Cutting out the middlecow: Israeli start-up Imagindairy on why lab-made milk will prove tastier and healthier than the real thing

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Dairy Milk Alt dairy

The trend of consumers – rightly or wrongly – seeking to cut down their dairy consumption for environmental and ethical reasons is a growing one, and food and beverage manufacturers smell an opportunity.

Recent moves such as Oatly’s plans for a $10bn IPO and Sproud’s £4.8m fund raise​ highlight the disruptive potential of the as yet small but fashionable alt dairy and plant milk sector​.

But these products, on top of some dubious health​ and environmental claims​, have a simple problem, says the founder and CEO of Imagindairy, Dr Eyal Afergan. “It’s just not milk.”

Speaking at an online event organised by the Kitchen FoodTech Hub​, the start-up incubator owned by Israeli food giant the Strauss Group, he said: “Growing awareness about the environmental impact of the food production process led the industry to look for more sustainable and reliable solutions. That is why the plant-based market and flexitarian markets are growing."

But existing milk alternatives are 'far in sensory and nutritional properties from real milk'. “Plant-based alternatives have a low concentration of protein and miss their essential amino acid that exists in milk proteins,” ​he claimed.

"Consumers don’t like to compromise the taste and nutritional benefits associated with dairy… they will only replace their dairy products when they find an alternative that is tasty, healthy and nutritious.”

Producing cow's milk from yeast

The start-up’s solution is comparable to cultured or cell-based meat – another quickly emerging yet controversial sector which is looking to meat produced from animal cells to help consumers overcome the ethical and environmental issues of animal agriculture - in that they are both produced in a lab.

Israeli company Imagindairy makes its product from bioengineered yeast, to produce ‘real milk without the cows'.

Co-founded by Professor Tamir Tuller of Tel Aviv University, Imagindairy claims its bioengineered yeast cell technology improves on conventional milk by eliminating cholesterol, lactose, and somatic cells.

The company says that the final product, which although not yet ready for market, will have to have the colour, smell, and taste of cow-based milk. It also plans to make cheese.

"We are creating real dairy products without the cows. We are doing this through the use of precision fermentation,”​ said Dr Eyal Afergan. “We offer the familiar experience of traditional dairy products but with superior health and environmental benefits.”​ 

Professor Tuller added: “This is a long process of improvement -- of productivity, taste, and, of course, of the price. This product is not a milk substitute like almond or soymilk. We plan to produce dairy products that will be identical to products that come from animals by introducing the yeast genome the genes that code for milk development in cows.”

Imagindairy founders Dr Eyal Afergan and Professor Tamir Tuller

More efficient and cheaper production 

Imagindairy is not the only company exploring precision fermentation to produce lab-made milk and dairy.​ Other companies, like California-based Perfect Day, are using fungi as the microflora to produce the proteins.

But Imagindairy claims to be the only one with the technology required to successfully address the industry bottleneck, which is high production costs. 

Imagindairy's production process is based on a decade of research at Professor Tuller's laboratory at Tel Aviv University in using biophysical simulations, computational modelling of molecular evolution, and machine learning to create models of gene expression as a way to induce yeast cells to produce proteins from another organism cheaply and efficiently.

“For many years, biotechnology companies have been harnessing the gene expression process in order to produce desirable proteins affordably,”​ elaborated Professor Tuller. “They do this by taking a gene from one living organism and implanting it in the genome of another organism that will serve as a 'factory' for producing the protein that is encoded in that gene.”

This technology has been successfully used in the past to produce vaccines, antibodies, biosensors, and green energy using various organisms such as yeast, bacteria, micro-algae, and even viruses.

The new objective is cow’s milk, and according to Dr Afergan, the company’s dedicated algorithms can speed up the number of proteins created through the gene expression process. He claimed the company’s patented AI platform has been proven to increase protein expression up to 200 times compared to existing technologies.

"Theoretically, we can reach a situation in which we can't tell the difference between cow's milk that comes from a cow and cow's milk that comes from yeast,”​ added Professor Tuller. “But in order for that to happen in an economical way, we must turn the yeast cells into efficient factories that produce milk proteins—not a simple challenge to solve. Even though we know what the genes that encode the proteins for cow's milk are, those genes are written in the 'language' of cow cells and need to be rewritten in the 'language' of yeast. This will make the production of the milk proteins possible in an appropriate, affordable, and efficient way in the yeast cell 'factory’.

"There have already been attempts to produce milk from microflora, but the price of producing milk in this way was a far cry from being affordable. I believe that we are on the right path, and within a fairly short time, we will be able to prepare in our own homes, toast with yellow cheese that was made from yeast and not from cow's milk, without having paid any more for it."

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