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MicroTerra’s lemna-derived ingredient combines sustainability with versatility

Article-MicroTerra’s lemna-derived ingredient combines sustainability with versatility

© Tayana Nagayeva Marissa-Flores-Microterra_Tayana Nagayeva.png
MicroTerra wants to change the food industry using lemna, an aquatic plant. Its new ingredient, Flora, is currently marketed as a sweetener enhancer but has other potential applications such as improving flavour and mouth feel.

Marissa Cuevas Flores is the founder and CEO of MicroTerra, a Mexican biotech startup currently pioneering sustainable food ingredients by harnessing the cleansing power of lemna, also known as duckweed, a free-floating aquatic plant. By simply cultivating lemna, farmers contribute to cleaning up the water supplies.  

Fi Global Insights sat down with Flores, who will be speaking at the Hack Summit in June 2024. Flores will be discussing the various challenges faced by the food industry, and the solutions MicroTerra is developing to solve them.

Lemna offers farmers a lower-risk and more sustainable solution

MicroTerra's business model initially focused on microalgae, before moving to lemna. "I started my journey when I realised that agricultural runoff is the biggest water pollutant, and there is no commercial water treatment for it. We were [initially] using microalgae to absorb nutrients and create biomass," Flores explained. However, the high capital expenditure and low product yield made it challenging to attract investment. In addition, Flores and her team faced hurdles in convincing farmers to embrace the microalgae technology.

Covid-19 provided an unexpected opportunity for MicroTerra. "If Covid hadn't happened, we might still be pursuing the less viable microalgae approach," Flores explained. The pandemic forced the team to pause and re-evaluate its approach, Flores added, leading to hundreds of industry expert and stakeholder interviews. This process highlighted to Flores the need for a more viable solution that farmers could adopt without high risk. The pivot to lemna, a simpler and more resilient plant, offered a sustainable solution that farmers could implement with lower risk and investment.

Helping farmers turn wastewater into a profitable resource

Unlike microalgae, lemna does not require sophisticated equipment or highly technical skills to cultivate, making it more accessible for farmers. It grows rapidly, even in nutrient-rich wastewater, and can be harvested easily. Lemna's high protein and nutrient content —  up to 45% crude protein alongside phytonutrients, dietary fibres, and vitamin B12 also make it a valuable product for the food industry.

Flores recognised that by helping farmers turn wastewater into a profitable resource, they could create a sustainable and scalable business model that reduces both water and greenhouse gas pollution. "We needed something different to clean the water, and lemna turned out to be a perfect fit,” Flores said. “Lemna is simpler, can be seen with the naked eye, and reproduces easily," she added.

Flora: MicroTerra’s versatile and sustainable sweetener enhancer ingredient

Flora, MicroTerra's sweetener enhancer ingredient derived from lemna, launched in February of 2024. The ingredient offers multiple benefits as a food ingredient and is currently marketed as a sweetener enhancer to be added to food and beverage products with reduced sugar content like ice cream or sweet beverages.

But MicroTerra has plans beyond this. "Flora has a lot of properties; it's a sweetener enhancer, a flavour enhancer, and it improves mouthfeel,” Flores said. In addition, MicroTerra is in the process of ongoing research to identify specific molecules responsible for these effects, with the potential to create targeted flavour enhancers. "We have found molecules responsible for buttery flavour, which can significantly change the taste profile of foods,” she added.

Flora's versatility makes it a valuable addition to the plant-based food industry, Flores explained, such as addressing key challenges related to taste and texture. "In the future, we may develop more specialised ingredients like a buttery enhancer or a citrus enhancer," Flores added.

Flora is approved in Mexico, with plans to enter the US and EU market

"MicroTerra is actively working on regulatory approvals for Flora to expand its market reach. "We are already approved by COFEPRIS [Mexico's regulatory health authority] in Mexico and are working on our GRAS [Generally Recognised As Safe] proposal for the US,” Flores said.

MicroTerra is also looking towards Europe: “We see Europe as leading the way in plant-based food, and we are exploring how to enter that market."

The company aims to focus on the intellectual property and licensing of Flora, including partnering with larger corporations to scale its impact more rapidly. By licensing its technology, MicroTerra can enable other companies to incorporate lemna into their products, driving wider adoption and contributing to global food sustainability.