The buzz about precision fermentation: An Interview with Tomas Turner, CEO and Co-founder of Swiss Cultivated Bioscience

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Cultivated Biosciences focuses on producing a dairy cream alternative

Fermentation is one of the hot topics in foodtech at the moment. While “traditional” fermentation (beer, kombucha) dominates market shares and most people’s minds, market insiders rather think about biomass and precision fermentation.

Precision fermentation has gained a lot of attention from prominent funding rounds like Perfect Day (USD 350m Series D) and the Every company (USD 175 m Series C) and the portfolio of active companies in this field continues to grow.

We had the chance to talk to Tomas Turner, CEO and Co-founder of Swiss Cultivated Biosciences and learn more about their product, the road ahead for Cultivated Biosciences, regulatory challenges and the opportunity for collaboration between startups and established companies.

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Welcome Tomas! First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Let’s start with a short introduction about you and your startup.

My name is Tomas Turner, I am CEO and Co-founder of cultivated biosciences. Our company is working on solving the problem of texture in plant-based dairy and we are doing so by creating creamy functional ingredients derived from non-GMO yeast. We are challenging the dairy industry and it is the mission of our company to work on solving the factory farming problem resulting in for example less greenhouse gas emissions.

That sounds fascinating! How did you come up with the idea for your startup?

I had two landmark experiences. First, I made my father try a soy yogurt and he didn’t like it because it was lacking this nice creamy rich experience which you have in dairy products. Second, at roughly the same time I was in talks with the Good Food Institute and learned that one needed solution was to develop fats using microbial fermentation. So, I decided to focus my master thesis on this subject.

That’s a great story. Can you explain a little bit more about the ingredient you produce and the process behind it?

We produce a functional ingredient that is analogous to dairy cream. The process is based on a non-GMO yeast that we replicate and then feed to produce the desired fat molecules. From this entire biomass, we then extract our desired fat molecules with a special proprietary process to get this nice creamy feeling. After our proof of concept, we continuously optimize our microbe and the ingredients to enhance our output further. We extract what is very similar to a cream in a liquid form which then can be used by many industries as they normally use cream. The nutritional value of our ingredient is relatively similar to dairy cream.

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So, you offer a very similar alternative to dairy cream. Is there anything else you can potentially produce with the fat molecules?

Definitely. As we have the capacity to dilute and concentrate the fat content, we can play around with it for example to have it more diluted towards 5% fat or concentrate it towards a higher fat content. We are looking at different categories and want to at least start working on different formulations very soon. In general, we are competing for a stake of the dairy cream market, but we could also lean more towards milk powders or butter.

Interesting! That means you potentially address a big market. What specific industries are you targeting?

There are a lot of industries in need for a product like ours. The plant-based dairy industry is looking for a fat alternative for cheese, yogurts, and cream cheese. Additionally, other industries like confectionary or bakery are interested. Basically, there is a big need across the whole spectrum of where dairy products are used.

If you think about the supply chain, whereabouts would you be located?

In the long term, we see ourselves being a player that produces ingredients and thus has the R&D and some basic knowledge on formulation. With our products we firstly target ingredient suppliers that can distribute our ingredient in the most efficient matter to their clients from the food industry and secondly, we plan to directly address food manufacturers that use our ingredients in their final products.

What are the advantages of your cream alternative compared to traditional cream?

From a consumer perspective, the advantage would be attracting consumers that are conscious about the environment and want to lower their carbon footprint. You also attract consumers that are conscious about their health as we have an ingredient that is higher in unsaturated fatty acids and has no cholesterol meaning a lower risk for cardiovascular diseases. From a B2B perspective, our ingredient is functional and price competitive. We enable food producers to use their already existing knowledge of how to use dairy cream and their internal processes and machines with small to no adjustments while improving their offer towards the very large consumer base of flexitarians and health-conscious people.

Is there anything you wish to see more from the industry and possible partners?

It is always interesting to learn from the industry what the pain points are. We are here to find a solution to their problems and show ways how to address customer trends. Despite some promising first steps in the industry, I see a lot more need for sharing knowledge and potentially lab space. Some dairy companies have worked on cheese for years. If we can find a way to cooperate it speeds up the process of innovation and creates win-win situations. Of course, you need to pay attention to the IP but I am convinced that there is a way to solve that challenge.

When will consumers and manufacturers have the chance to actually try your product?

We plan to be on the market and do initial tests by end of 2023, beginning of 2024. This will be in several test locations in the US and the EU will follow. Later on, we will expand. Of course, it takes time to reach full scale and to be price competitive we need to reach a very large scale to produce several 100,000 tons.

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Why do you plan to launch in the US first?

As our ingredient is a novel food, we need to pass specific regulations. If you look at the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) process in the US that takes around 10 months while the minimum for the European Novel Food process is 18 months and the average is 28. We are confident that we can limit it to maybe 20 months as we work closely with skilled and experienced people, but it is still too long. I clearly understand the need to make sure that our consumers are protected but I would guess that European regulators could do a very good job by streamlining processes and giving approvals in under 12 months. It is a pity that many food innovations launch in the US and the capital also goes there when we could actually grow and foster these companies in the EU. I would love to see more alliances being formed on passing regulations and also having regulations in place that enable a seamless process allowing us to focus on our core which is making a good product.

That sounds like it would be beneficial if more startups worked with fermentation technology to emphasize the importance. Who else is working in your field?

The area of fat alternatives is growing quite quickly and a few companies emerged this year. We are doing this functional ingredient, but looking at pure fat there is C16 biosciences, Zero Acres or Melt&Marble. One other company that is working on a similar solution to ours but by processing seeds is Time-Traveling Milkman. We are relatively a niche compared to proteins so there is still some space left and there is also room for finding intermediary solutions. Additionally, there is room for companies focusing more on upstream topics like strain engineering. For example, we could be complementary to a company like Melt&Marble which does a lot of that. In the end for me, we are all allies in displacing factory farming in the dairy industry.

Anything else you would like to add?

I am extremely happy to be in the industry. I love that so many people are open for collaboration and are very mission aligned in their idea of making our food system more sustainable and kinder. So, I think in general for everyone thinking of how to move forward in this industry it is just by asking people to help.

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