The Future of Protein Production Summit Speaker Profile: Mariano di Rubbo, Senior Food Scientist & Engineer, Michroma
Michroma is creating the next generation of natural ingredients in partnership with the most powerful biofactory in nature, fungi. The company's Mariano di Rubbo, Senior Food Scientist & Engineer, explains why these sophisticated organisms could be the perfect platform for reinventing how ingredients are produced
Mariano, could you briefly tell us about your journey into alternative proteins?
My background is in food science and engineering. I graduated from Quilmes National University in my home city. During my career, I gained experience in molecular cuisine and researched on product development with a strong focus on innovation. Later on, I specialized in Enology and had the chance to work in Spain in the alcoholic beverages industry. Industrial fermentation and the almost magical role of yeasts in these processes had already piqued my interest by then. After that, I had the chance to be part of a marketing and consumer behavior course at Tec Monterrey in Mexico where I learned more about how to effectively communicate the unique characteristics of your developments. I joined Michroma in 2019 as part of Indie Bio's acceleration program in San Francisco, California, where I helped to develop the fermentation and purification process that allowed our fungal strain to produce and secrete colors and other ingredients to the media. As a result of the fermentation process, we obtained a colorful broth from where we purified different ingredients and a nutritious deep red fungal biomass. Right now, I am working on the scaling up of that production process and the regulatory requirements to have these novel ingredients approved and launched to market.
What does Michroma offer the sector?
We produce natural food colorants and other ingredients harnessing the potential of filamentous fungi submerged fermentation in bioreactors. Our fungal strain produces a new battery of natural red, orange and yellow colors through a sustainable and scalable process. These colors perform much better than all the other natural options available in the market, they are pH stable, are flavorless and resist even the harshest thermal treatments commonly applied in the food industry. And apart from that, they are considered kosher and halal, which is a great advantage over the widely used insect-based carmine. Unlike the colors obtained from vegetables, our process allows us to create value out of agricultural residues instead of extracting them from perfectly edible food sources. Synthetic colorants and other ingredients obtained from petroleum are cheap and perform well but they raise concerns due to the fact that they are linked to many health and environmental problems. Our technology upgraded by the synthetic biology tools we are working with, such as CRISPR, will allow us to be price competitive even with these petroleum-based options without giving up performance.
What have been the biggest nuts for you guys to crack? And what challenges are on the horizon?
When innovating in food-tech it is important to validate a real need in the market. As a technologist, it is easy to fall in love with your development, but talking with potential customers and people who know the business can help you find the right path before it is too late. Once that hurdle is surpassed and the need is validated, the next challenge to face – if you are part of a startup – is to convince investors that your innovative solution is worth investing and going through an intense resource-consuming regulatory approval. At that point, running the right experiments and presenting results in an effective manner is the key. The biggest challenges then are related with scalability and proving industrial-scale consistency and quality at similar yields.
No doubt collaborations are important to you as a company?
As an ingredient producer, you are an expert on what you do and you can have an idea to some extent about where your ingredient can be applied, but prototyping with other companies is important to know the processing conditions your products need to resist and what are the expected properties it needs to impart to the final product. The alternative proteins sector is huge and formulations and technologies vary a lot between products, so the more you know about the ecosystem and the more you collaborate, the better. I think the characteristics of the environment promotes this cooperation. There are some big players in the field, but innovation is mostly supported by startups who are aware of the importance of a rich network to succeed.
At The Future of Protein Production Summit, you will be appearing in our 'Startup Pitch Symposium' on Day 1, 21 February 2023. What will our delegates take away from your time in front of our panel?
I wanted to emphasize the importance of continuing searching for new technologies. At Michroma, we proved the results of effectively harnessing a natural fungal strain to provide solutions to an unsatisfied market and we are planning on expanding our platform to different products and species. Microorganisms in general and fungi in particular have an incredible potential and a key role in nature bio-transformation processes. There is still a lot we don't know and many species are still unexplored. There is an aversion to unknown technologies as a result of the risk associated with them, but if you detect a problem, keep an open mind to new technologies, and follow a plan. You can end up with innovative solutions you would have never thought of before.
You're pretty young, so 2050 and the challenges we face further down the line. You'll be living through it. How will future generations benefit from a societal shift towards alternative protein sources to meat?
I think that change is necessary to thrive as a society. Nowadays the unsustainability of the meat industry is the clearest problem we face in the food industry. I wouldn't say encouraging everyone to immediately stop eating meat is the solution. I even think meat, plant-based proteins and fermentation-based proteins could coexist and integrate their processes and side streams to obtain the optimal benefit from Earth's resources. Then everyone should have the right to choose what to eat. Even if all the population became vegan tomorrow, arable lands wouldn't be enough to satisfy the demand. If we manage to integrate consumer education, resource optimization, and upcycling we will have a food system that is not doomed to fail.
What about the nutraceutical aspects of alternative proteins?
There are alternative protein sources, for example our fungal-based biomass which is currently a side product, that naturally have nutraceutical and antioxidant properties. If we could switch from traditional soy, wheat and pea protein and do more research on unexplored protein sources and mixtures of whole products, we wouldn't need to think about product supplementations, like many plant based formulations have. We could reduce prices and shorten the ingredient lists of the processed food we eat.
How vital is some form of harmonization of alt protein products to make it easier for innovators to bring their products to market?
I think it is vital to reach common ground on how to name and regulate alt protein products. If the same production process will lead to different denominations in different parts of the world and the regulatory approval is less strict in certain markets, technologists' efforts to innovate will be uneven. This is really important because to completely change the way we produce food it has to be a global switch and products need to adapt to every consumer and market in different regions.
Scaling seems to be a perennial problem with alternative foods. How should we address this?
I think the biggest challenge ahead is finding the right places to scale up technology. Convincing people that what you do is good enough and worth scaling, requires resources that you probably don't have at early stages and if you don't prove scalability it is complicated to keep on raising capital. There has been progress in the last years and many hubs and cooperative production plants from accelerators have been created, but competition to earn a place at a CMO is tough and some really good developments, specially those from startups which need to prove scalability fastly to keep on growing, are left out due to this limitation.
What fills you with hope about the alt proteins sector – and on the flipside what annoys you about what you are seeing today?
I see the alt proteins sector has reached a stationary phase and only those that provide differential characteristic, prioritizing price and flavor, will survive. I think there has been great progress when it comes to product sensorial profiles and price. I see with great hope the rise of cultured meat technology and developments made in producing the exact same heme proteins found in cows and (and even mammoth) meat all powdered by synthetic biology and precision fermentation.
What annoys me? In my opinion many products still have long and complex ingredient lists and need to go through resource-intensive processes to reach those final characteristics.
Finally, what are your hopes and dreams when it comes to the alt proteins sector?
I hope in the future regulations will be more flexible when it comes to genome editing. I see a huge potential there, but misinformation and probably a fear of the unknown is limiting the development of many interesting solutions. With an increasingly growing world population, effectively managing resources is vital. We owe ourselves a serious conversation about the real damage those technologies could cause, if any, or if the worst damage is avoiding access to simple solutions which are within hand's reach.
The Future of Protein Production Summit takes place virtually on 21/22/23 February 2023. Tickets are on sale now so to register to hear Mariano and more than 80 other speakers, 50 presentations, eight panel discussions, and three start up pitch symposiums, click here
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