The 411 on fungi as an alt-proteinFungi is a promising alternative source of protein with the possibility of improving the texture, taste and nutritional profile of meatless proteins. But what is it? Fungi are one of a variety of fermentable materials, including microalgae, microbes and plant proteins, that can be used to produce alternative protein ingredients. Compared to the others, fungi are one of the most popular fermentable materials to use for alt-proteins because:
- Fungi has a high nutritional value
- Fungi has a meat-like texture
- It’s more resource efficient to produce compared to animal protein
- It can mimic pork, chicken, beef and other meats
- Fungi is versatile—it can be the core ingredient in fermented proteins or used to enhance cultivated or plant-based food products
Moving forward, fungi is likely to play a key role in achieving whole cuts of meatless meat, like steak—a major goal for players in the alt-protein space.
What is mycelia?The type of fungi typically used for alt-proteins is called mycelia. In the same way that fungi is the plural form of fungus, mycelia is the preferred plural form of mycelium. Like the roots in a plant, mycelia are the fast-growing, resilient, structural fibers of fungi that absorb nutrients from the surrounding environment.
MycoTechnology, a Colorado-based fungi alt-protein startup (that’s highlighted below), calls mycelia the engine behind the mushroom—providing the mushroom with the food it needs to survive. Mycelia clean up the forest by breaking down toxins and indigestible matter, and feed other plants and animals by producing the nutrients they need to survive. For a deeper dive into mycelia, check out Ecovative’s informative 101 guide on mycelium.
What’s on the horizon for fungi-based foods?PitchBook analysts predict that fungi-based seafood will emerge as a key component of the fermented alt-protein landscape moving forward. Chicago-based AquaCultured Foods develops a variety of fermentation-based alt-seafoods, for example, which include shrimp, white fish and calamari. Other startups working on fungi-based seafood offerings include Prime Roots, Quorn and Meati.
5 key fermented fungi VC companies by VC raised to date, their founders and funders*According to PitchBook data as of December 15, 2021; data is subject to change frequently
- VC raised: $508M
- Post-money valuation: $1.75B
- Most recent deal type: Series C
- HQ: Chicago, IL
Billed as a food company for optimists, Nature’s FYND products—including meatless breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheeses—are made using a nutritional fungi protein. The company’s fungi microbes were discovered in geothermal springs at Yellowstone National Park as part of a NASA-funded research project in 2009. Founded in 2012, the startup launched its first product in 2021—12 years after that initial discovery.
Nature’s FYND was founded by Matthew Strongin and Thomas Jonas. Strongin is also the co-founder of Chicago’s Lotic Labs and venture partner at Imperative Ventures based in Stillwater, MN. Among other backers, Nature’s FYND has received venture funding from Softbank, Blackstone, Generation Investment Management, the National Science Foundation and the US Environmental Protection Agency.
- VC raised: $198.24M
- Post-money valuation: $521.8M
- Most recent deal type: Series E
- HQ: Aurora, CO
MycoTechnology leverages mushroom fermentation to create transformative plant-based ingredients, like their pea and rice protein that’s fermented with shiitake mushroom mycelium. Using their submerged fermentation process, the company uses gourmet fungi and mycelia to transform agricultural products and improve their taste, value and nutritional characteristics.
Jim Langan and Alan Hahn founded MycoTechnology in 2013. Hahn has more than 20 years of startup experience, including at Bitzer Mobile and Scale Computing. Langan previously worked with law and public policy firm McKenna Long & Aldridge. MycoTechnology has received VC funding from several dozen backers, including Rage Capital, Evolution VC Partners, Gaingels and Sand Hill Angels.
- VC raised: $101M
- Post-money valuation: $325M
- Most recent deal type: Series B
- HQ: Boulder, CO
Meati combines protein, fiber and micronutrients to produce its energy-rich, minimally processed, mycelium-based steaks. Using a process that’s similar to beer brewing, the startup grows its mycelium in stainless steel tanks with just water, sugar and nutrients. Grown indoors, Meati says its products are ultra-clean, pure and unexposed to external elements like pollutants and pesticides.
Before founding Meati in 2014, Tyler Huggins and Justin Whitely founded BTRFY. Huggins has a background in civil and environmental engineering, while Whiteley studied mechanical engineering. Both attended the University of Colorado Boulder. Among other investors, Meati has received VC funding from Bond Capital, Acre Venture Partners and angel investors including John Foraker and Walter Robb.
- VC raised: $97.4M
- Post-money valuation: N/A
- Most recent deal type: Series D
- HQ: Troy, NY
Ecovative pioneered the science of mycelium to grow fully formed structures used in products meant to replace Styrofoam and other plastics, leather and animal agriculture. The startup says its mycelium foundry has the most complete mycelium library in the world. Using precise systems and a deep understanding of mycelium’s biology, Ecovative aims to amplify the natural properties of specific strains to fit unique material needs.
Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre founded Ecovative in 2007, and both have a background in mechanical engineering. Bayer previously worked at Applied Research Associates, and he’s the founder of Atlast Food. McIntyre’s previous work includes positions with the US Environmental Protections Agency, US Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation. Ecovative received venture capital funding in Q1 2021 from 40 North Ventures, Trousdale Ventures, Breakout Ventures and others.
- VC raised: $59.93M
- Post-money valuation: $100.73M
- Most recent deal type: Series B
- HQ: Glasgow, Scotland
ENOUGH produces ABUNDA mycoprotein, a complete food ingredient that’s high in fiber and that contains essential amino acids. This versatile ingredient can be used to make alternative and vegan meats, seafood and dairy products. The startup says the impact of introducing a million tons of ABUNDA mycoprotein by 2032 is the equivalent to replacing five million cows, a billion chickens and five million tons of CO2 emissions.
ENOUGH was founded by Jim Laird, Craig Johnston and David Ritchie in 2015. Laird has worked in commercial and corporate roles for a variety of leading food companies, including Birds Eye (Unilever) and Premier Foods. Johnson is also the operations director at CMAC, an industry and academic research consortium based at the University of Strathclyde. Ritchie is also the technology manager for a major agrochemical product for Syngenta. Among other investors, ENOUGH has received venture capital backing from HAL Investments, MLC50 and Nutreco.
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