Upcycling dairy to produce the 'world's first' mycoprotein: Valio and eniferBio join forces on Pekilo research

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Valio enters collaboration to leverage dairy side-streams for mycoprotein production / Pic: Valio
Valio enters collaboration to leverage dairy side-streams for mycoprotein production / Pic: Valio

Related tags: Valio, Mycoprotein, Sustainability, Upcycling, Circular economy

A tie-up between Finnish dairy major Valio and biotech start-up eniferBio could unlock new possibilities to upcycle of dairy side-streams for novel sustainable protein.

Valio has entered into a research and development cooperation agreement to work alongside eniferBio in the development of Pekilo mycoprotein.

The Finnish companies said the aim of the collaboration is to bring a ‘new, domestic and responsibly produced’ protein to dining tables in the country by 2025. 

Upcycling for food system sustainability

Valio and eniferBio plan to investigate the recycling of by-products from the food industry as a protein raw material for novel foods. Based on preliminary tests, by-products from the manufacture of dairy products are one potential raw material for the production of Pekilo mycoprotein.

“To increase the value of side streams has always been important part of development work in Valio,”​ Harri Kallioinen, Valio's Director of Product Development, told this publication. The dairy group already claims a strong track-record of innovation in this area. “In history we have been very successful in this. For example we have been utilizing cheese whey very efficiently in food production already since 1980s," ​Kallioinen reflected. 

But the collaboration with eniferBio to develop Pekilo mycoprotein unlocks new innovation possibilities. “The typical options to leverage side streams are energy, feed or food production. From a sustainability point of view, it is typically desirable that a side stream is used in food production. Unfortunately, this is not always economically feasible. Pekilo can open a new opportunity to reach this goal,”​ he said.

Previously, eniferBio has worked on protein production for aquafeed. This will mark the biotech group's first expansion in the food sector, founder and CEO Simo Ellilä told us. 

"Our technology converts by-products from, for example, the forestry and biofuels industry into a sustainable, locally produced and cost-competitive protein ingredient... With Valio, we are beginning our first foray into the food space. Our Pekilo protein and the production technology can be adapted to producing a protein ingredient for food,"​ Ellilä revealed. 

Pekolo: The ‘world’s first’ mycoprotein

Kallioinen said that the collaboration will help meet consumer demand for novel sources of protein as well as easing the burden food production places on natural resources and boosting supply of protein ingredients that originate in Finland. 

“New sources of protein are of increasing interest to consumers and their demand is growing globally. In addition to traditional food production, we also need new ways of producing food that promote the circular economy,”​ the R&D expert said.

Pekilo - a Finnish innovation and what Valio describes as the ‘world’s first mycoprotein product’ - was originally developed in the 1970s. During this decade it was tested in foods such as sausages, meatballs and bakery products. However, this research was ‘interrupted by time’. 

"Uniquely in the alternative protein space, our technology has more than 15 years of operational history at huge scale (10,000 tons annually) from Finland in the 1970s-1990s,"​ noted eniferBio's Ellilä. In 2020 eniferBio set out to redevelop Pekilo mycoprotein.

Now, alongside raw materials from the by-products of Valio's dairy production, research and development work continues.

Combining Valio’s scale and supply chain with eniferBio’s scientific know-how will help accelerate innovation in this space, Kallioinen believes. “eniferBio, which represents cutting-edge research expertise, has developed new ways to utilize by-products from the food industry in protein production. That is why it is an excellent partner for us to develop new ways of food production,”​ he suggested.

“Bringing Pekilo protein to the table was the main goal of its original developers. It is therefore an honour to be involved in completing this domestic pioneering work. Valio's solid experience in food research and development makes Valio our best partner. The demand for new types of proteins made from sustainable raw materials is huge. By utilizing the by-products of Valio's production, we get genuine circular economy solutions for the food production of the future,”​ added Ellilä.

Consumer products an ‘interesting opportunity’

The partnership now covers the optimisation of Pekilo mycoprotein production as well as the testing of its properties and their applications across various food products. The companies plan to develop and test new concepts with the ambition of commercialising Pekilo by 2025.

Valio compared Pekilo mycoprotein to the mycoprotein popularised as the signature ingredient in plant-based brand Quorn, noting that – like soy, pea, or animal proteins – it is well-suited for human consumption. However, Ellilä revealed that some regulatory hurdles do still stand in the way. "We need to get regulatory approval for the protein in food, while in animal nutrition it is already accepted in the EU. However, Prkilo protein was already tested in human nutrition in the 1980s, for example in tests at MIT where it was trialled with good results side-by-side with Fusarium protein, which would become Quorn."

When it does bring product to market, eniferBio plans to offer its upcycled protein ingredient as a business-to-business supplier. However, Valio did not rule out the possibility of developing consumer-facing items. 

On whether this commercialisation was likely to take the form of finished consumer products or a mycoprotein ingredient, Kallioinen told us: “We are interested in all possibilities this collaboration with eniferBio can offer. At this moment it is too early to say what can be done with Pekilo. However, consumer products are one very interesting opportunity.”

Certainly, plant-based products are a complementary fit to Valio’s existing product portfolio, Kallioinen said. "Valio is dairy company, but also food company. We launched our plant based alternative portfolio already in 2018 and products based on non-dairy raw materials are one of our corner stones in our company strategy.”

Meanwhile, in the arena of circular economy solutions, Valio continues to innovate apace. “Naturally we are researching also other opportunities,”​ Kallioinen noted.

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