In conversation with Nobell Foods

On paper, microbes might seem to have the edge over plants and animals from an efficiency perspective as they multiply fast in the right conditions, while R&D development cycles are much shorter (you can determine pretty quickly if fungi or yeast cells will produce animal proteins instead of waiting months for soybeans to grow before learning if you have to go back to the drawing board).

In practice, however, what matters is how scalable your technology is, says Nobell Foods​ founder and CEO Magi Richani, who has just raised $75m in a series B round* to fund her patented process​ to genetically engineer soybeans to produce casein so she can make cheese that behaves like real dairy cheese… without cows.

‘The beauty of plants is that they are already efficient at making protein’

You can grow yeast, algae, bacteria or fungi very rapidly, says Richani, who plans to launch cheeses on a small scale to the public by the end of next year.

But once you get to a certain scale, it can be challenging and expensive to keep your bioreactor sterile, maintain oxygen levels throughout the vessel, dilute toxic byproducts, and keep nutrients mixing without killing your microbes, which you have to watch don’t mutate as the environment changes, she claimed: “Casein is an inherently difficult protein to express, so the yields are low and the cost structure is high​.”

Plants, by contrast, take longer to grow, she acknowledges, but once you’ve nailed the process, scaling up is easy: you just plant more seeds. Plus, there is already an established infrastructure to grow and process soybeans.

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