How mycelium innovation is ‘unlocking the potential of the fungi kingdom’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

Entrepreneurs are catching on to the magic of mycelium. How are start-ups innovating to bring these versatile, sustainable fungi strains to market? GettyImages/Muriel de Seze
Entrepreneurs are catching on to the magic of mycelium. How are start-ups innovating to bring these versatile, sustainable fungi strains to market? GettyImages/Muriel de Seze

Related tags: mycelium, mushrooms, fungi, alternative proteins, plant-based

From pea protein substitutes to whole cut meat alternatives and pet food, the versatility of mycelium is helping to attract a growing number of start-ups to the space. How are entrepreneurs innovating to bring this sustainable ‘root-like’ structure to market?

Mushroom production is on the rise. China, the global leader in mushroom production, is growing ‘masses’ of fungi, while in Europe, production is also increasing. In Germany, for example, 60,000 tonnes of mushrooms are produced annually.

But not all fungi are grown for their ‘fruiting bodies’ – the part of the mushroom we purchase in supermarkets. An increasing number of entrepreneurs are cultivating mycelia: the root-like structure from which the fungi grow.

When certain fungal strains are exposed to particular substrates, they can absorb nutrients for the production of alternative proteins.

At the University of Giessen in Germany, researchers are screening around 5,000 edible fungi to investigate optimal growing conditions using different side streams from industry as substrates.

“We’re looking for a good conversion ratio of substrates [into] protein,” ​explained Dr Martin Rühl, who heads up the working group on biochemical and molecular biological food analytics and biotechnology at the university. “We want to have high protein compounds in our mycelium and a high share of fungus.”

According to Dr Rühl, who was joined by four mycelium-based start-ups at the Future Food Series: Mycelium ​panel discussion last week, fungi have the potential to transform the food industry.

Entrepreneurs are clearly catching on. How are start-ups innovating to bring these versatile, sustainable fungi strains to market? Is it true that ‘the sky’s the limit’?

Ingredients in plant-based, meat, and pet food products

Some businesses are developing mycelia as a high-protein ingredient for the plant-based meat alternatives market, which makes sense given the category’s trajectory.

According to Bloomberg Intelligence, the plant-based foods market could make up to 7.7% of the global protein market by 2030, with a value of over $162bn – up from $29.4bn in 2020.

Entrepreneurs Daniel MacGowan von Holstein and Franziskus Schnabel co-founded Keen 4 Greens in 2019. Although the duo set out to build a meat alternatives business, they changed tack when they observed a shortage of pea protein.

“That made us really start to question where alternatives proteins would be coming from in the next four-to-five years. We started looking into mycelium to try and move away from soy or pea, [towards] an alternative protein that could be produced locally,” ​MacGowan von Holstein told delegates at the Future Food event co-hosted by ProVeg Incubator and Zinitinus.

Keen 4 Greens grows its mycelium ingredient over a 5–7-day period leveraging submerged fermentation technology. By submerging substrate in liquid, oxygen exposure is prevented, and anaerobic growth of mycelia is promoted.

The start-up plans to sell to a variety of sectors. Unlike the business’ first iteration, these days the co-founders – and their now 14-strong team – are not focusing on the end product. “Rather, we’ll be working with producers…and not just for vegan meat alternatives, but they could be [conventional] meat producers or pet food producers – anybody who has a need for these alternative proteins.”

pet food Sally Anscombe
Keen 4 Greens sees potential for mycelium-based protein in pet food formulations. GettyImages/Sally Anscombe

Pet food is one area Keen 4 Greens sees market potential. The company is in talks with a handful of pet food businesses – both vegan and traditional – who are interested in adding mycelium-based protein.

“There is a lot of interest and I think that could be a very interesting market for us.

Mycelium-based whole cuts

Germany- and US-based Bosque Foods (formerly Kinoko Labs) plans to also sell B2B ingredients down the line, but for the meantime the start-up is focusing on the B2C market with mycelium-based whole cuts.

Unlike Keen 4 Greens, which is leveraging submerged fermentation technology, Bosque Foods is working with solid state fermentation. In this cultivation process, the mycelia grow on solid materials without the presence of free liquid.

“We’re focusing specifically on whole cuts and see this as a way for us to unlock the potential of the fungi kingdom in a completely different way to a lot of other companies…,” ​said Bosque Foods founder and CEO Isabella Iglesias-Musachio.

To start with, Bosque is developing chicken and pork whole cut alternatives. Mycelium has ‘very good application’ for whole cuts, we were told. In the future, however, the start-up envisions ‘many more’ products beyond whole cuts and meat alternatives.

“I think the sky is the limit in terms of the applications for mycelium, even outside of the food industry.”

The start-up sees mycelium as something of a ‘blank canvas’. Once harvested, its ‘inherent fibrous textures’ lends itself to various applications, suggested Iglesias-Musachio. It’s the strain and substrate that impacts taste, nutrition, texture, and nutritional composition, she explained.

bacon LauriPatterson
Libre Foods is plans to launch its mushroom-based bacon alternative later this year. GettyImages/LauriPatterson

Barcelona-based Libre Foods is also working on whole cuts for the meat alternative market.

The start-up is less interested in working in already well-developed markets, Libre Foods co-founder and CEO Alon Ramos suggested. “We won’t make chicken nuggets, we’ll make chicken breast. We won’t make anything around burgers, we’ll make steaks. And we won’t make sausages, we’ll make bacon.”

Specifically, Libre Foods wants to recreate consumers’ ‘favourite’ meats with mycelium. Pork is the second most consumed meat globally, and in Europe, the first. “Being based in Barcelona, it was clear that in order to have the impact we wanted to have, we had to start with bacon first…”

The company plans to launch its ‘first ever’ mushroom-based bacon in November of this year.

Alt seafood potential

Seafood alternatives have commanded less consumer attention than meat and dairy substitutes to date, yet according to Euromonitor International, this is ‘rapidly’ changing.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of overfishing, including decreased fish populations, reduced biodiversity, and harm to habitats, suggests the market research firm.

Is there potential for mycelium to form the basis of alternative seafood products?

“Seafood is a very worthy category to go into for a lot of reasons,” ​said Bosque Foods’ Iglesias-Musachio. “My own drivers would be sustainability issues and overfishing, and the dramatic decline in fish globally. I think the drivers for consumers are around health and sustainability.”

Bosque Foods was looking at developing seafood alternatives when it first started out. The company was investigating meat and seafood ‘across the board’, the CEO revealed. It landed on pork and chicken because those cuts were the ‘best application’ for the mycelium the start-up is currently producing, we were told.

There are some undeniable challenges in mimicking seafood, suggested Iglesias-Musachio, notably in nutrition and texture. “It’s not the same type of muscle fibre structure that we have to try and emulate with…our chicken or pork fillets today.

“It’s a very interesting category to go into, but that’s something for the future of Bosque.”

chicken fillet Lara Hata
Bosque Foods and Libre Foods both contemplated developing seafood alternative products, but have decided to enter the market with whole cut meat products. Both have mycelium-based chicken on their radars. GettyImages/Lara Hata

In Barcelona, Libre Foods similarly investigated seafood in its early days. But having reassessed consumer demand, it is now focusing on what it perceives to be the three ‘main’ meat categories: pork, chicken and beef.

Mycelium’s magic beyond alt meat

Mycelium’s magic is not restricted to meat and seafood substitutes, however. In food and beverage, manufacturers are already working in other applications such as dairy.

Chicago-based start-up Nature’s Fynd, for example, has developed a non-GMO fungi strain-based protein which grows as a whole ingredient for use in applications ranging from meat and poultry analogues to dairy alternatives, meal replacements, juices, pastas, baked goods, soups, and fats & oils.

“Nature’s Fynd is a major pioneer for mycelium and they’re using theirs not only for burgers, but also in dairy,” ​said Bosque Foods’ Iglesias-Musachio. “There is also potential [for mycelium] in cereal-based products, such as pastas and flours.

“There is quite a bit of versatility to be had, but of course the question is: What is the best application for the mycelium you’re producing, and how to execute that well?”

mycelium
An increasing number of entrepreneurs are cultivating mycelia - the root-like structure from which fungi grow. GettyImages/luchschen

Mycelium’s potential also expands into other segments, such as supplements and food additives.

Vitamin D produced by mushrooms has already received regulatory approval in the EU, and Dr Rühl’s team at the University of Giessen is investigating the potential for mycelia to produce flavour enhancers.

Enzymes are another target area, we were told, which are produced my mushrooms. “There is a tremendous portfolio of other applications [beyond alt meat].”

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