4 start-ups to watch from Big Idea Ventures
Cell-based meat companies Biftek, Novel Farms, and Orbillion Bio, and plant-based Actual Veggies are part of the second New York cohort of the accelerator and alternative protein fund
By Murielle Gonzalez
Big Idea Ventures runs a $50 million fund, deploying the capital into $200,000 investments in early-stage alternative protein companies. Founded two years ago by Andrew Ive, BIV has quickly become a forefront player in the new food arena. It operates as an accelerator and venture capital investor, a hybrid model that has served it well to attract trailblazer brands before anyone else, preparing them for exponential growth.
The company has offices in New York and Singapore, both equipped with teams that scout the cities and the regions nearby for the best businesses in which to invest.
“We’ve invested in companies throughout Asia and North America, but also in Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore. We invest globally,” says Ive. The plan, he adds, is to invest in about 100 companies in the next four years. “That’s our goal, and I anticipate that by the end of next year we’ll have 50 companies in our portfolio.”
Today, BIV is working with 25 start-ups running the gamut of snacks, dairy and meat alternatives, from plant- to cell-based products. “We’re very happy with the portfolio,” says Ive. “All these companies have really good teams, great technology, and interesting opportunities in the marketplace. Many of our companies have got more investment from other investors, which further validates the decisions we’ve made.”
India’s liquid egg replacement start-up Evo Foods and MeliBio, the California biotech company on track to produce bee-free honey, form part of the second New York cohort – but there’s more, and NutritionInvestor presents four new brands to watch.
Actual Veggies is a plant-based burger brand like no other – it produces chef-crafted fresh and refrigerated burgers that celebrate vegetables instead of trying to mask them.
Co-founder Jason Rosenbaum entered the CPG food space with a plant-based product that satisfies his taste buds – he turned vegan for health reasons and immediately struggled to find a fresh and ‘clean’ burger in shops.
“We touched on all the pain points of traditional veggie burgers and imitation meats, then took the positives and merged it all into one,” says Rosenbaum. “We’ve created a thick, filling, refrigerated and private chef-designed line of burgers made with only ingredients you can pronounce. We are a plant-only burger that celebrates the taste and natural colours of ‘actual veggies’.”
The product line comprises four SKUs including burgers branded as Orange, Purple, Black, and Green. The range uses common vegetables such as kale, mushrooms, sweet potato and beetroot.
Rosenbaum ran the start-up by himself for a while, but then he brought in co-founders Hailey and Alex Swartz and together hired a chef to bring their vision to life.
“Actual Veggies wouldn’t be where it is without my team, and that includes BIV, our first investor,” says Rosenbaum.
Founded this year, Actual Veggies is a Covid-19-born start-up, and as such, the team has found it natural to connect with investors, suppliers and potential clients over video calls.
This virtual-based operation has allowed the company to run without an office, enabling the start-up to remain lean and frugal without compromising the business.
“Since in-person sampling is not happening, we spent extra time making sure that our packaging and branding really tells our story,” says Rosenbaum. “The attention to detail and work we put in will open up many doors for us when we are ready to scale in 2021.”
Actual Veggies secured a listing this month with a New York retailer and is in talks with many more. “This is our soft launch where our focus will be on consumer feedback,” says Rosenbaum, noting next year will see the company scale and grow. “We are ready from a manufacturing standpoint.”
Rosenbaum says that, based on interest from key national accounts, the company is projected to become a multimillion-dollar business by Q3 next year. “Our brand is really going to shine when we launch seasonal and limited batch burgers where we will utilise rare vegetables,” he says, adding a new ‘Actual Sunchoke Burger’ is in the pipeline.
“We’re also working on incorporating celebrity designed burgers, and aside from burgers, we have plans to enter other categories where we believe we can offer fresher, healthier and tastier products,” he concludes.
Actual Veggies is currently raising capital to support its expansion plans.
Cell-based meat producer Orbillion Bio is the brainchild of Patricia Bubner, PhD in biotechnology and biosciences – who founded the company last year. “I’m following a lifelong curiosity of how to build nutritious and healthy food from ‘molecular’ scratch,” she says. Orbillion makes cultivated meat from animal cells without slaughter.
Bubner also co-founded The Millet Project, an agriculture and food systems project focused on diversifying agriculture and raising public awareness and consumption of lesser-known grains like millets.
“I have always been aware of the important roles that farmers play in food security through my childhood visits to my great-grandparents’ farm and my close collaboration with farmers at The Millet Project. I brought this sentiment with me to Orbillion Bio,” she says.
Bubner knows that many opportunities lie ahead for challenger brands like Orbillion, but also many hurdles. “There are no cultivated meat products on the market yet due to regulatory and cost issues. Understanding both the customer and the regulatory requirements and anticipating where the market moves are the main challenges for us.”
She says Orbillion Bio is addressing this by providing ‘food with a story’. “We produce cell lines sourced directly from farmers, which will provide customers with farmers market-style meat grown in a stainless-steel fermenter, just like beer is brewed,” she explains.
Orbillion has created a bioplatform for functional testing of cell lines for cultivated meat across species. Bubner argues this infrastructure mitigates the risk of locked-in production scale economics before scaling up investment.
She notes that co-founders have 30-plus years of combined experience in biotech, biopharma, business and product development, foodtech, and sustainability. “We have complementary technical skill sets and experiences needed for cultivated meat.”
Orbillion Bio is working on porcine, bovine, and bison cell lines to commercialise initial products. “We are in the pre-revenue stage, like all cultivated meat companies. We aim to have our first revenue in 2021,” Bubner concludes.
Cell-based meat companies are cropping up, and as Bubner says, production costs make go-to-market plans expensive due to the high costs of cell line production. Founded in 2018, Biftek has entered the market with a novel culture medium supplement formulation to grow muscle stem cells, and claims to lower the costs of cell-based production significantly.
“We are going to enable cultivated meat companies the world over to bring their products to the market fast,” says Biftek co-founder Kerem Erikçi.
Erikçi explains that Biftek’s growth medium supplement has critical competitive advantages. “We are harvesting our molecules from microorganisms and plants naturally. We are not modifying genes or using recombinant growth factors,” he says.
He also notes that Biftek’s methodology enables it to produce a growth medium supplement that is as potent as the conventional growth medium with the fraction of the cost. “Being natural and affordable will make our product an industry standard,” he claims.
Biftek is in the pre-launch stage – and Erikçi foresees initial sales beginning by the end of next year. “We expect to tap into the growth medium market for pharmaceutical companies well before meat production companies,” he says. “This market is worth around $800 million, and with our disruptive supplement, our initial sales figure can go up to two-digit million dollars,” he adds.
Innovation at Biftek doesn’t stop at the medium. The company is looking at solving additional problems such as re-usability of the medium to increase cost-effectiveness.
“We are also innovating around filtering mechanisms and associated structures to act like kidneys to bioreactors, and developing materials for different cell lines,” Erikçi concludes.
“We have chosen to solve one of the biggest challenges in the cellular agriculture industry: creating muscle tissue from the ground up – marbled meat with structure,” says Nieves Martinez, founder of Novel Farms, PhD in molecular biology.
Martinez explains that scaffolding is needed to deliver a cell-based meat product to the dinner table that looks, feels, and tastes like a steak. However, current scaffolding approaches are not scalable, are costly, and do not enable the co-culturing of fat and muscle cells necessary to achieve marbling throughout the cultured muscle – Novel Farms has a solution to that.
The company uses synthetic biology to design highly tuneable and low-cost ‘bioscaffolds’ for the production of structured, steak-like cell-based meats.
Martinez says that without structural support, cell-based meat companies are restricted to products made out of minced or ground meat such as sausages, meatballs, and burgers – and only 2.4% of the global pork sales and 40.9% of beef sales is in the form of ground meat.
“In tissue engineering, scaffolds are needed to build tissue de novo, since animal cells require a surface to grow on. Without a surface to attach to, cells are unable to grow to form the muscle – meat,” explains Martinez.
Cell-based meat companies use scaffolds borrowed from regenerative medicine applications, which are made of materials that are extremely expensive, hence unsuitable for scaling up cell-based meat production.
Novel Farms’ bioscaffoldings are made from natural sources, are edible, and yet tasteless, so they don’t interfere with the meat flavour.
“Due to the ability to fully customise the scaffolds, we can design them to contain features that will reduce the cost of cell-based meat production, and even include further nutritional benefits,” says Martinez. She argues cell-based meat manufacturers will be able to expand their current product lines to include whole cuts of cell-based meat such a pork loin or flank steaks, for example.
Following the pre-seed investment from BIV, Novel Farms is gearing up to raise $1.5 million in a seed round.
“We plan on developing our bioscaffolds further to test the new features we have added to reduce manufacturing costs, and we will work intensively on replicating the muscle as close as possible,” says Martinez.
Novel Farms is also planning to recruit an expert in bioengineering and working on how to incorporate its bioscaffolds into the manufacturing process so it can start scaling up throughout next year.
These four challenger brands have what it takes to continue making headlines on their own in the coming months.