Microbes found in the extreme environments of Yellowstone National Park thermal features are key to a major financial investment in a new form of protein that could find its way into commercial foods within a few years.
Sustainable Bioproducts, a biotechnology company developing a new way to grow edible protein, announced last month that investors have pledged $33 million toward commercializing a process that has its roots in a Montana microbiologist’s research into tiny organisms that thrive in the hot, acidic waters of Yellowstone.
A Silicon Valley-based venture fund, 1955 Capital, was among the major investors in Chicago-based Sustainable Bioproducts, which also has offices in Bozeman, Mont. Another backer is Breakthrough Energy Ventures—whose investors include Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
Sustainable Bioproducts is developing a fermentation process that aims to produce a protein with high nutritional value, while having minimal environmental impact, according to a statement released by the company.
Sustainable Bioproducts was started by Mark Kozubal, who in 2010 earned a doctorate in microbiology from Montana State University and partnered with the school to study extremeophiles in Yellowstone.
The company has received a wide range of federal research funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation, according to data provided by the federal Small Business Innovation Research program.
Kozubal’s early work centered around a unique fungus, dubbed MK7, that thrives in Yellowstone’s hot springs and consumes algae, but yields an oily lipid when dried. NASA also helped fund Kozubal’s efforts as part of research into a zero-gravity bioreactor that could convert human waste into food or fuel.
“Curiosity and a passion for exploration led us to Yellowstone, one of the harshest ecosystems in the world,” said Thomas Jonas, Sustainable Bioproducts’ CEO and cofounder. “By observing how life optimizes the use of resources in this challenging environment, we have invented a way to make protein that is radically more efficient and gentler on our planet.”
Other investors include the venture capital segments of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Company and French food and beverage company Danone, which produces several brands of yogurt and the Silk portfolio of plant milks.
Several food and biotech companies are racing to develop and commercialize cheap, eco-friendly, mass-produced proteins that can be used in place of animal-derived meat or dairy products.
“We have witnessed incredible growth in the demand for new proteins in recent years and believe Sustainable Bioproducts has the most compelling and efficient solution to satisfy this demand,” said Andrew Chung, managing partner of 1955 Capital. “This demand will not only come from the West, but from the developing world where the need for protein will become more severe.”
The company’s protein is not expected to be in the commercial marketplace—possibly appearing in yogurt or veggie-burgers—for at least a couple of years.
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