Michroma, a biotechnology start-up that uses fungal bio-factories to produce sustainable natural ingredients, believes it can help manufacturers to cost-effectively replace artificial colorants in their products.
“A significant portion of the food industry still uses petroleum-based products,” notes Ricky Cassini, CEO and co-founder of Michroma. “These artificial colorants are present in lots of food products, even in those that claim to be healthy.”
Consumers are increasingly looking for products that are sourced and produced sustainably; are clean label; and are healthy.
“Unfortunately, current natural alternatives tend be expensive and of low performance,” adds Cassini. “They are also not very sustainable, as their production tends to consume a lot of water, land and pesticides.”
For these reasons, food and cosmetic companies often don’t have much of a choice but to keep using artificial colorants. Cassini thinks however that this could all change – bad news for manufacturers that are not prepared.
“Synthetic dyes are currently under the microscope,” he notes. “In California for example, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) recently reviewed the impact of synthetic food dyes on children. It found that colorants can indeed result in hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral problems. Many companies are really worried that they are going to have a major labelling issue, or might not even be able to use synthetic dyes anymore.”
Scaling up success
Launched in Argentina in 2019, Michroma sought to develop a novel way of producing natural dyes in a sustainable, stable and more cost efficient way. Their solution was to apply the latest gene-editing techniques to fungi, to create industrial bio-factories that then produce desired ingredients at the lowest cost and highest purity. The process is scaled up using precision fermentation, in a process very similar to the production of beer.
“This process is really scalable and uses only a fraction of the water or land currently used to produce other natural ingredients,” says Cassini. “The bio-factory platform also produces natural ingredients with excellent characteristics.”
A key challenge for all bio-fermentation start-ups however is scaling up. This can be extremely difficult to achieve, and can take time. All too often, seed capital runs out, or investors are unwilling to take a risk on an unproven innovation.
“This is why we are delighted that we have successfully managed to scale up from the lab scale to the pilot scale,” says Cassini. “We are one step closer to industrialisation. A lot of companies fail at this stage, but we have shown that we have good technology that is really scalable.”
Cassini and his team have also been able to demonstrate the high performance of the colours produced through this process.
“Our dyes have 57 times more colouring power than other natural dyes,” he says. “And because these colorants are pH and thermo-stable, they can be applied to almost all food applications.”
Getting ready for market
The company is currently working with some of biggest food and beverage companies to fine-tune their products.
“The feedback we have received has been great, but we are never done improving the product,” says Cassini. “Our aim is to make our colorants so good that the decision to replace synthetic or natural dyes with our solution is a no-brainer.”
Michroma’s innovation dovetails nicely with a key growth trend. The natural food dyes market has experienced constant growth in recent years, driven largely by increasing demand for healthy and sustainable foods.
“We are also looking to expand our capabilities, and use our fungal bio-factories to produce other ingredients such as flavours and fragrances, to accomplish our mission of replacing all petroleum-based ingredients,” says Cassini. “Companies in numerous sectors are focused on producing clean label products, and this means sourcing clean label ingredients.”
In the meantime, Cassini and his team will continue to scale up their technology, raise more capital to expand their team and look for partnerships in the food industry to accelerate development.
”Our aim is to move faster and to reach market as soon as we can,” he says.