The global air-based foods market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 11.7% to reach a value of US$ 100 million by the end of 2032, as consumers and producers look increasingly towards sustainable proteins. According to FACT. MR, initially, air-based foods will gain popularity in North America and Europe, markets with growing demand for sustainable and eco-friendly food products as a solution to food production challenges.
This technology, first used to feed humans in space, offers a promising solution to the extensive land use in animal agriculture that is driving species to extinction, eroding soils, and polluting water and airways.
We take a look at five companies using cutting-edge technology to make proteins using microbes and air, known as air proteins, to move food production away from agricultural land and animals.
The following trailblazing companies have made significant R&D investments to harness microbes and create efficient fermentation platforms. They have garnered investor interest by producing landless proteins and are spearheading a new era of food production. Furthermore, larger companies with ample funding are now shifting towards commercial-scale production while startups continue to refine their technology.
Calysta — No arable land, plants, or animals
Multinational biotechnology Calysta grows microbial proteins for feed and food applications. Using a fermentation platform powered by renewable energy, the company uses a microbe strain that converts carbon and energy into nutritious, non-GMO protein ingredients.
A long player in the field (founded in 2012), the company has introduced two products for fish, livestock, or pets, FeedKind and FeedKind Net. For foods, it has created an ingredient called Positive Protein, described as a highly nutritious alternative to animal protein, rich in branched-chain amino acids that offers the best possible digestibility rating. This year, FeedKind protein was generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Calysta has two fermentation facilities: one in Teeside, England, built with a £2.8 million grant from the UK government, and its first commercial-scale plant in Chongqing, China, with a capacity of 20,000 tonnes of product annually. In 2016, the biotech company raised $30 million from Cargill and $40 million from investors, including Temasek in 2017. Its headquarters are in California, USA.
“FeedKind protein facility can produce 100,000 tonnes per year on 10 hectares of developed land. An equivalent quantity of soy protein would require a quarter of a million hectares of arable land.”
Air Protein — Landless agriculture
California startup Air Protein, co-founded by Lisa Dyson and John Reed in 2019, aims to decouple protein production from the land. Drawing on NASA research from the 1960s, Air Protein has developed a fermentation platform that uses a specific microbe strain that feeds on carbon dioxide instead of sugar, growing into what is known as microbial proteins.
Air Protein has raised over $107 million in cumulative capital, including investments from major players, including ADM, the Ford Foundation, Barclays Sustainable Impact Capital, and GV (formerly Google Ventures). The startup has a pilot Air Farm in San Leandro, California. Its fermentation platform scales volumetrically, and it is highly scalable, enabling products to reach price parity with animal proteins.
In 2019, Air Protein’s team debuted meat and chicken products claiming them to be the world’s first air-based food. This year, the company completed the self-affirmed Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and announced a partnership with ADM to develop and launch consumer products using its novel landless proteins. The deal includes mutually exclusive rights for the partners to build and operate Air Protein’s first commercial-scale plant.
“Air Protein is rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, with all 20 amino acids, including the 9 essential amino acids and 2x the amino acids of soybeans. It contains more protein per kg and is free from GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotics,” says the company.
Solar Foods — Growing protein anywhere
Finnish company Solar Foods harnesses the power of a particular microbe strain that eats ingredients split from the air using electricity: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. These microbes are grown in a fermentation platform until they form a mass. This mass is harvested and turned into a powder called Solein. Solar Foods’ fermentation platform does not rely on land, plants, or animals, it can be installed anywhere in the world.
Described as the world’s most sustainable protein, Solein offers 65-70% protein, 5-8% fat, 0-15% dietary fiber, and 3-5% mineral nutrients. It also contains iron and B vitamins. Solein is already on the market. It received regulatory approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) last October. Solein already debuted at a tasting in Singapore, and Solar Foods recently launched a chocolate ice cream featuring the novel protein.
The Finnish company has announced plans to open its first commercial-scale production facility in Finland in 2024 and to develop a new range of Solein-rich products in partnership with Ajinomoto.
“Since our bioprocess does not require land, it can create an infinite food supply for our world. There is no slaughter of animals, cleared forests, pesticides, or fertiliser runoffs in our Solein production process. The possibilities are endlessly sustainable, delicious, and nutritious,” says Solar Foods.
Arkeon Biotechnologies — 99% less land
Arkeon Biotechnologies is an Austrian startup converting CO2 into functional protein ingredients using fermentation. Its advanced process requires 99% less land and only 0.01% of the water needed by traditional agriculture.
Moreover, the microorganism fed with the gas fermentation technique can generate all 20 essential amino acids, claims this startup. Recently Arkeon Biotechnologies inaugurated a pilot production plant with a 150L bioreactor system to start a small production. In 2021, the startup raised €6.5 million last March, and in 2022 it secured another four million euros.
Farmless — 500x less land
Dutch startup Farmless produces ingredients and proteins, growing microbes using fermentation. Like most air-based companies, it uses CO2 and hydrogen to feed microbes — liberating its production from agricultural land. Its founder Adnan Oner recently raised funds to further develop its fermentation tech.
“With our fermentation platform, we aim to dramatically outperform animal agriculture and reliably produce low-cost proteins at a planetary scale,” said Oner in an announcement.
“We believe this technology has the potential to end factory farming, rewild our planet and draw down gigatons of carbon,” he continued.