Israeli start-up Pigmentum leverages transgenic modification and molecular farming techniques to produce high yields of natural compounds for the food industry.
In essence, Pigmentum is turning plants – such as romaine lettuce – into plant factories capable of producing proteins, pigments and aromas for food makers, as well as other compounds for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.
In food, the start-up is particularly interested in dairy. “Our vision is to turn polluting cow sheds into agricultural farms that will produce functional cheese proteins, at the same quality and at a competitive price,” explained Pigmentum co-founder and CEO Tal Lutzky.
A recently closed seed funding round worth $6m (€5.5m) aims to accelerate this process.
How will Pigmentum use the funding?
The funding round was led by Kubbutz Yotvata, Arkin Holdings, American and Israeli family offices, and private investors, amongst others. Existing shareholders, including OurCrowd, Israeli beverage company Tempo and food major Tnuva, also contributed to the investment.
The majority of the funding will be put towards R&D ‘procedures’ for establishing the production and functionality of dairy protein casein, as well as other ‘high-profile’ ingredients such as flavours and colours for food, explained Lutzky.
“This also means expanding the technological team and establishing the new company’s site, including a lab, a pilot [product], and offices.”
The company is laser-focused on developing its platform technology, which it says enables it to harvest and extract high yields of a wide range of high-value bio-compounds.
“We already have a diverse pipeline of products including proteins – including BSA and protein A – for the life sciences industries, and metabolites – like anthocyanin, vanillin, and terpenes – for the food industry.”
But the company’s main R&D focus area is currently centred around dairy proteins, while concurrently looking to enter the market with ‘more mature products’.
Triggering compound production for the dairy industry
Pigmentum’s technology is founded on the inducible mechanism in transgenic plants. This means that the plant gene, which the start-up encodes to produce specific compounds, is ‘fully silent’ until an external agrochemical signal is deployed.
“Our plants gain biomass and grow in natural, high rates,” Lutzky explained to FoodNavigator in a recent interview. “Only when we implement our agrochemical via an irrigation system or spraying do the plants respond with the hyperexpression of a specific desired compound This is the core IP of Pigmentum.”
This is how the company plans to produce the functional dairy protein casein, a key element in the production of cheese. In developing casein this way, the start-up wants to allow dairy manufacturers to produce non-animal sourced proteins that look, feel, and taste like the real thing.
“The current food industry uses 80% of agricultural land to raise livestock. The ability to produce dairy components from plants have the potential to change the dairy industry and positively impact the world as a whole,” said Lutzky.
The regulatory hurdle
One hurdle standing in Pigmentum’s way is regulation. In the food industry, Pigmentum’s compounds will be classified as novel foods, and as such, will require pre-market authorisation.
But since our last conversation, the start-up has observed positive developments across the regulatory landscape.
“Since we last spoke, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved cultured meat, but more importantly recombinant dairy proteins derived from precision fermentation processes to be used as an ingredient,” the CEO told this publication.
“For example, General Mills is launching a product based on Remilk’s recombinant dairy proteins. The source is not necessarily considered a novel ingredient – this is highly dependent on the specific regulations of each territory.”
Pigmentum aims to include a voluntary Biotechnology Consumption in a more conservative approach to GRAS assessment, he revealed.
'An expression of investor confidence'
The start-up said it was happy to see that both financial and strategic investors chose to participate in the funding round. “We are confident in the company’s unique technology and capabilities to bring about the breakthrough that will enable this needed change,” said Lutzky.
The Fresh Start incubator in Northern Israel, where Pigmentum was a cohort member for two years, also welcomed the news. “We are very proud to see Pigmentum’s achievements in the last two years and happy for the company’s success in completing a significant fundraising round in this challenging period, which is an expression of the investors’ confidence in their ground breaking technology and Pigmentum’s ability to bring sustainable and economic solutions to the food industry,” said Fresh Start CEO Noga SelaShalev.