Imagindairy’s Eyal Afergan on the company’s GRAS status, Danone partnership, and the role of AI

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

Eyal Afergan, PhD (center) alongside Imagindairy co-founders Tamir Tuller, PhD and Arie Abo, PhD. Photo by Yaniv Koppel
Eyal Afergan, PhD (center) alongside Imagindairy co-founders Tamir Tuller, PhD and Arie Abo, PhD. Photo by Yaniv Koppel

Related tags precision fermentation animal-free dairy animal-free Dairy Dairy alternatives vegan alternative protein Protein

The CEO and co-founder of the Danone-backed precision fermentation startup reveals what lies ahead for Imagindairy. “We’re laser-focused on scaling up.”

Imagindairy has already had an eventful first half of 2023, having attracted Danone (through Danone Manifesto Ventures) as an investor in April. A strategic investor and minority shareholder in the start-up, this was the first time the multi-national had backed a precision fermentation specialist*. 

Imagindairy makes milk proteins through proprietary precision fermentation technology, which makes it possible for the Israeli firm to create a range of dairy analogs – from raw milk to cheese – without involving animals. There has been no shortage of interest towards the company, which closed its extended seed round at $28m (believed to be one of the highest-earning seed rounds in the alternative protein space) in 2022.

Now, obtaining a self-affirmed GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status means the regulatory path to commercialization in the US has also been cleared – and dairy analogs containing Imagindairy ingredients could soon appear on the market. Imagindairy’s novel ingredient has undergone ‘significant internal and external review and safety testing’, we were told, and the US Food and Drug Administration has been notified of the ingredient’s self-affirmed GRAS status.

Dairy analogs due out in 2024

“We are laser-focused on scaling up manufacturing and commercialization of Imagindairy’s animal-free dairy protein,” co-founder and CEO, Eyal Afergan, PhD, told us. “The recent infusion of capital from Danone Manifesto Ventures and securing self-affirmed GRAS status will help us get there.

“We’re on track to see animal-free dairy products using our protein available in the next year in partnership with food and beverage manufacturers.”

While the US market already offers dairy alternatives made through precision fermentation to consumers, price is still high compared to traditional dairy products and plant-based alternatives. This is largely due to limited capacity and the high cost of production itself.

But Imagindairy’s proprietary process – which has artificial intelligence baked-in - is claimed to be able to significantly amplify protein expression, leading to cost-effective protein production. In that sense, Afergan told us the company is ‘progressing well’ to achieving cost parity for its protein. “Imagindairy is on track to scale up production and achieve cost parity for its animal-free dairy protein,” he explained. “There’s still a long way to go, but a solution that has all the unique aspects of dairy while being equal in cost and more planet-friendly than bovine dairy was once unimaginable, until Imagindairy.”

Asked how important is the role of artificial intelligence (AI) to this progress, Afergan said the tech is essential to unlocking the right types of microorganisms capable of producing large amounts of protein. “Our proprietary AI platform integrates both advanced computational biology and molecular biology technologies to teach microorganisms how to create the exact same whey protein that is found in traditional dairy,” he explained.

“AI is essentially guiding us in the process of creating very efficient ‘micro-cows’ – microorganisms that are capable of producing large amounts of our target dairy proteins.”

“The result is a highly efficient fermentation process that can unlock mass market adoption of these proteins,” he added.

New growth stage, new HQ

To facilitate further growth, Imagindairy has opened new headquarters in Haifa, Israel, complete with R&D labs to support ingredient innovation, a ‘test kitchen’ for application testing, and an operational pilot line that allows for testing in conditions similar to those in large-scale fermentation processes.

“The company was founded just before the pandemic, so our first test kitchen was actually in the home kitchen of one of our employees,” Afergan revealed. “Since then, we had labs spread out throughout the building at our previous location. Having all labs in-house and in one space, along with our own pilot line at our new headquarters, enables faster R&D cycles and supports faster progress.

“We’re very excited to have this opportunity and take advantage of it to make the world a better and tastier place, as our test kitchen is now producing a series of incredible dairy products such as yogurt, ice cream, cream cheese, milk and others.”

Danone and an ‘exciting future of possibilities’

Combined with Danone’s backing, Imagindairy’s proposition sounds particularly promising. Asked what the industry could expect from the collaboration, Afergan said the CPG giant’s investment ‘will bring strategic and operational support to accelerate Imagindairy’s growth and ability to bring animal-free dairy products to consumers worldwide’. “We believe this partnership will pave the way to future collaborations with Danone, as we explore potential business applications together,” the CEO added. “Danone’s confidence in Imagindairy and the ingredient signals an exciting future of possibilities to partner with industry-leading food and beverage CPGs to develop animal-free dairy products.”

Summing up, Afergan said: “We’re continuing to expand research and development into other proteins found in milk as part of Imagindairy’s larger mission to bring a future of new possibilities and innovation to dairy lovers worldwide. We envision a future where Imagindairy is the world's largest dairy producer without a single cow, and the progress we’ve made lately will help us get there.”

Precision fermentation shows promise despite recent set-backs

When General Mills pulled the plug on fermentation-derived cream cheese brand Bold Cultr in early 2023, the moved raised questions about the category’s readiness for the retail market. Yet, there is no shortage of investment in start-ups leveraging the technology to create alternative proteins. More than $842m has been invested in firms focused on fermentation in 2022 alone, according to the Good Food Institute (GFI), the NGO estimating that close to $4bn has been pooled into the category in total so far. In comparison, cultivated meat and seafood companies have attracted $2.8bn in total.

Besides Danone, Nestlé is also exploring the technology having invested in dairy-identical proteins made by Perfect Day. Another Israeli-based player, Remilk, recently signed a strategic commercial agreement with Central Bottling Company - the exclusive Israeli franchisee of Coca-Cola - and is looking to launch dairy-identical milk in Israel. Over in Europe, the Bel Group acquired a stake in French precision fermentation company Standing Ovation with the aim to leverage cow-free casein in the manufacture of superior dairy-free cheese.

According to GFI, there are 28 companies specifying in fermentation-derived dairy proteins.

* Earlier in 2023, Danone had also invested $2m in Wilk, a cell-based dairy start-up.

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