De Novo Dairy: Meet Africa’s first precision fermentation player making human milk proteins for infant nutrition

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

De Novo wants to disrupt the infant nutrition sector – largely based on cow’s milk – with proteins that are ‘nature identical’ to those found in human milk. GettyImages/AJ_Watt
De Novo wants to disrupt the infant nutrition sector – largely based on cow’s milk – with proteins that are ‘nature identical’ to those found in human milk. GettyImages/AJ_Watt

Related tags precision fermentation

The South Africa-based food tech company is developing ‘nature identical’ proteins from scratch to help infants get the ‘right’ nutrition from the beginning, co-founder and CEO Jean Louwrens tells FoodNavigator.

In Latin, de novo​ means ‘from the new’. The term is also used in biology to describe ‘some biological process or entity that has begun again or from new or from the beginning’.

For De Novo Dairy, a South African-based start-up working in precision fermentation, the term is fitting.

“The name has a two-fold meaning for us,” ​De Novo co-founder and CEO Jean Louwrens explained. “’From new’, because we are able to create nature identical proteins from scratch, without any animal involvement.”

And secondly because the start-up has a particular interest in infant nutrition. “We are focusing on proteins that are important for humans of all ages, but are predominantly found in breastmilk and are perfect for optimum infant nutrition,” ​he told FoodNavigator.

“Therefore, we are focusing on proteins that are important for infants and their initial development, meaning infants can get the right nutrition from the beginning.”

Disrupting infant nutrition

The global infant nutrition market is on an upwards trajectory. Valued at $34.2bn back in 2018, Allied Market Research estimates the market will grow at a CAGR of 7.7% from 2019 to 2026, when it will reach $61.6bn.

De Novo wants to disrupt the infant nutrition sector – largely based on cow’s milk – with proteins that are ‘nature identical’ to those found in human milk.

Human milk proteins are responsible for initiating a lifelong impact on the immune system in humans, according to Louwrens. “Current forms on these immune regulating proteins are currently sourced from bovine milk, which is naturally not exactly what we need as humans.

“In addition, these proteins are very scarce and expensive due to high purification costs to harvest it from bovine milk. There are also potential pathogen risks when harvesting it from animals (bovine spongiform encephalopathy).”

On top of this, high purity standards are required, and this has pushed numerous bovine protein suppliers out as production – notably purification – costs have become too high, he continued.

What is precision fermentation?

Precision fermentation enables the programming of micro-organisms to produce complex organic molecules, such as protein.

By making these project ‘directly’, without the need for bovines, De Novo says it can make them ‘more cost effective’. They are also ‘completely free’ of pathogens, animal cruelty, and are ‘perfectly designed’ for the human immune system.

“Essentially, precision fermentation is a technology which allows us to programme yeast to produce specific proteins,” ​the CEO elaborated.

“So much like yeast product alcohol…our yeast makes nature identical dairy proteins all without using any cows, making our process more efficient and friendly to both the climate and animals.”

baby YsaL
Human milk proteins are responsible for initiating a lifelong impact on the immune system in humans, according to De Novo Dairy's CEO. GettyImages/YsaL

De Novo is one of an expanding number of start-ups working in the precision fermentation dairy space.

Others include US-based Perfect Day, which is making animal-free whey protein for alt ice cream and milk products, and German start-up Formo, which has its eyes on the cheese market.

De Novo is using similar technology, but is focusing on ‘very different’ proteins. “We are developing a technology that will allow us to create fully functional, immune regulating proteins that are stable in food applications,” ​explained Louwrens.

“We are primarily focusing on nutrition and high-value proteins, specifically animal proteins that are imperative in human nutrition and can’t be replaced by plant-based sources.”

Commercialisation strategy

Although based in South Africa, De Novo describes itself as a global company. And as such, is looking to a number of markets for commercialisation.

Regulations, stressed the CEO, are ‘distinctly different’ in different markets. “This makes it challenging for anyone working on novel technologies to scale globally quickly, therefore we need to be very strategic about which markets we want to tackle first.”

Some markets, he explained, are easier to enter than others. “We have identified our primary markets and their respective regulations for precision fermentation.”

Within De Novo’s native South Africa, regulations appear to sit somewhere in between the more progressive and conservative safety authorities around the world.

“There are aspects of South African regulations that are very well defined and supportinnovations in agriculture, making the process quite seamless. However, there are some aspects that still need to be developed and this requires a lot of engagement with regulatory bodies.

“I’d say it’s nowhere near as restrictive as the EU, but not quite as progressive as Singapore and the US,” ​we were told.

formula SDI Productions
De Novo wants to disrupt the infant nutrition sector. GettyImages/SDI Productions

Of course, market success is not founded on regulatory approval, but on consumer acceptance.

Accordingly, De Novo is conducting ‘quite extensive’ consumer research – that will be ongoing during its development – in order to ‘stay up to date’ with consumer perceptions.

“As it stands, we are positive that consumers will respond well to our products because they are identical to animal proteins, however we do foresee that consumer education will be a big part of our marketing strategy.”

Partnerships with ‘established’ brands 

De Novo is taking a B2B approach and plans to supply companies ‘across the globe’ with the ingredients they require to diversify and improve their products.

The plan is to partner with ‘established’ brands to incorporate De Novo’s products into their existing lines, or to create brand-new products.

“Further down the line, we may look at creating our own branded products, although at this stage we are focusing our core competencies and ensuring our technology can consistently deliver so we can bring the cost of production down quickly to ensure wider adoption of our ingredients on an international scale,”​ said Louwrens.

De Novo expects its products will be ready to launch by the end of the 2024, once necessary regulatory requirements are finalised.

Last year, De Novo closed its pre-seed funding round with contributions from Prithvi Ventures, Big Idea Ventures, Sustainable Food Ventures, and CULT Food Science.

The start-up aims to raise its seed round before the summer, with milestones including the expression of its core proteins in its host organisms as well as developing initial relationships with its first international partners.

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