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The amino acid alchemists: Exploring Arkeon’s breakthrough biotechnology [Interview]

Article-The amino acid alchemists: Exploring Arkeon’s breakthrough biotechnology [Interview]

© Arkeon Arkeon’s Executive team (left to right): Justin Smith (CTO), Dr Simon Rittmann (co-founder and chief scientist), Michael Mitsakos (co-founder and president), Dr Jörg Hackenbuchner (CCO), and Dr Gregor Tegl (co-founder and CEO)..
Pictured: Arkeon’s Executive team (left to right): Justin Smith (CTO), Dr Simon Rittmann (co-founder and chief scientist), Michael Mitsakos (co-founder and president), Dr Jörg Hackenbuchner (CCO), and Dr Gregor Tegl (co-founder and CEO).
Austrian biotech startup Arkeon has harnessed its considerable expertise in microbiology and gas fermentation to pioneer a process that transforms industrial CO2 into all 20 essential amino acids – and has created an entirely new regenerative food-production system in so doing.

Highly resilient, single-celled micro-organisms known as ‘archaea’ existed on Earth as far back as 3.8 billion years ago. Yet these ancient microbes could play an important role in creating the carbon-negative alternative proteins that will be crucial to our future on this planet – through boosting food security, but also by actively driving down emissions.

With technological foundations based on over a decade’s research by co-founders Dr Simon Rittmann, Dr Guenther Bochmann, and Dr Gregor Tegl, Arkeon established its pilot production plant just last year. Located at Vienna’s Seestadt Innovation Hub, the company’s facility is equipped with a 150-litre bioreactor. The biotech pioneer is currently advancing scale-up plans for its proprietary process based on gas fermentation with archaea as a combined technology, as a route to producing all 20 amino acids at commercial scale.

Fi Global Insights learns more from Michael Mitsakos, Arkeon’s co-founder and president, about the firm’s proprietary archaea-based technology, and the decarbonisation potential its innovative carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) process heralds for industries far beyond the realm of food.

What is the core mission driving Arkeon’s endeavours as a business?

“When we established Arkeon, the aim was to rethink ingredient production and the food value chain more broadly. Everything currently starts with agriculture. Even when you’re talking about fermentation, it requires sugar – this might come from corn, for example, which necessitates fields plus all the inputs inherent in growing and processing that crop. There are so many resources involved. The question is, how can we reduce or eliminate waste, and create a more efficient system? Arkeon directly responds to that, as a new way of producing ingredients. We don’t utilise anything from agriculture, not even sugars – we require only gases (hence the term ‘gas fermentation’ to describe the process), plus the help of the remarkable micro-organism archaea, which converts CO2 into amino acids – the most valuable components of protein. In essence, we’re producing extremely high-value ingredients for the food and beverage industry using only gases as feedstock. To me, that’s alchemy.”

And what personally set you on this particular path with Arkeon?

“My background is in venture capital. For nearly two decades, I’ve worked at the intersection of technology and innovation; financing technology companies – and, indeed, building such companies from scratch. I met [Arkeon co-founders] Simon, Guenther, and Gregor as part of our outreach aimed at meeting and building companies with scientists, and I discovered the amazing new technology they were working on. Having that team established, alongside this remarkable technology – and knowing how to scale it, finance it, and bring the public with us in the sense of communicating what we’re doing – have been key drivers in my path towards advancing Arkeon.”

Could you elaborate upon the proprietary technology that underpins Arkeon’s activities?

“We stand at the intersection of gas fermentation and archaea biotechnology. We utilise carbon dioxide and hydrogen as inputs, rather than sugars (as are used in conventional fermentation methods). On the biotechnology side, we use archaea – a micro-organism with a very specific type of metabolism that enables it to consume gases and convert them into proteinogenic amino acids. The archaea excrete those essential amino acids, making them easily accessible – it means we don’t have to open up the organism and crack open the cell.”

What are the wider industrial challenges that Arkeon’s technology effectively serves to overcome?

“Our technology is a counterpoint to the vast amounts of CO2 that all manner of industries – from steelmaking to concrete production – are currently pumping out from their factories and releasing into the atmosphere. We capture that generated CO2 at source – thus actually preventing it from being emitted in the first place – and we utilise it for our process, converting it into amino acids. Arkeon is a great example of the carbon capture and utilisation approach, which I’m convinced is the way forward, towards a circular economy.”

From where are you sourcing the input gases that Arkeon’s technology is reliant upon?

“We will place our bioreactor facilities next to existing industrial complexes. In terms of prospective sites, CO2 sourcing is clearly not a problem – it’s hydrogen that will determine where we build our commercial production plants. China currently subsidises hydrogen production, as does the US – and India could also prove an interesting geography. However, I’d not like to rule out Europe, because it’s essentially a political decision – in terms of incentivising or subsidising industry. It’s really a case of how this plays out, because hydrogen could also be produced anywhere – there’s no geographical restraints in that respect.”

Within the context of a supply-constraint amino acid market, what is Arkeon’s approach and what opportunities do you identify?

“The market is highly concentrated in China right now, where it’s estimated 90-95 per cent of all amino acids are produced globally. The resultant supply chain bottleneck drives interest in producing more amino acids in Europe and the US. From a sustainability perspective too, locally produced is desirable, because importing obviously creates increased emissions from transportation. We believe in a decentralised approach – building our production facilities in those geographical markets within which the amino acids will be used.”

You’ve previously spoken about a “democratisation of the amino acid market”. Could you elaborate upon this?

“Currently, not every amino acid can commercially be produced by fermentation. That’s the main reason certain food-grade amino acids are so expensive – up to €40 per kilogram. At that kind of price point, they cannot be used by the food industry because the end products would be prohibitively expensive for the consumer. Yet our archaea micro-organisms can produce all 20 proteinogenic amino acids, making it possible to lower the price to a point where those ingredients become accessible. This opens up possibilities for creating new food and beverage products.”

What have been the major milestones in Arkeon’s development to date, and which key partnerships have helped advance the company’s mission?

“One key milestone has been the accumulation of knowledge and knowhow to the point where, today, Arkeon has the best team working on archaea globally. We know the organism extremely well; we can engineer and modify it; we can make it produce certain amino acids of choice, and we’ve ultimately set the basis for advancement in this area. We’re doing the necessary scale-up work to make them commercially deployable, but we’ve already done all the groundwork – and that’s underpinned by the wealth of knowledge within our team.

“In terms of scale, we’re currently operating a 150-litre bioreactor at our facility in Vienna, and we achieved that with only modest seed funding. To build the facility and to build our team, and to do all of that with just €10 million, really demonstrates our efficiency as a business.

“I’m also extremely proud that we’ve engaged with some of the best companies in the world. We’re already partnering with [Tel Aviv-based speciality minerals company] ICL, and we have the best food tech investors backing Arkeon – including Synthesis Capital, Thia Ventures, and ReGen Ventures – who are very supportive and clearly add strength to our business.”

Finally, what are Arkeon’s future plans, and its overall strategy towards commercialisation?

“We’re looking for a scale-up partner, and we’re in the process of organising our next financing round, with a view to building our first commercial production site.

“What’s important – not only for Arkeon, but for any startup – is to understand your strengths and double down on those. It’s also vital to understand what you’re looking for. We are highly adept at strain development, strain engineering, and process development, and we’re pioneers in the process of gas fermentation with archaea as a combined technology. But of course, we’re not specialised in constructing large-scale steel structures like bioreactors. We’re therefore looking for an expert partner in that field. We aim to generate curiosity from engineering and scale-up companies, as we see such partnerships – when each party is incentivised in the right way – as a win-win. And when the benefit of what we’re doing is viewed within the wider context of investors, shareholders, stakeholders, and the environment, then everyone wins.”

To learn more about Arkeon’s breakthrough advancements and technology, visit their website.

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