Unblocking the ‘fermentation bottleneck’: Inside Planetary’s quest to optimise protein production

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Planetary has also partnered with Japanese multinational Konica Minolta to further optimise microbial fermentation with the use of advanced sensor technology and artificial intelligence. GettyImages/geckophotos
Planetary has also partnered with Japanese multinational Konica Minolta to further optimise microbial fermentation with the use of advanced sensor technology and artificial intelligence. GettyImages/geckophotos

Related tags Fermentation precision precision fermentation Dairy alternatives vegan Mycoprotein alternative protein

A fermentation bottleneck still exists for the microbial fermentation sector, according to Swiss biotech Planetary, who is working to optimise protein and fat production with not just ‘overall infrastructure, but correct infrastructure’.

Fermentation-derived proteins and fats are increasing in popularity, as businesses turn to microorganisms such as fungi and yeast to replace animal derived ingredients.

But the equipment required to develop protein from fungi or dairy proteins from microbes does not come cheap, nor is it always fit for purpose. A ‘fermentation bottleneck’ is hindering the sector, according to start-up Planetary, who wants to unblock the problem and in turn, advance new, more ‘sustainable’ methods of food production.

What’s causing the ‘fermentation bottleneck’?

Planetary is not the only company aware of the fermentation bottleneck. According to Synonym Bio, a financing and development company for biomanufacturing infrastructure, appetite for capacity ‘far exceeds supply’.

How are fats and proteins made through fermentation?

Precision fermentation enables the programming of microorganisms (such as yeast) to produce complex organic molecules, such as protein or fat.

The first precision fermentation-derived dairy protein to receive regulatory approval (from the US FDA) was Perfect Day​’s whey protein back in 2020. Fats are also being made using precision fermentation processes, including by Melt&Marble​ in Sweden.  

Mycoprotein, on the other hand, is made from fungi. Produced via biomass fermentation, the fungi strain is combined with glucose and other nutrients to develop amino acids – the building blocks of protein.

US-based Synonym estimates that 246 such facilities currently exist in more than 40 countries around the world. This may sound like a lot, and perhaps there isn’t a lack of overall ​infrastructure in terms of fermentation tanks globally. But there is a lack of the correct ​infrastructure, Planetary co-founder and CEO David Brandes told FoodNavigator.

This means there is a lack of food-specific infrastructure with the correct upstream volumes, downstream equipment, site location and relevant certifications, we were told. Further, facilities today are largely ex-pharmaceutical (precision fermentation has long been used to make non-animal insulin), meaning they are ‘overpriced, overspec’d and incorrectly sized’, according to Brandes.

“Fermentation tank size is a critical consideration, especially for commodity compounds and proteins such as milk or egg proteins. The nature of this bottleneck stems largely from the CAPEX intensity of industrial-scale fermentation facilities.”

The solution? Two businesses in one

Planetary is taking a two-pronged approach to the fermentation problem. The start-up is developing a contract manufacturing platform for precision fermentation companies, while simultaneously working in biomass fermentation to produce its own mycoprotein ingredients.

Once precision fermentation companies have developed their own microbial strain, they can turn to Planetary to ‘do the rest’, including scaling up, senior business development manager Eleanor McSweeney told FoodNavigator​ at the recent Food Ingredients Europe (FiE) event in Frankfurt.

This part of the business is already up and running, with first companies onboarded early 2023. “We offer process onboarding, optimisation, validation, and production from bench to 50,000L scale – with plans to grow this capacity further into larger volumes in the near future,” CEO Brandes revealed.

Planetary’s first plant is located in Switzerland, but the start-up has plans to expand to the US where regulatory procedures are considered more favourable for novel food ingredients.

Ideally, the company wants to end up with at least six plants worldwide for both sides of its business, including its own biomass fermentation. Planetary is already working with a fungi strain known to the food world, but is also conducting research on other strains that in protein form would be considered novel foods, which it hopes to bring to market down the line.

Fermentation bottleneck does not lie in capacity shortage alone

As suggested by Planetary, industry bottlenecks do not lie in capacity shortage alone. Optimisation plays a ‘big’ role in getting products to market at scale and at cost, according to Brandes.

So how is Planetary optimising microbial fermentation? “Planetary’s proprietary BioBlocks platform is delivering innovation in microbial processing from upstream (fermentation) to downstream (product processing and formulation) for our partners,” said Brandes.

“Along the value chain, we are actively identifying and developing strategies to drive down cost in unit economics and CAPEX, as well as improving quality attributes of the final products – all of which helps start-ups scale their production.”

The start-up has also partnered with Japanese multinational Konica Minolta to further optimise microbial fermentation with the use of advanced sensor technology and artificial intelligence.

“Sensing technology, especially coupled with AI, allows for real-time, on-line, monitoring and control of bioprocesses,” Brandes told this publication. “By viewing the bioprocess as it is happening we can monitor critical process parameters (CPP), gather large bioprocess data sets, and control the bioprocess in real-time to maximize productivity, mitigate lost batches, and ultimately drive down COGS [cost of goods sold].

“These technologies are powerful alone, but when coupled with AI, allow for high-speed detection of CPP, collection of bioprocess data, and automatic translation into process recommendations, further improving efficiency.”

Bringing down production cost by up to 30%

With optimisation comes cost gains for manufacturers, believes Planetary. This is significant, given the current margin between fermentation-derived dairy and proteins and traditional animal-based alternatives.

“Novel solutions such as those we are developing with Konica Minolta can help to bring production cost down by up to 30% and come closer and closer to price parity.

“These solutions, alone with advancements in strain engineering, bioprocess innovations on Planetary’s BioBlocks platform, and strategically designed and located facilities, will enable market readiness for the bioeconomy and bring products to supermarket shelves.”

Do consumers want to eat fermentation-derived food?

Actually, we’ve been eating fermented foods for millennia, with traditional fermentation processes used to make products from beer to bread and yoghurt.

Mycoprotein, best known for being meat-free major Quorn’s key ingredients, has also found itself in the mainstream. The company’s products first hit the market in 1985, and has since served more than 7bn meals across 20 different countries.

But the market potential of precision fermentation-derived proteins has yet to be truly tested at scale, particularly in Europe where such proteins have not received pre-market approval from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The most recent research (an experimental study yet to be published in full​) on consumer perceptions for animal-free dairy alternatives suggested the technology is associated with positive environmental benefits, but overall European consumers did not rate precision fermentation-derived dairy highly in terms of sensory experience and price.

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