Miruku replacing animals with plants to create dairy proteins

Miruku, a New Zealand-based foodtech company, is applying its molecular farming process to program plant cells to be mini factories for producing proteins and other molecules, like fats and sugars, traditionally made by animals.

The company was founded in 2020 by Amos Palfreyman, Ira Bing, Harjinder Singh and Oded Shoseyov, who all have experience in either dairy or plant science. Its alternative dairy proteins technology is currently being developed in Miruku’s labs and greenhouses with corporate and R&D partnerships to scale and be implemented across geographies.

Its approach involves breeding and engineering plant crops to turn their cells into dairy proteins, CEO Palfreyman explained. This is different from competitors in the space that are using techniques like precision fermentation, which brews dairy inside fermentation chambers, and recruiting animal cells outside of the animal itself to produce dairy building blocks in cultivation chambers.

How Miruku is differentiating itself is by breeding new plant crops that grow real dairy building blocks directly in the plants themselves using the energy of the sun. In that sense, the company is producing proteins more efficiently than cows, thus cutting out the role of the cow to reduce reliance on animal agriculture and the consequent damage to water, soil and atmosphere.

“Our protein ingredients will make dairy foods which not only taste and smell like real dairy, but which are also nutritional equivalents to dairy,” he added. “They will help build and repair your body with the same amino acid building blocks that your body uses after you have enjoyed and digested a scrumptious cheese sandwich and they’ll function like real dairy in the making and baking of delicious things like cheesecake or a fine pecorino cheese.”

One of the challenges in foodtech is to create enough proteins or feedstock or scaffolding to scale the company, and for Miruku “the challenge of programming a plant to express mammalian proteins in a way that retains their structure and function is actually quite a technical challenge,” noted Palfreyman.

He explained that scaling the plants will be straightforward: Once you generate a plant that expresses the target proteins, you then plant the seeds to scale production, whether it’s a handful of them in a greenhouse or hundreds of thousands of them in a field.

Where it gets a bit complicated is the engineering and breeding for selected traits, which often requires a trade-off between energy use and expression levels. However, Palfreyman believes Miruku’s use of computational biology and techno economic analyses to model optimum expression levels will address that side of the scalability equation.

The company is still in development, but Palfreyman is targeting two to three years before Miruku will see its proteins used in the commercial market. But it will have prototypes and proof of concept sooner than that. He expects the first product to likely be a partnership with an existing food company to provide a protein component that the food company will roll out.

Still, Palfreyman touts Miruku as the first molecular farming dairy startup in the Asia Pacific region. It joins other companies around the world, like Nobell Foods, also doing molecular dairy farming, NotCo, Climax Foods and Perfect Day, tackling animal-free technology to take on an over $500 billion dairy market. We’ve seen a number of them secure venture capital funding in the past six months:

  • Better Dairy, which is creating cheese using the precision fermentation model, raised $22 million in February;
  • The EVERY Company, using plants to make eggs, grabbed $175 million in December;
  • Perfeggt, also making eggs out of plants, announced $2.8 million in November and extended its seed round to $3.9 million this month; and
  • Stockheld Dreamery, making cheese out of legumes, secured $20 million in September.

Miruku was self-funded by its founders for its first 18 months, and now secured $2.4 million in seed funding. The investment was led by Movac and includes Better Bite Ventures, Ahimsa Investments and the Aspire Fund.

This will enable the company to begin to “seriously scale” after finding what Palfreyman said were the right partners to help connect the company to customers and build on milestones for the next round, which he believes will take place in 2023.

The new capital will be deployed in adding more technology staff, developing partnerships and speeding up its development programs. Miruku already doubled its headcount this year and Palfreyman expects to grow similarly every year.

Miruku was able to gain early traction with big food companies that are working with Miruku to co-develop products. It will also begin running development programs across geographies, some related to environment and climate, while others will be about product types and partnerships with growers, formulators and brands.

“It is fair to say we are still an early-stage company, but it is no less accurate to say we are progressing rapidly and gaining great traction with strategic partners close to consumer markets,” Palfreyman added. “Innovation and growth necessitate access to capital, and while we have only just closed our first institutional round, we expect a consequent growth raise in the not too distant future.”