‘We were told this was impossible’: Meet FÆRM, the start-up that plans to revolutionize plant-based cheese
FÆRM leverages dairy production know-how to deliver dairy-free cheeses without affecting the consumer’s taste experience or resorting to using additives and starches to achieve the required colors and textures.
The start-up uses enzymes such as rennet and bacteria cultures to treat legumes such as soy, creating a ‘coagulated protein mass’ which is then further fermented and drained into plant-based cheese. The process mimics traditional cheesemaking, which uses starter cultures such as lactic acid bacteria during fermentation. FÆRM says it prefers legumes to say, cashew nuts, for sustainability reasons and the ‘big, complex’ proteins that can be found in legumes.
“In the beginning, we had a lot of experts telling us that what we wanted to do with enzymes and plant proteins was impossible,” opened Andrea Donau, FÆRM co-founder. “Just recently we got an angry phone call from a professor saying that it was unfair to his students who wanted to do internships with us that we used photos of dairy cheese on our website and tried to pass them off as our own - but of course, the photos are our own.”
Besides delivering dairy-free cheese with improved texture and flavor properties, FÆRM says its approach results in a shorter ingredients list – typically comprising soybeans, sunflower oil, citric acid, sugar, salt, cultures and enzymes.
“What really sets us apart from the other plant-based cheese players is that we are able to use liquid oil instead of the typically used coconut oil that often gives an off-flavor to the finished products,” Donau explained.
She added that it was consumer feedback that prompted the team to switch to color-free oil.
“The first time we had a tasting, people were saying that the yellow color of the cream cheese made them feel like they were eating an omelette. That's when we stopped using rapeseed oil and switched to a color-neutral one.”
The approach of using enzymes and bacteria also lends itself ‘extremely well’ to scaling production at existing dairy plants, as Donau confirmed: “Our technology can be run on the same equipment and cheese fats as is already used. We are planning our first scaling experiment to be conducted within the next month.”
A new venture
Recently, FÆRM joined Venture Lab, a start-up accelerator ran by international non-profit foundation BioInnovation Institute (BII) and designed to support up-and-coming firms with business acceleration, scientific and team development, and a loan of €500,000 ($533,500) as well as access to laboratories and offices. Participants will also get a chance to apply for additional funding to the tune of €1.4m ($1.5m).
“We applied for Venture Lab on September, 1, 2022, and were told quite soon that we had moved on to the next stage,” Donau told us. “We visited BII and brought a sample of our ‘brie’ product. We thought it must be difficult for them to make a decision about food-based technologies if they hadn’t tasted anything. Soon after, we pitched online.”
A few weeks later, the team found out they had been accepted into the program. “We were hosting a tasting/dinner concept at our office for 30 people who were there to try our products. We gathered the team together, and snuck out to tell them the great news,” Donau recalled.
FÆRM is the only foodtech company to join the current cohort, which includes microbiome science firm Alba Health, cancer research company Metsystem, and drug discovery platform Dawn Bio.
According to the program brief, each startup will be supported in making crucial business steps, such as reaching proof-of-concept, creating a business plan and setting up a team. Assisted by a scientific advisor, a leadership coach and a business development expert, the start-ups will then be guided in developing a detailed plan and will be assisted in overcoming the challenges of growing a business allowing them to progress rapidly towards the market.
For FÆRM, there are two main aims. “Our first goal is to further develop our technology and get even firmer and bouncier curds,” Donau explained.
“The technology that we have at the moment allows us to do almost all kinds of alternative cheese products, but aiming for firmer curds would make the process of producing harder plant cheeses easier on an industrial scale.
“Which brings me to our second goal - commercializing our plant cheese technology and hitting the market in combination with a production partner,” Donau said.
‘First in the world’
FÆRM’s Andrea Donau told us the start-up has so far managed to produce three cheese types - cream cheese, brie, and fresh mozzarella. “They are all made from the same clean-label base using our enzyme and bacteria technology, and matured for different times to develop the taste and texture that we are looking for,” she said. “The mozzarella took us a long time to get right. We were adamant to get it to both stretch and melt, and that's no easy task for plant proteins.
“We are also very close to finishing our first sliceable, firm cheese.”
Asked if this is the first time anyone had managed to produce plant-based cheese using traditional cheesemaking techniques, Donau said:
“I believe we are among the first in the world using the approach of traditional dairy methods on plants - and having success with it.”
Donau added: “We've seen a lot of challenges, as is typical when you’re doing something new and figuring everything out as you go along. But every time an experiment fails, we learn [from it].
“We feel that it is immensely important for plant-based cheese to be treated with the same respect and scientific approach as dairy cheese has been for so long, if we truly want to provide end-users with great alternatives."
Since its inception in 2018, BII has supported 80 start-ups and projects with €65m ($69.2m) alongside the venture capital, industry and business expertise. BII says start-ups that have been through its programs have raised over €333m in external funding from both local and international investors. Adcendo, Stipe Therapeutics, Twelve Bio, Octarine Bio, and Cirqle Biomedical have all benefited from BII backing.