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A brave plan to scale up farm-free food

BravelyCultured thinks precision fermentation's future is in the sea

Hello there,

Are you familiar with the world of precision fermentation and how it could be a huge opportunity for the world, by transforming how we make food?

You will be, when you’ve read about what Cambridge-based BravelyCultured is working on in today’s newsletter.

A couple of things before we dive in:

  • 👋 A big hello to everyone who discovered us via a mention in the Sunday Times at the weekend. We had a really good day for new signups. The article described us as a “London tech newsletter” but you can be assured that we’ll continue to cover startups from right across the UK (including London of course).

  • 🚀 Congratulations to ChipFlow for raising a £1.2 million pre-seed round. You first read about this chip design software startup here on PreSeed Now back in November.

– Martin

BravelyCultured has a plan to scale up farm-free food production with the help of the sea

It’s been called “the most important green technology ever,” and while it’s still at an early stage it’s got huge potential. 

Precision fermentation could transform food production by allowing us to grow food from microbes rather than traditional agriculture. This can lead to, for example, cheese that is identical to cow milk cheese without a cow ever having been involved.

That might sound a bit disconcerting, but what you end up with can be the same or better than what you’d get from a farm.

“One of the big problems with food production is that it contributes a lot of CO2 emissions. And by a lot I mean it's 30% of global CO2 emissions,” says Natalija Stepurko, co-founder and CEO of BravelyCultured, a startup doing pioneering work in the precision fermentation space. Some estimates put that figure as even higher than 30%.

“The problem with food production is, basically, animals. We take proteins and fats from animals; that's what we're interested in, in terms of the food industry.”

But what if you produced those proteins and fats in another way? That’s what precision fermentation can achieve.

“You can take identical proteins that are in animals, insert this genetic information into microorganisms and make them secrete the proteins that are present normally in animals,” says Stepurko.

“So essentially, you can completely substitute animal agriculture with precision fermentation without the loss of nutritional value because you're making exactly the same product, but with drastically reduced carbon and deforestation impact.”

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BravelyCultured is entering a small but developing space. The startup has its own take on precision fermentation at a time when the technology is evolving beyond its beginnings in pharmaceuticals and biofuels, thanks to pioneering companies like Impossible Foods.

The technology and the ocean

BravelyCultured wants to accelerate progress in bringing precision fermentation to large-scale food production. 

“The problem with current precision fermentation is that it… utilises agriculture-derived feedstocks like glucose, and it's also quite expensive in the state that it is… so it's not really sustainable or cheap enough for global food production,” says Stepurko.

To solve this problem, BravelyCultured has looked out to sea.

“We’re selecting novel marine microorganisms, yeast and fungi mainly… that can grow naturally on saltwater and seaweed. We're screening them for their natural capacity to produce protein.

“If you have organisms that naturally can grow on things that we want them to grow on, and naturally can secrete protein, then they are a very good starting point for genetic engineering to start secreting animal-based proteins.”

While there are already a bunch of startups in the precision fermentation space, Stepurko explains that they’re largely focused on producing specific proteins using the same, expensive, processes used to develop medicines such as insulin.

BravelyCultured hopes its approach of genetically engineering marine microorganisms will unlock the capability to mass-produce the building blocks of food.

“We are really occupying a space that doesn't yet exist,” says Stepurko. “But precision fermentation is a growing market, and precision fermentation for food is becoming more and more popular as people become more aware of the impact that food supply chains are having on the planet.”

The story so far

Stepurko joined the Carbon13 climate-focused venture builder last year, armed with a PhD in biochemistry and an entrepreneurial drive.

It was there that BravelyCultured was born, as Stepurko teamed up with co-founders James Dunce and Federica Pesce.

“We were thinking how we could deal with the problems in food supply chains in terms of emissions, inequality, and resource use. Applying our expertise to precision fermentation was a perfect place to go,” says Stepurko.

“But we realised that precision fermentation in its current state was not really going to solve those problems. That's why we ended up designing the technology almost from scratch.”

The trio got to work at the end of last year, and Stepurko is pleased with their progress so far. They began by collecting biomass–seaweed, driftwood, and sand in this case–and culturing microorganisms on it. 

Stepurko says this resulted in an “impressive” number of organisms that could survive in the high-salt conditions their approach requires. And a lot of them produced protein to the same level as the microorganisms used in current precision fermentation approaches. 

Once its technique is ready to go to market, BravelyCultured plans to licence it to other companies in the space. Later, they plan to use their technology to create a food ingredient that it can sell.

“Before precision fermentation is at a proper scale, it's quite hard to produce food ingredients at a price point which is acceptable for the food industry. So we're planning to enter with a high-value ingredient, which is most likely going to be an enzyme,” says Stepurko.

Next steps

Over the next year, BravelyCultured is going to be firmly in R&D mode as it develops what Stepurko describes as a “sizeable” library of microorganisms from seashores, while also developing seaweed-based feedstocks.

“We are planning towards the end of this year to have that library screened for protein secretion and actually also having a candidate that we want to bring forward for genetic engineering. 

“In a year and a half from now, we're planning to have samples of animal protein produced, and we have alternative food manufacturers that are happy to incorporate those samples into food ingredients to see how they perform. 

“It's obviously not possible to sell them to customers because of legislation, but we'll be testing how the ingredients perform.”

And speaking of legislation, Stepurko sees earlier potential in the US market, where the relevant testing and certification can be carried out faster than in Europe, which is at a much earlier stage when it comes to approving precision fermentation for food use. 

The EU is still researching the safety of the technology, while a group of startups have clubbed together to create Food Fermentation Europe, to act as “the unified voice representing the transformative fermentation food and food ingredient sector.”

As you might expect, the UK is assessing the possibility of moving faster than the EU in fields like precision fermentation.

Go deeper on BravelyCultured

More on their funding, vision, competition, and challenges:


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