News In Context

Producing Food Out Of Thin Air

Producing Food Out Of Thin Air

Solar Foods, a Finnish company that has found a way to make protein ingredients for packaged foods, dairy products and plant-based meat alternatives and cultured meat from air, electricity and Co2,  has raised a series A round of venture capital led by Fazer Group, a 129-year-old food company with net sales of €1.1 billion that exports to around 40 countries. The adoption of  Solar Food’s technology could have an important impact on  world hunger as Solein, the protein Solar Foods produces, is not dependent on agriculture, climate, or the weather. The company, which was featured as a 2019 startup of the week in The Innovator, says Solein’s production process, which does not involve irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers applied on open land, or animals, is the most sustainable protein ever produced and can be fabricated in the toughest of environmental conditions, such as the desert, the Arctic, or possibly even in space. Solein could also have a huge impact on climate change as an estimated 20% of global greenhouse gas food production and land use are caused by global greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of habitable land is consumed by livestock. Solar Foods claims that its process uses 100 times less water than plant production and up to 500 times less then the production of beef.

Inspired by NASA and Soviet Union space program and further developed by VTT Technical Research Center of Finland and LUT University, Solar Foods produces Solein, a single-cell protein, using a natural fermentation process similar to that used in the production of yeast or lactic acid bacteria. Its amino acid composition compares well with known protein sources such as soybean and beef, the company says. And, it has the added advantage of binding Co2 instead of causing it.

Solar Foods describes Solein as a complete protein with all the essential amino acids that is light in both taste and appearance that “vanishes into daily meals, while simultaneously maintaining its rich nutritional value.” The company says it has already developed 20 different types of food from Solein and says it can create a ready-made lasagna— from the pasta, to the sauce to the meat — without the consumer ever knowing how the physics behind it were provided.

In order to scale Solein needs to be included in a lot of consumer products so Solar Foods is interested in partnering with a select group of food companies beyond the deal it already has with Fazer Group, says Solar Foods CEO Pasi Vainikka.

Solar Foods has been in pilot mode for the past 30 months. It plans to use the newly raised funds to build a “demo” factory that is scheduled to be operational by the end of 2022 to prove the technology works at scale, he says. After 30 months of operation is plans to raise further funds to build a $100 million factory which Vainikka says would be capable of supplying 4% of the protein needs of the Finnish population.

Solar Foods has already carried out basic engineering for its demonstrator production facility in Finland and is now entering the permitting process. The unit is planned to demonstrate the future of food production in an urban environment. The company said it will include a “Solein Experience Hub” and a future-food bar “to provide citizens with an entirely new level of transparency in food production, which is why the production facility is also called the demonstrator.”

The idea is to separate food production from agriculture and cattle raising, says Vainikka, the former head of VTT’s Neo Carbon Energy division. It was through his division’s research that the idea for a proof-of-concept of developing food from thin air was established. The company, which was created in 2017, says it believes its invention can radically alter not just how but where food is produced. Its website includes a world map of where food is produced today and where it could be produced in future.

Solar Foods competitors include Air Protein, a Silicon Valley startup that was named a 2020 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer. Air Protein announced its first products, air-based meat, in November of last year. Air Protein spun off from Kiverdi, a company that is using similar processes to turn CO2 into supply-chain replacements for plastics and ingredients such as palm oil. The team spent years developing the protein and then developed recipes for prototype foods, which combines its  air-based protein powder with other ingredients. It can be used in a variety of foods—not just meat-free meats, but also as a supplement in products such as cereal.

In other news this week:

RETAIL

On September 1 Walmart officially unveiled its new membership service and Amazon Prime rival, which it’s calling “Walmart+.” The $98 per year service will combine free, unlimited same-day delivery on groceries and thousands of other items, with additional benefits, like fuel discounts and access to a new Scan & Go service, similar to Walmart-owned Sam’s Club, that will allow members to check out at Walmart stores without having to wait in line.The service will be available starting on September 15, 2020 nationwide, reaching over 4,700 Walmart stores, including 2,700 stores that offer delivery.

Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market opened its first-ever permanent online-only store in Brooklyn, New York on September 1. This new delivery-only retail model will allow Whole Foods Market to to meet the growing demand for grocery delivery. Grocery delivery continues to be one of the fastest-growing businesses at Amazon. Online grocery sales tripled year over year in the second quarter this year,

Waitrose announced it will pilot a 12-week program with delivery service Deliveroo to get groceries to customers around the U.K. in as little as 30 minutes. The news comes just as Waitrose’s longstanding deal with online grocery retailer Ocado comes to an end.  Starting September 1, Ocado will instead deliver groceries from Waitrose rival Marks & Spencer. 

India’s Flipkart launched an online wholesale service for mom-and-pop stores and other small businesses on September 2, as the Walmart-owned firm seeks to better compete with Amazon and other players in a battleground market for e-commerce. “Flipkart Wholesale”, also available as a smartphone app, currently sells apparel in the cities of Bengaluru, Gurugram and Delhi. It plans to expand to 20 more cities and also offer groceries by the end of the year, Flipkart said in a statement. It also hopes to list more than 200,000 products in two months and have 50 brands and 250 local manufacturers in the next few days, the company added.

LOGISTICS

Amazon has received federal approval to establish a fleet of drones and will begin limited tests of package deliveries to customers in the U.S., although a number of key steps remain before widespread use of the technology will be allowed.The approval from the Federal Aviation Administration is a milestone in Amazon’s push to use unmanned aircraft to deliver packages to global consumers. Amazon didn’t say when exactly it would begin customer tests in the U.S. The company also has testing sites in Canada, Austria, the U.K. and other international locations, although at the moment it can only perform tests involving customers in the U.S. and U.K. Routine drone deliveries to U.S. consumers are still years away, partly because the FAA needs to complete rules for remote identification of more than 480,000 drones currently registered for commercial operations, and issue separate rules permitting drones to fly regularly over populated areas.

Chinese logistics company YTO has raised $970 million for its long-time ally and client Alibaba. The new investment will allow Alibaba and YTO to deepen collaboration in areas including delivery, air freight and global network and supply chain.

BUSINESS MODELS

Media and Telecoms

The U.S. Justice Department plans to bring an antitrust case against Google as soon as this month. The Google case could also give Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr an election-season achievement on an issue that both Democrats and Republicans see as a major problem: the influence of the biggest tech companies over consumers and the possibility that their business practices have stifled new competitors and hobbled legacy industries like telecom and media.

Mobility and Financial Services

Car drivers can now use Amazon’s Alexa to pay for fuel with a simple voice command. Available at over 11,500 Exxon and Mobil stations across the U.S., the “Alexa, pay for gas” command uses the default payment option set in the user Amazon account.The process – which includes geo-location at Exxon and Mobil stations, pump activation, payment processing, and payment tokenisation – uses digital commerce technology from Fiserv.

Insurance

Chinese insurer PingAn’s technology unit chief has been hired to boost Zurich Insurance’s business unit. PingAn has become the industry reference for the successful transition of a traditional insurance company to a platform business model.

PaserPolis, an Indonesian-based startup focused on making insurance policies more accessible in Southeast Asia, has closed a Series B round totaling $54 million. Founded in 2015 PaserPolis operates in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The company now partners with more than 30 insurance providers, and sells most of its products through its mobile apps. The insurance penetration rate in the ASEAN region is currently just 3.6%, and the startup’s goal is to reach people who have never purchased insurance before with products like inexpensive “micro-policies” that cover broken device screens.  In 2019, PasarPolis says it issued more than 650 million policies to people buying insurance for the first time, including ride-hailing drivers, delivery couriers, and online merchants.

Professional Networking

Lunchclub, a 15-person start-up that makes professional introductions, tops $100 million valuation as usage spikes in quarantine.

Energy

Tesla has recently acquired a licence that will enable the carmaker to trade electricity across western Europe and the company has also been surveying customers in Germany about potentially using Tesla electricity in their cars.  Such moves, consultants and energy industry executives say, could set the stage for the company – possibly with one or more partners – to take on established utilities in Germany, Europe’s biggest power market and autos heartland.

SUSTAINABILITY

Global banks have directed $154 billion through loans and underwriting to the commodity trade that causes deforestation and degradation of land since 2015, according to a report released this week. Banks have increased credit to commodity companies by 40% since the December 2015 Paris Agreement, affecting tropical forests in Southeast Asia, Brazil, and central and west Africa, non-profit Amazon Watch said in a statement this week. Banco do Brasil was the largest creditor, providing $30 billion since 2016 to companies that put forests at risk, the group said. Those companies, which operate mainly in Brazil, are involved in beef, soy and paper production, Amazon Watch said. Other banks include Brazil’s Bradesco, Dutch bank Rabobank and JPMorgan Chase & Co. in the U.S.

Petroleum stakeholders have been seeking safe haven in plastics and other petrochemicals now that global demand for fossil fuel is crashing. However, science is about to crash the gate with new bio-based alternatives. In the latest development, researchers have discovered that certain microbes can moonlight as refineries. They can produce ethylene, a building block for all sorts of plastics as well as glues, coolants, and other products that currently rely on oil and gas.

QUANTUM COMPUTING

Britain’s first commercial quantum computer will be built in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, as part of a £10m project aiming to make the UK a leader in the technology. US quantum start-up Rigetti will develop the computer alongside manufacturing firm Oxford Instruments, Standard Chartered, software start-up Phasecraft and the University of Edinburgh.

BLOCKCHAIN

Major cryptocurrency exchange Binance said on Thursday it was joining a European blockchain industry group, a move that comes as policymakers look at how to oversee the emerging digital ledger technology. In a statement, Binance said it would join Blockchain for Europe, a Brussels-based association whose members include major U.S. blockchain payments firm Ripple. Blockchain for Europe advocates for “balanced policy and regulatory governance” for the distributed ledger technology, Binance said. The European Union is looking at creating a set of rules for cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, and related technologies such as blockchain-based digital contracts.

5G

Spain’s Telefonica launched its national 5G network on September 1 promising to bring the the next-generation mobile internet service to 75% of the population this year. European telecoms operators are starting to roll out 5G to consumers and businesses, offering super-fast download speeds for smartphone users and supporting so-called smart devices and factories.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.