Why Bel is joining forces with startup Standing Ovation to imagine the cheeses of tomorrow

The paths of Standing Ovation and the Bel group crossed almost a year after the food industry giant began investigating the subject of precision fermentation. “We spent 18 months getting to know startups, understanding technologies, refining our discussions”explains Anne Pitkowski, Director of Research and Application at Grupo Bel, who worked for this sourcing hand in hand with the team at Bel Ventures, the group’s corporate venture fund.

For the industrialist, the stakes are high: with precision fermentation, it is no more or less about producing whey protein without using animals, but maintaining the same characteristics of conventional dairy proteins, with a much smaller environmental footprint.

R&D first

“We made the choice not to seek to be visible too early: it was R&D first, while other players made different choices”, explains Romain Chayot, co-founder of the startup he created in 2020 with his partner Frédéric Easter. That’s how, from the first meetings, the Bel group teams had the pleasant surprise of being able to taste very successful products, while the Standing Ovation competitors still only managed to present a few grams of protein. To produce 10 kg of cream cheese, however, 1 kg of casein must be counted.

“We arrived at Bel’s headquarters in Suresnes with natural cheeses, with no flavor to hide defects. It was much appreciated. We also had a camembert, the production of which is impossible without casein. After this presentation, it was clear that we were going to work together »recalls the businessman, who has since raised 12 million euros.

“There are two main families of proteins that can be produced by precision fermentation: whey and caseins. Currently, no company sells casein, but it is what we are looking for, as this is what gives texture and culinary properties to cheeses », says Anne Pitkowski. The most advanced player on the market, Perfect Day, already sells products (mainly ice cream) in the United States, but only from whey.

Exclusive contract

After taking on the first participation in the startup’s fundraising, Bel wanted to go further, with the signing of an exclusive R&D contract in the cheese category. “It is a strategic partnership that aims to get the best out of both partners. We bring our ability to develop caseins adapted to Bel’s products and Bel brings its ability to produce and market products recognized by the general public.”explains Romain Chayot.

Although geographical proximity played in the ties that tied between the teams: “We didn’t choose Standing Ovation because it was a French startup: the startups we met were mostly American and Israeli. We choose the most competent and promising partner »specifies the Research and Application department of the Bel group.

The two partners’ roadmap is already well established: applications for marketing authorization filed in Europe and the United States in mid-2023, marketing 12 months later across the Atlantic and between 18 and 24 months later in Europe. “The advantage is that caseins are proteins that have always been consumed. These are not new proteins.”explains the businessman, confident in his ability to quickly obtain the necessary authorizations from the health authorities.

Production on an industrial scale from 2023

“In precision fermentation, today, the lock is no longer in the laboratory phase. It lies in the ability to produce proteins on an industrial scale: that is where the main challenge lies”, believes Anne Pitkowski. For this, Standing Ovation intends to increase industrial production from 2023, in order to be able to deliver tons of protein to Bel, not more kilos.

“It is not enough to be able to produce in large quantities, it is also necessary to be able to purify casein, at a price and with processes compatible with the constraints of the food industry”, adds Romain Chayot, who believes he has the right technology for this. With the scale-up, production costs are expected to decrease rapidly and stay at the same level as conventional proteins. The first Babybel, Kiri and The Laughing Cow made with this process could hit shelves in 2024 or 2025, depending on the market.

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