The European cohort of start-ups leveraging precision fermentation to create ‘animal-free’ dairy is growing steadily, with companies from London’s Better Dairy to Berlin’s Formo all bidding to create dairy products that are molecularly identical to the real thing - without involving animals in the process. The method typically uses microbes to produce dairy proteins such as casein and whey, which are otherwise obtained directly from animals.
For several years, precision fermentation has been hailed as the future of dairy for promising to deliver a more eco-friendly alternative to energy-intensive agriculture, but regulatory barriers as well as achieving industrial-scale production remain common hurdles that start-ups face. And while precision fermentation dairy proteins are being developed in Europe, they are being commercialized only in a handful of countries including the US and Singapore, meaning that European firms are forced to seek a way in through markets far away from home.
Cheese is a staple in French cuisine, so a company that hails from the country would have to shoulder additional expectations. For Standing Ovation, which is led by respected biotech scientist Frederic Paques, the proof is in the pot of precision-fermented casein that the company leverages to create cheese that has the same texture, flavor and smell as traditionally-produced dairy. So far, the company has made both hard and soft cheese at a limited scale, but expansion beckons.
“Casein is the holy grail for the production of alternative options that match conventional products in nutritional value, taste and texture, yet it is difficult to create,” a company spokesperson told us. “To obtain the perfect dairy alternative, you need the major protein of milk: casein. It is also the protein that gives milk and cheese their essential functionalities.
“We have developed a precision fermentation process that really delivers, and we develop animal-free and lactose-free substitutes for cheese and other dairy goods, using these caseins.”
The Paris-based company was initially financed by its founders, Paques and Romain Chayot, who launched it in 2020, but has since obtained funding that it wants to use to scale-up casein production and invest in new product development. This includes around €2m from bpifrance as part of the PIA4 program initiated by the French government to support economic growth.
Prior to that, “we had a pre-seed financing, in 2021, by Astanor and business angels, and we closed a Series A, €12m, round this summer,” the company told us.
“We have already produced cheese mimics that look and taste like cheese,” the spokesperson added. “Actually, showing convincing end-products was key for our Series A. But we are also working on ice cream, yogurt and all products that can be obtained from caseins.”
Whilst Standing Ovation’s ambition is to be an animal-free dairy producer, its main task in the short term would be to scale-up production and leave its mark in regions where regulators have approved precision-fermented dairy proteins. The company will therefore position itself as an ingredients provider initially while it seeks further expansion. “Our proprietary casein production process has proved to scale easily, and has been reproduced at pilot scale by third parties,” the spokesperson said. “Today, casein production is at kilogram scale, but we plan to produce at ton scale in 2023 and to be commercial in 2024.”
The scaling-up will be achieved through contract research organizations (CROs) and for commercial production, contract manufacturers will be used, we were told.
From the US to Europe and beyond
“We plan to file the regulatory applications next year in order to get the green light from the FDA in 2024 in the US,” the company spokesperson added. “In Europe, the process [so-called Novel Food procedure] is longer by one year, sometimes more.
“The regulatory applications include the same type of studies in most territories and demonstrating the lack of toxicity is compulsory. In our case, we can rely on the fact that caseins and dairy products have been consumed by humans since the Neolithic, so it is difficult to argue that it is a new protein.
"The reason why it has to be approved is not because it is a new product, but because it is made by a new process. It is now our job to show to the regulatory agencies that caseins made by precision fermentation or by animal are equally safe.”
Consumers ‘do not see the difference’
Research has previously indicated that consumers are warming up to the concept of precision fermentation dairy, but more is needed to both educate the market and to remove regulatory barriers. “Consumers are craving for non-animal cheeses that really taste like cheese,” Standing Ovation’s representative told us. “They also expect the product to be good for their health, which means protein-rich, antibiotic-free, and for many people, lactose-free. Casein made by precision fermentation is not the objective per se; it’s the way to meet these demands.”
So in the increasingly crowded market and many start-ups that compete for a piece of the pie, what sets Standing Ovation apart? “The founders’ experience in biotechnology enabled them to find the key to casein development, which we believe is a step ahead of many companies. To our best knowledge, we are one of the very few companies capable of bringing on the table a pot of casein and a plateau de fromage made with these caseins.”