What if you could bite into a lemon and taste lemonade, without consuming any sugar? What if you could eat a steak without the moral and environmental considerations of slaughtering an animal?
These are among the innovations springing up where biotechnology meets our food system. It’s an intersection bursting with potential, abundant with futuristic foods, and full of complex questions about the line between nature and science when it comes to our food.
To explore this emerging space I spoke with Jun Axup, scientific director and partner at IndieBio, a life science accelerator that engages leading scientists-turned-entrepreneurs who are imagining and inventing the foods of tomorrow.
Lorin Fries: What exciting applications of biotechnology do you see for the future of food?
Jun Axup: We’ve always been able to adapt with our food by manipulating and selecting it. Now we have better tools to make more precise modifications, more easily. We think that biotechnology is the next big solution for planetary and human health.
Regarding environmental risks, biotech is supporting a move towards plant-based foods and plant-based replacements for quality protein. There’s also the introduction of cell-based meats – including cellular agriculture.
On the human health side, we’re starting to look at the molecular composition of foods: for example, not just cooking an egg as an egg, but breaking down its components to create new textures or more functional proteins. There’s also a movement towards food as medicine, recognizing that everything that you intake gets converted into molecules that affect your body, your metabolism and your health.
Fries: What new food categories are enabled by biotech innovation, and how do you see their potential?
Axup: Let’s start with plant-based foods. The giants in the space are Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. There’s also movement on dairy replacements such as by NotCo, which makes dairy mimics using an AI engine to match plant-based and dairy ingredients at the molecular composition level, and New Culture, which is making the casein protein and creating a plant-based cheese product. Beyond plants, companies like Prime Roots have recognized that filamentous fungi are almost as thick as muscle tissue, which makes the taste and texture similar to meat.
Turning to cell-based meat replacements, leading companies are Memphis Meats, Finless Foods and New Age Meats. They’re working on taking a stem cell from an organism and then growing that in the lab. By doing so we alleviate animal slaughter, avoid the methane production from cattle, and prevent exposure to antibiotics and viruses. This is often called “clean meat” both for the environment and for humans, and it’s a very exciting area.
Another category is the molecular composition of foods. A company called Clara Foods is making egg-white protein without the egg. If you can break down food into its components, we can hack those and change them into new flavors and textures. In another example, around sugar, Miraculex is working with proteins naturally found in miracle berry that have no calories but will bind to your tongue receptors and cause you to taste sweetness. You can bite into a lemon, and it will taste like lemonade.
Regarding food as medicine, Filtricine is working on how to starve out cancer without harming normal cells. They are doing powerful thinking about the role of diet in our recovery and healing processes. Another example is Sun Genomics, which makes a tailored probiotic by sequencing your gut and analyzing the distribution of different types of microbes.
Fries: What are the social complexities to introducing these sorts of new food categories?
Axup: Any new technology or food type takes a while to be adopted. In Western society we are moving from highly-manufactured processed foods into an organic phase, and that is shifting toward a precision nutrients phase. There’s quite a bit of adoption especially among millennials and Gen Z. Among the companies, too, large firms like Tyson and Cargill are recognizing and pushing this trend, along with start-ups. But, ultimately, food is culture. You can’t come in with a completely new type of food and expect someone to integrate that into their life. These companies should provide food that already exists in traditional dishes and customs, while creating it in an alternative way.
Fries: Some readers may feel that nature provides us with the food we need, and we shouldn’t mess with it. What would you say to them?
Axup: I’m a proponent of eating a little bit of everything. Nature does have all the ingredients we need. But we’re entering a phase of understanding those ingredients more fully, what we’re lacking, and what we can substitute into what we’re eating. For instance, we weren’t made to eat sugar all the time, so if we can find a replacement and still enjoy sugary snacks without the health consequences, that’s amazing. And we know that microbiome diversity is important, but the foods we currently eat aren’t sufficiently varied. These companies can help replenish that diversity in our diets.
Fries: How does IndieBio help to acceleration such innovation?
Axup: IndieBio is a four-month accelerator program for biotech startups. We fund companies for $250,000, provide mentorship and lab spaces, and host an intense boot camp to turn scientists into entrepreneurs. There are so many amazing PhDs and postdocs out there who entered the field wanting to become professors, but extremely few actually get such positions. We provide a structure to translate biotech into all areas of society, just like digital tech. We’ve funded 105 companies, which have raised over $260 million so far, and I’m proud to say that 44% of our companies have at least one female founder.
Fries: How do you see biotech serving our global food needs into the future?
Axup: We’ve always co-evolved with our food, and we’ve always been the selection force for what we eat and cultivate. But the food system needs to adapt to our growing demands. The whole system is very taxed. By using fermentation and other types of technology, we can get the proteins we need more readily while decreasing costs, inputs and environment strains. We’re excited to see so many companies applying these innovations in all areas of the food system.