Interviews

Plantible: “We Are Talking About a New Form of Farming That Has Never Been Seen on a Commercial Scale”

San Diego-based Plantible Foods uses a leafy green aquatic plant called lemna to produce the nutrient-dense complete protein RuBisCo, also known as Rubi Protein. Requiring ten times less water than soybeans and almost 100 times less than beef, lemna is incredibly sustainable. The plant is grown on aqua farms, meaning it requires no arable land, and takes in ten times more CO2 than a healthy forest.

Plantible raised $21.5 million in 2021, taking its total funding to $27 million. Since then, the company has continued to develop new products made with Rubi Protein, launching the egg replacer Rubi Whisk in June of this year. The product can be used in baked goods, gluten-free products, pasta, and other applications.

This October, Plantible and its collaborator ICL unveiled ROTIVARIS, a clean-label alternative to methylcellulose for use as a binder in meat and seafood alternatives. We spoke to co-founder Tony Martens to find out more about the new products and the future potential of lemna protein.

The plant-based market is seeing a rise in consumers seeking clean-label options, free from highly processed ingredients like methylcellulose. What advantages does Rubi Protein (specifically the new ROVITARIS) offer over chemically processed binders?
There are several advantages:

  • We offer a natural and non-GMO ingredient that is superior to the status quo, whether it is egg whites or methylcellulose.
  • Our Rubi Protein offers superior binding capabilities compared to methylcellulose. It forms a thermo-irreversible gel, meaning that upon cooling, you don’t get any of the product sogginess currently experienced with plant-based meat.
  • Furthermore, it retains moisture and fat much better, thereby generating a much juicier bite.
  • Lastly, we offer a complete protein from a clean-label source that is more digestible than both animal and plant proteins.
© Plantible

The new 140-acre commercial production facility in Eldorado, Texas is a significant milestone for Plantible. How does the new commercial production facility contribute to Plantible’s goals in terms of scaling up production and meeting the growing demand for your products?
Achieving commercial scale is incredibly important, but at the same time incredibly hard. Following years of hard work, we have now been able to build our first commercial production module, thereby derisking the scalability of our technology but also enabling us to finally generate meaningful recurring revenue. That said, we are still struggling to keep up with demand and will definitely need to expand production capacity in the near term. The beauty of the system being modular is we can scale relatively quickly and continue to meet different tiers of demand.

Could you share more details about the collaboration with ICL and what we can expect from this partnership in the future?
We have been working closely with ICL over the past couple of years. We share the same vision for the future of food and agriculture, and therefore have found a great long-term partner, validated our first multi-million dollar commercial partnership, and will be working with customers in 2024 to commercialize an outstanding replacement for methylcellulose which we believe will become a novel ingredient pillar of the industry.

When can consumers in the US expect to see ROVITARIS available on the market, and what are the potential applications?
Products will become available in 2024, and the initial focus will be on plant-based meat and seafood products.

© Plantible

Since the launch of Rubi Whisk, what has been the feedback from partners who have used it in their recipes? What are some of the common themes in their responses regarding taste, texture, and performance compared to traditional eggs?
What we are seeing across the food industry is that companies are desperately trying to remove eggs from their supply chain. This seems to be driven by three main factors: 1) supply chain instability due to the increased frequency of avian flu outbreaks and supply/demand inflation trends, 2) regulatory changes enforcing the shift towards cage-free eggs, for which there is currently not enough supply, 3) consumer growth targets and expanding new markets (be it egg-free or allergen-free).

“…companies are desperately trying to remove eggs from their supply chain”

However, despite these challenges and commitments, it is still hard for companies to distance themselves from eggs. The reason is that many of the current egg replacements don’t offer the full suite of functionality that whole eggs offer. This is where our Rubi Whisk stands out; it is not only able to emulate the performance of eggs, but it actually seems to be superior, enabling food companies to reduce their requirements and harmonize with their cost-in-use.

This is due to the natural properties of Rubisco and the synergistic ingredient pairings Plantible has unlocked to deliver an effective customer solution to an important pain point faced by everyone from small-scale to large multinational CPG bakers.

© Plantible

Are there any more partnerships in the pipeline for Rubi Whisk?
We are seeing considerable traction in plant-based meat and egg-free/gluten-free bakery, and expect to announce some exciting new partnerships in the near future.

What excites you the most about the potential of lemna-based protein and its impact on global food security?
We are at an interesting intersection where we are focusing on creating next-generation food ingredient solutions whilst also transforming agriculture. Our agricultural supply chain is running into its limitations for scaling, is threatened by climate change, and has now become a weapon in geopolitical warfare.

“…people are quitting their jobs in these industries to come work for Plantible”

What excites me about lemna is that you are talking about a plant that can be grown on non-arable land, can be grown year-round, and requires 90% less water than soybeans. This provides the opportunity to build lemna production modules on nearly every continent, allowing communities around the world to become part of the transition towards a more sustainable food supply chain. This is something we are witnessing firsthand as we built our first commercial production facility in a town in West Texas that is surrounded by livestock and oil and gas. And what we now see happening is that people are quitting their jobs in these industries to come work for Plantible.

Aquatic plant Lemma
Image courtesy of Plantible

How do you envision the role of technology and innovation in advancing the lemna-based protein industry?
We are talking about a new form of farming that has never been seen on a commercial scale. Technological as well as biological advancements are critical to ensure the further scaling of lemna farming infrastructure. However, as we have seen, working backward from customer/consumer needs is critical to ensure the longevity of any business model.

“A consumer doesn’t necessarily care about the technology that was used to produce their food”

Cool technology is nice, but in the food industry taste and price are key — a consumer doesn’t necessarily care about the technology that was used to produce their food. Subsequently, it will be important to continue to invest in the development of capabilities that will unlock lemna’s full potential in our food system. At the end of the day, the technology only matters if it solves a customer’s pain points and does not make them compromise, so we’re excited that harnessing the power of lemna can address key market gaps and deliver superior value for customers.

Looking ahead, what is your vision for Plantible Foods in the next 5-10 years?
We are building out one of the next-generation agricultural supply chains that can be easily “copied and pasted” around the world. Obviously, we see great opportunities for valorizing our lemna-derived RuBisCO in multiple verticals in the food industry, but perhaps more interestingly, we want to ensure that we unlock lemna’s full potential as a crop and a platform for future compound production.

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