Israel startup raises $6 million to make lettuce cheese

An Israeli startup, Pigmentum, is getting into the cow-free dairy business, claiming its genetically modified (GM) plant technology is capable of creating milk proteins from lettuce – proteins that are identical to raw ones and can be used to make cheese. .

Founded in 2018 by Tal Lutzky, CEO, and Amir Tyroler, COO, the startup announced on Wednesday that it raised $6 million in an initial round led by a group of investors. Israeli family businesses and other private investors. Kibbutz Yotvata and the Strauss Group, a local food giant, own Yotvata Dairy, one of Israel’s largest dairy producers.

Established investors such as Israeli food company Tnuva, local beverage company Tempo and Israeli venture capital firm OurCrowd also participated in the round.

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A company based in Kiryat Shmona, in northern Israel, Pigmentum claims to be able to replicate dairy proteins identical to those found in nature and not derived from animals to manufacture dairy substitute products. The start-up has developed a mechanism to genetically modify plant components using lettuce as a host, which is then irrigated or sprayed with a special fertilizer. After harvesting, the lettuce is pressed to produce a juice that is mixed with natural ingredients for flavor and smell to create a milk-like drink.

The difference with the many alternatives to lactose-free milk, such as soy, almond, oats and coconut, available on the market, is that the startup’s genetically modified can of lettuce is capable of producing casein, a protein found in milk and necessary to make cheese. . Cow’s milk contains various proteins, and 80% of them are casein proteins, which are mainly found in curdled milk.

“Our goal is to convert polluting barns into agricultural farms that will produce functional cheese protein of the same quality at a competitive price,” said Lutzky. “The modern food industry uses 80% of agricultural land for raising livestock. »

Israeli startup Pigmentum grows genetically modified lettuce in greenhouses to produce protein for the dairy substitute industry. (Credit: Courtesy)

“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.

According to research firm MarketsandMarkets, the market for drinks made from dairy alternatives or plant-based milk made from soy, almond, coconut, oats, rice and hemp is expected to grow from $27.3 billion in 2022 to $44.8 billion dollars in 2027.

The startup has developed a platform to genetically modify greenhouse-grown lettuce by adding a special fertilizer compound to the irrigation system that it says can not only produce milk protein but “turn plants into capable factories.” in industry or in need of flavor, color and protein replacement for the food, cosmetics and life sciences industries. »

“The company’s technology is a unique platform that will allow us to convert the production of animal-derived components into plant-derived components,” said Lutzky. “The potential is not just to change the face of the dairy industry, but to have an impact on global warming by reducing deforestation and livestock-related pollution. »

For now, Pigmentum said it plans to focus on producing plant-derived casein, which creates milk curdling and is a key component in cheese making. Funds raised during the seed round will be used to expand its R&D team, build a laboratory specializing in manufacturing functional dairy proteins for the milk and cheese substitute market, and launch a pilot market, according to the startup.

The current round of funding follows Pigmentum’s success in the Fresh Start FoodTech Incubator program, which is part of the Israel Innovation Authority’s incubation program. The startup was able to secure a $1.25 million investment from Fresh Start in 2020.

Several companies are active in dairy alternatives to milk protein that use precision fermentation technology, such as Israeli startups Imagindairy and ReMilk. The latter claims to have developed milk proteins chemically identical to those in milk and dairy products produced by cows.

Pigmentum claims that its “patented molecular technology platform can transform indoor or outdoor cultures into efficient producers of high-value compounds at a fraction of the cost incurred by current industrial production plants.”

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