It’s the largest Series A in food tech history: Ginkgo Bioworks today announced the $90 million launch of Motif Ingredients, a spin-out company that aims to provide next-generation alternative proteins and other ingredients to food companies worldwide.
The new company will leverage Ginkgo’s biological engineering platform to create novel food solutions that give consumers greater choice without compromising taste or nutrition. Motif will focus on fermenting plant-based proteins, with a particular goal of using Ginkgo’s technology to search for molecules with new taste and nutritional properties.
“This capability is going to enable food innovators to create a new generation of really exciting products for consumers,” said Jonathan McIntyre, PhD, Motif’s CEO.
In his previous R&D leadership roles at Pepsico, Indigo, and Solae, McIntyre was frustrated with the limitations of plant-based proteins in achieving the right nutritional balance, physical properties, and taste. “When I became aware of Motif and what is actually possible with the Ginkgo platform, I was excited to be part of this because there is so much unmet need.”
Why is Ginkgo into food ingredients?
The demand for plant proteins is on the rise. They are used in meat substitutes, beverages, baked good, sweets, and packaged foods. According to Food Dive, the global market was $6 billion in 2017 and growing at 7% annually. About three-quarters of consumers see protein from plant sources as healthy, and dietary protein is linked to cardiovascular health, weight management, immune function, and muscle and bone health. Many companies are using synthetic biology to keep up with demand, but there simply aren’t enough plant-based proteins with the taste, health benefits, and other qualities of their animal-based counterparts.
Ginkgo started its food ingredients program just nine months ago, but it is confident that Motif will have the tools to find and produce ‘green proteins’ at a scale that is affordable for food consumers.
“We are going to do what Ginkgo does best,” said McIntyre, “which is strain engineer to optimize the expression levels, and make these proteins in a way that we can recover very quickly, easily, so that we end up with a really good low-cost manufacturing platform.”
Hitting Motif’s targets
So what is Motif going to make? McIntyre is interested in profiling mother’s milk to find and produce some of its obscure, hard-to-find proteins with specific nutritional benefits. (One of Motif’s funders is Fonterra, a global dairy nutrition company interested in plant and fermentation-based nutrition as a compliment to traditional dairy.) McIntyre would also like to develop a portfolio of improved plant-based proteins — ones that aren’t deficient in certain animal amino acids — that would provide more holistic protein nutrition and greater performance in a product like a nutritional bar or sports beverage. Ultimately, Motif plans to engineer dozens of proteins from dairy, egg and meat.
And Motif isn’t afraid to think outside the box. “We get to go out and scan across all of nature,” Ginkgo CEO Jason Kelly told me. “For example, platypus milk has antibacterial properties… as a way to keep its babies safe…
So, there’s all kinds of interesting proteins and cool properties that we will find by going out and taking a broad scan of nature. It’s kind of magic what’s out there.
According to McIntyre, one of Motif’s biggest challenges is simply picking which products to work on. “There are so many exciting and interesting opportunities,” he says, “that one of the challenges we’re going to have is making sure that we’re working on the right ones.” He also thinks Motif has to move fast. “[I]t’s really important to get the products into applications and in front of consumers as fast as possible… and getting quick feedback from consumers. If we do those two things well…, we will know how fast we can get big and be successful.”
Kelly says that Ginkgo isn’t trying to compete with its own customers. It just wants to be an ingredient supplier for the next Impossible Burger, the next Cluckless Nugget, or whatever else people can dream of. “We want to see an explosion of new brand new ideas, new creative concepts for how to include these sort of magic proteins in all kinds of new food products,” he said. “Right now if you want to play in this space, you’ve got to go build a whole biotech team. I mean, that’s just crazy. So we’re hoping that this is a way to really accelerate the industry.”
The right leader, the right product, the right time
Ginkgo’s research into plant-based ingredients quickly got close to the commercial end of spectrum, necessitating a search for a proven leader to take the reins. “When Jon’s resume came across our desk, it was a freakish ‘aha moment,’ like the job had been made for him,” Kelly told me. “[He did] R&D on alternate proteins before alternate proteins were cool. And at PepsiCo he was on the consumer goods side, and then most recently at Indigo had success in a super-fast growing biotech startup… it was a mix that we just didn’t see anybody close to.”
In the lead-up to Motif, McIntyre and Kelly discussed how consumer attitudes to using technology in food are changing, and asked themselves whether the world is ready for these products.
There is this change that makes it feel like now is the right time,” Kelly said, “not just with the technology but also in terms of the customers.”
From McIntrye’s perspective, attitudes have been driven by the East and West Coasts, where you have tech innovators unabashedly pushing the limits, others resisting food technology, and a kind of agreement by all that we’ve got a problem when it comes to food sustainability and nutrition.
“I think it’s going to be an evolution with mainstream consumers,” he said. “But there is a lot of curiosity and desire to fix the ag food supply chain. And we think that Motif, leveraging Ginkgo’s platform, will allow food manufacturers and innovators to create healthy, great tasting products.”