Israeli startup Pigmentum is jumping into the no-cow milk space, saying its gene-modified plant-based technology is able to create milk proteins from lettuce that are just like the real thing and can be used to make cheese.
Founded in 2018 by Tal Lutzky, who serves as CEO, and Amir Tyroler, who is the COO, the startup on Wednesday announced that it has raised $6 million from a seed round led by a group of investors that includes Kibbutz Yotvata, Israeli venture capital firm Arkin Holdings, American and Israeli family offices, and other private investors. Kibbutz Yotvata and local food giant Strauss group jointly own Yotvata Dairy, one of the largest producers of dairy products in Israel.
Existing investors such as Israeli food company Tnuva, local beverage company Tempo, and Israeli VC company OurCrowd also participated in the round.
Based in Kiryat Shmona in Israel’s north, Pigmentum says its technology can recreate nature-identical, animal-free versions of milk proteins for the production of dairy duplicates. The startup has developed a mechanism to genetically modify the components of plants using lettuce as a host which is then, irrigated or sprayed with a special fertilizer. Once the crop is harvested, the lettuce is squeezed to yield a juice that is mixed with natural ingredients for taste and smell to mimic a milk-like drink.
What’s different from the flurry of non-dairy milk alternatives such as soy, almond, oat, and coconut, available on the market is that the startup’s genetically modified lettuce can produce casein, the protein found in milk that is needed to make cheese. Cow’s milk contains a number of proteins, 80% of which are casein proteins, found in the curds.
“Our vision is to turn polluting cow sheds into agricultural farms that will produce functional cheese proteins, at the same quality and at a competitive price,” said Lutzky. “The current food industry uses 80% of agricultural land to raise livestock.”
“The ability to produce dairy components from plants has the potential to change the dairy industry and positively impact the world as a whole,” he added
The market for dairy alternative or plant milk beverages made from soy, almond, coconut, oats, rice, and hemp is projected to grow from $27.3 billion in 2022 to $44.8 billion by 2027, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets.
The startup has developed a platform to genetically modify lettuce grown in greenhouses, by adding a special fertilizer component to the irrigation system that it says can not only yield milk protein but “turns plants into factories that produce valuable components that are in short supply in the industry or that require a replacement such as: flavors, colors and proteins for the food, cosmetics and life sciences industries.”
“The company’s technology is a unique platform that will enable us to convert the production of animal-based components to plant-based,” said Lutzky. “The potential is not only in changing the face of the dairy industry but impacting climate change by reducing deforestation and pollution of raising livestock.”
For now, Pigmentum said it plans to focus on the production of plant-based casein that creates milk curding and is a key element in the production of cheese. The funds raised in the seed round will go toward expanding its R&D team, building a customized laboratory with a focus on the production of functional milk proteins for the milk and cheese substitute market, and launching a market pilot, the startup said.
The current financing round comes after Pigmentum graduated from the Fresh Start FoodTech Incubator program, which is part of the Israel Innovation Authority incubator program. The startup pulled an investment of $1.25 million from Fresh Start in 2020.
There are a number of companies operating in the dairy alternative space for milk proteins using precision fermentation technology, such as Israeli startups Imagindairy and ReMilk, the latter of which says it has developed milk proteins that are chemically identical to those in cow-produced milk and dairy products.
Pigmentum asserts that its “patent-protected molecular technology platform can turn indoor or outdoor grown crops into efficient producers of high-value compounds at a fraction of the cost incurred by the current fermentation-based industrial production plants.”