With climate change taking centre stage for many new innovations over the last decade, biotech startup Jooules is focusing on where they feel they can make the most difference – the food sector.

More specifically, Jooules is looking to produce animal-equivalent proteins, without the need for any animal’s involvement, resulting in the production of protein ingredients for human consumption and as important nutritional ingredients for feed manufacturers. 

“Our mission is to advance humanity’s transition to a sustainable food future,” says Jooules founder David McLellan.

“The world is changing and as a primary producer, New Zealand needs to evolve too. We need to embrace technologies like this because it’s an advantage for our nation. It’s not about disrupting what we currently have, but being able to produce significant new export revenues from a sustainable and scalable food technology,” says McLellan.

“Most everyday packaged food contains protein ingredients of some sort, many of which currently come from animals. So our technology allows us to replicate those proteins and molecules, in a much more efficient and sustainable way. Rather than breaking things (animals) down to molecular levels, we create from the molecular level up, and that will go into making food and feed.”

For humans to be healthy, we need to consume all nine essential amino acids. And this is what animal protein contains, and in the right concentrations, which is why we consume so much animal protein globally; over 700m tonnes annually. There are a lot of other protein sources, which are vegetative – pea, soy, wheat, hemp. But McLellan explains that they aren’t necessarily complete proteins, because they don’t contain all nine essential amino acids in the necessary concentrations.

Jooules will harness microbes to produce the proteins in a specialised fermentation process (not unlike how beer and yoghurt is made using yeasts and bacteria). And while fermentation is something that’s been used by humanity for centuries, in one form or another, McLellan explains that the difference today is that there has finally been a convergence of the need and the technology. Microbial strains can now be encouraged to efficiently produce desirable molecules in a way that couldn’t have been achieved twenty or so years ago. Such technologies have bought us the ability to efficiently produce the likes of insulin and rennet (for cheese making) without the need of any animal input whatsoever. 

Although the route of innovation won’t necessarily be straight from the bioreactors to our plates. Jooules’ focus is on providing animal-equivalent protein ingredients to large-scale food manufacturers, rather than producing consumer-packaged food that you see in the supermarkets.

“One of the pathways we see is helping to make aquaculture/fish farming more sustainable and efficient. We could replace scooping up millions of tonnes of krill and anchovies from the oceans annually, which are only caught to feed salmon for us to then eat,” explains McLellan. 

Dr Luke Stevenson, Chief Scientific Officer.

While Jooules’ mission to advance the transition to a sustainable food future might sound straightforward, the process itself is a little more complex. As one of a very small handful of companies pursuing this type of technology globally, Jooules is basing their tech on microbe strains that – as far as they know – no one else is focusing their efforts on. 

“Sure, others are working on it, but we all have a different take on the technology pathway forward, and no one has commercialised yet. It will lead us to the development of a fermentation process (bioprocess) to host our strains, unique in how it operates, leveraging what we have in NZ, including our renewable energy resources,” explains McLellan. 

If the ambition of Jooules wasn’t already notable enough, their journey to an ethical and sustainable food production system is also enabling Jooules to reduce carbon emissions – as the technology they have created actually consumes carbon dioxide. 

“Something like 23% of our global greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, and 15% of that is specifically from animal agriculture. So, by developing carbon negative food that actually sequesters carbon dioxide, we can tackle a big cause of climate change,” McLellan says.  

“Fermentation processes commonly require large quantities of sugars to be fed to the microbes to allow them to grow. This of course means reliance on a crop of some description to produce those sugars. 

“Our bioprocess is quite different. Our microbial strains don’t consume sugars for their source of energy and carbon to grow as is common with most fermentation processes. Instead, they actually consume CO2 gas for their carbon source and get their energy from hydrogen – the most abundant element in the universe. And from those two primary sources, they create proteins and other nutritionally valuable molecules.” 

Jooules has already seen early successes as a formidable startup, taking out the ‘Judges Panel Award’ on demo day at the International ProVeg Accelerator Programme in Germany late last year.

“In the ProVeg programme, we were scored on our initiative. To win it was about having the most promise, the most likely to make a difference and to succeed. So, to receive that award out of 13 international cohort colleagues was a big achievement. I took it as external validation that what we are doing was going to be viable.”

McLellan also took Jooules through the New Zealand’s Sprout Agritech Accelerator programme earlier this year to help connect with the wider New Zealand food and agritech network and secure local funding support.  

Jooules are harnessing the unparalleled efficiency of microbes to produce highly nutritious proteins, ushering in a new era of sustainable food production.

Now Jooules is ramping up their development, which means a lot of work in the lab. And McLellan is optimistic that the development stage will be about 18 months, then hopefully the team is ready to go into a pilot stage and producing products on a small scale to provide the all-important scaleup data, before progressing to construction of a commercial scale production facility.

But where Jooules may come up against a few challenges is the very significant regulatory hurdles to cross for what will by definition be “novel” foods – i.e. foods which are new and from a source which doesn’t have a history of human consumption. It’s possible to get the clearance, but McLellan says more support is needed at a government level for this kind of technology. 

Conversations with the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Sustainable Food and Fibres Futures Fund have been positive. But McLellan says there is still a long way to go to unlock the laws around genetic engineering – which he describes as outdated – to be able to engineer a microbe in a lab and use it in a large-scale production environment. 

“We need to get with the programme. Australia is already ahead of the game, and New Zealand mustn’t rest on its laurels. We should be actively supporting technologies like this, in the broader bioeconomy, and the regulatory framework needs to support it. Our trading partners are already there, we can’t live in the past around this. We will lose out if we don’t get a wriggle on,” he says. 

“The reality is that the world’s almost exclusive reliance on intensive animal agriculture for protein has come at a significant environmental cost. We have in effect reached a crossroad where we must now rapidly transition to a sustainable platform for food production to ensure that we can produce enough food for everyone, sustainably. The world class technology that Jooules is developing could deliver significant benefits to our environment and our economy.” 

Story by Erin Harrison in partnership with Sprout.

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