Sick of that blue mold on your bread? Protera recently received a $5.6 million boost from investors for its fermented protein that can replace artificial food additives and increase the shelf life of baked goods by 30 days or more.
Consumers want natural alternatives to artificial food ingredients, and they’re willing to pay more for them. That’s what’s driving a sustained increase in the global clean label market, which is projected to reach $51 billion by 2024.
Clean label products are foods that can be labeled as natural, which are perceived by consumers as healthier and safer. While labeling something natural may have little meaning for what’s actually inside the product, consumer perceptions are driving the industry to come up with ways of making natural products using fermentation—the same process used to create bread, beer, and kombucha. The added advantage of fermentation is that you can use it to make ingredients that are better than conventional chemical ingredients.
“Naturally fermented ingredients are the wave of the future,” says Christine Gould, founder and CEO of Thought For Food, which connects and empowers innovators in global food security. “Not only are consumers more accepting of them, but biology’s natural repertoire can be tapped for ingredients that conventional chemistry can’t beat.”
An effective clean label preservative for baking
In baking, artificial ingredients often function as preservatives, increasing food safety by preventing spoilage in perishable foods. Baked goods are particularly susceptible to fungal spoilage, which has proven a challenge for natural ingredients in the past.
“Antifungal compounds are hard to replace,” says Leonardo Álvarez, CEO and co-founder of Protera.
We all dread discovering that ominous green or blue smudge marring our perfect loaf of bread. Mold, the bane of bakers, arises from bacteria that produce rope spores. Rope spores can survive baking at 300°F and start growing almost as soon as bread comes out of the oven. Within hours, baked goods become smelly and inedible.
If you add 50,000 fungal spores to bread, after 20 days it will look like the green thing on the left. Bread made with Protera’s natural protein, on the right, prevents mold from forming.
To prevent mold, most food manufacturers use calcium propionate. Calcium propionate is a naturally-occuring compound, but it must be produced artificially in order to achieve the high quantities necessary for staving off the nasty microbes that can ruin a bakery. Preservatives that are both naturally produced and equally effective have been few and far between.
That’s where Protera comes in. Protera’s solution is based on synthetic biology, a discipline that uses nature’s own tools to create healthy, sustainable products. These products, often new proteins, are produced through fermentation—not so different to baking bread or brewing beer.
“There’s no protein-based alternative on the market right now—all you have is natural extracts, or other fermented organic acids, which can enhance shelf life by around 12 days,” explains Álvarez. “We’ve developed a new protein that can extend shelf life by 30 days—in some cases, more than 45 days.”
The company recently closed a $5.6M Series A financing, led by Sofinnova Partners, to disrupt the clean label bakery market with a cultured solution to artificial additives.
“Sofinnova Partners invested in Protera because we recognize the tremendous market opportunity opening up in the convergence between biology and AI-driven solutions,” Joško Bobanovic, partner at Sofinnova Partners, told me. “The highly entrepreneurial Protera team has created a game changing approach to design unique, natural solutions that respond to what the market is asking for.”
Deep learning super-speeds protein discovery
This fermented replacement, known as Protera Guard, was a rapid innovation driven by industry demand. Thanks to the insights offered by deep learning—a subset of machine learning—the Protera team was able to move from concept to product at breakneck speed: just one year to get to a working protein.
“What we have developed is a different way of looking at protein structure prediction,” Álvarez says of Protera’s proprietary MADI algorithm, which is already being applied to a range of industries. Based on end-to-end GPU computation, which reduces computational cost, MADI massively accelerates the analysis of billions of proteins the world has not yet had time to explore.
The deep learning component can predict protein structure and features such as solubility, thermostability and pH range – all of which are important when exploring the potential functionality of a new food additive, and can even improve what’s currently on the market. Existing preservatives require a strictly acidic environment, for example. Protera’s products are effective over a much wider pH range.
“These deep learning applications show amazing accuracy in terms of what we predicted, what we test, and how this translates to products,” Álvarez tells me. “It reduces the number of experiments we need to do in the lab. Instead of thousands, we can do – say – ten or so iterations.”
Propionate to palm oil and Paris
The applications of Protera’s Natural Intelligence pipeline – which combines AI-driven prediction with protein engineering in the lab and fermentation of the final product – are not limited to baked goods.
Francia Navarrete and Leonardo Álvarez started Protera in 2014. This Chilean company uses artificial
Emulsifiers and antioxidants are high on the list of next targets. Then there’s palm oil, a multifaceted product which finds its way into around half of all the food products lining supermarket shelves yet is tainted with concerns over sustainability and its association with accelerating deforestation in some of the world’s most biodiverse regions.
“The main target is to replace palm oil from the market, especially because of the environmental concerns,” says Álvarez, who wants to tackle the joint problem of producing a viable alternative that also has a better health profile. “We have developed a new enzymatic process to produce healthier spreadable products without the trans-fats.”
The problem with palm oil is scale, requiring millions of tonnes of production to be really competitive. Álvarez expects that the company’s big move to Paris will prepare the company well to meet that challenge.
“We’ve joined Station F in Paris – it’s amazing, this place with over a thousand startups,” he tells me of the move. “The bioindustry is more prepared in Europe in general. There’s a greater capacity for fermentation, and in France there is huge potential in recruiting on the AI side.”
While Protera’s protein engineering team will stay in Chile, large scale production and AI development will move to Paris. And while the company works on breaking into the palm oil market, in the short term at least, where better to be disrupting bakery than the home of bread?
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Peter Bickerton for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.1