ÄIO’s final ingredient is a lipid-rich yeast that contains about 60% oil as well as protein, fibre, and amino acids. ÄIO dries and encapsulates it, producing a pink-beige powder that can be pressed into a block or kept in powder form and is ideal for use in plant-based patties or bakery products. The fact that the oil is encapsulated ensure it is stable and prevents it from leaking out.
It can also extract the oil and produce a liquid or a buttery, solid form that has a melting point of 35 degrees. The yeast is naturally rich in antioxidants, mainly carotenoids, and so it has a deep, orange-coloured oil that has a similar appearance to liquid palm olein. However, it can tweak the colour and its oil-rich powder is also available in a more neutral cream colour.
"We can tune the coloration by the way we ferment it: if you want it less red, we can make it less red,” said co-founder Nemailla Bonturi.
ÄIO is still conducting a full nutritional analysis of its oil but Bonturi said it has a similar nutritional profile to palm oil with additional healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
"The liquid form has a pretty similar composition to palm oil, the solid form is more closely related to chicken lard,” she added.
Synthetic biology can improve the nutritional profile
Although ÄIO’s fats are currently not genetically modified, the startup is not against this technology. It intends to develop higher-value lipids that contain, for instance, high levels of the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, and these products will be made using synthetic biology.
The current iteration of its GMO-free yeast, however, was developed using a process known as laboratory evolution, Bonturi said.
“We put the micro-organism under some specific pressures to try to make it more tolerant or to have specific phenotypes of interest. So, we use the natural evolution but we do it in the lab in an accelerated [way]. Then, depending on the pressure we are applying, we can select some phenotypes that are interesting for [us],” she said, speaking to Fi Global Insights at Future Food Tech in London.
Its production method, which uses upcycled industrial side streams as a feedstock for the yeast, uses less land and water than conventional edible oil production, and is faster too, she said. ÄIO currently uses sawdust as a feedstock – this is Estonia’s biggest waste stream, generated by the forestry and timber industry – but molasses, whey, or brewer’s spent grain could also be used.
ÄIO cannot commercialise its product yet - it needs to get novel food approval for the EU market - but it plans to submit its dossier by the end of the year. In the meantime, it is exploring the cosmetic industry – its ingredient has good emulsifying properties, Bonturi said – and the animal feed industry as well as other regions around the world.
Licencing the technology to ensure uptake
A native Brazilian, Bonturi moved to Estonia seven years ago to work at the University of Tartu. With Petri-Jaan Lahtvee, ÄIO’s other co-founder, they began developing the technology and in 2022, they spun off from the University. So far, the startup has raised €2.9 million through both private investments and grants
As for scaling up, Bonturi said the startup sees itself as a technology company rather than in ingredient supplier. Its aim is to open a demo facility and to licence its technology to other companies.
“There is no point having one big factory in one place because the substrates would need to be transported [which causes] CO2 emissions. So, we would like to either supply the technology to where the substrate is or to have a joint venture."
It envisages working with dairy producers, for instance, who generate co-streams such as whey and lactose that must be treated and disposed of properly. These companies could use their co-streams as a feedstock for ÄIO’s yeast and harvest the lipid-rich product to then use in their own plant-based ranges or sell to other manufacturers.
Space for all: The startups doing a fat lot of good
ÄIO is by no means the only startup using novel processing techniques to find sustainable alternatives to conventional fats, whether they be dairy fats, meat fats, or vegetables oils, such as palm oil.
"We have identified about 20 competitors,” Bonturi said. “Some are more similar in applications, some are different in terms of substrates or what type of attributes they provide: some are mainly more focused on palm oil, some are mainly focused on animal fats. […] But there is space for everyone - palm oil is a 60-billion-dollar market and we need tons of it so the more the better!"
Wisconsin-based synbio startup Xylome uses yeast to produce a palm oil alternative that it calls Yoil. Dutch company NoPalm and New York firm C16 Biosciences have also developed palm oil alternatives using precision fermentation.
Several companies are also looking to replicate the sensory and functional characteristics of animal fats to create next-generation plant-based products that have the same taste and texture as meat. Sweden’s Melt & Marble is using precision fermentation to make fats for plant-based meats while London-based Hoxton Farms uses cell-culturing methods to make animal-free animal fats.
San Francisco-based Yali Bio makes a yeast-derived fat alternative using precision fermentation for various dairy applications. It is currently working on developing animal-free fats that remove the “waxiness|” from plant-based cheeses as well as fats for butter, ice cream, and milk.