn't been done before."
Shiru gets its name from a Mandarin word that literally translates to "looks like meat," Hume said. It references the fact that its ingredients seem like they are animal-based, but truly are not.
"We tick a lot of boxes, and we allow food manufacturers to formulate vegan products that enable the customer to not have to sacrifice on taste or texture — which is extremely, extremely critical for the whole success of this industry and this movement."
Founder and CEO, Shiru
Hume said that she's often asked why Big Food doesn't have internal teams doing the same thing as Shiru. While these companies have deep reserves of cash, materials, people and facilities, she said they may not have the same concentration of diverse scientists who are applying the same approach of research to food.
"I think bigger food companies traditionally don't hire that that level of diversity and have them working in such small cross-functional teams," Hume said.
Shiru is first focusing on identifying plant-based proteins that can offer the same gelling properties commonly provided by eggs, dairy, gelatin and collagen. It is also developing a replacement for methylcellulose, which is a plant-based ingredient that is created — and often rejected by consumers looking for clean-label products.
The six ingredients Shiru has created so far are only available in small amounts. Hume said this funding will help it create samples and work with companies to make more customized ingredients — like a plant-based gelation ingredient that works best in low pH, or can gel at a higher temperature.
A team effort
Hume said Shiru will likely start creating plant-based ingredients with a new array of functions next year. Some of the functions she is interested in tackling are basic ones commonly associated with animal-based food, like nutrient delivery and fortification. A year from now, Hume hopes to have grown the company's ingredient catalog to about 30.
The new 17,000-square-foot facility, which will give Shiru more space to do both research and fermentation work, will also help the company continue to grow. There will be more samples to send out to clients for feedback and possible inclusion in products. And, she said, the company should be figuring out how to produce the more desired ingredients at a scale to supply manufacturers or other ingredient makers.
Hume's long-range plan for Shiru is for its ingredients to be readily available and commonly used in CPG products, both in the U.S. and internationally.
While that goal may be a way off, Shiru is working toward it. The company has a patent pending on its discovery capabilities. It's already created buzz in the food space for its potential to replace and improve troublesome ingredients. And it has a unique female-centric work culture: Shiru has a female founder and CEO, employs a large number of highly educated women, and has several women on its board.
Many companies now use technology to improve the food system through more sustainable production methods. Hume said that there isn't so much competition between the different players at this time; instead, Shiru is part of an ecosystem of many businesses working together toward a common goal.
"This challenge around sustainable food, it is just such a tremendous problem and opportunity, that it's not a winner-takes-all game," Hume said. "This is an effort where the rising tide raises all of the ships, and I'm very happy that Shiru is a part of that."