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Startup Innovation Challenge

Natural fat droplets deliver creaminess to dairy alternatives [Interview]

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Time-Travelling Milkman, one of the the 2021 Fi Global Startup Innovation Challenge finalists, is taking novel concepts out of the lab and bringing creaminess to plant-based dairy.
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Time-Travelling Milkman was one of the finalists of the 2021 Fi Global Startup Innovation Challenge, in the category of Most Innovative Plant-Based or Alternative Ingredient. The sixth edition of the Challenge, held at Fi Europe 2021, co-located with Hi Europe, in Frankfurt, gave startups the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a jury of R&D experts, investors, and major F&B industry company representatives.

Time-Travelling Milkman, a spin-off from Wageningen University, was established to deliver natural fat replacement ingredients to B2B customers with improved taste, texture and mouthfeel.

“Our thinking was that dairy alternatives currently on the market did not perform very well, and did not reveal their full potential,” explains co-founder Dimitris Karefyllakis. “And while there is a great deal of talk about alternative protein ingredients, there has been less of a focus on fat. We felt that creamy, healthy and sustainable fat ingredients have yet to be found.”

Time-travelling science

Originally from Greece, Karefyllakis completed a Masters in food technology at Wageningen University before completing a PhD there in food process engineering. A key focus for him has been finding ways of improving the consumer experience of plant proteins and fats. Together with his supervisor, Dr. Costas Nikiforidis, an associate professor in Wageningen University, Karefyllakis began to identify certain research findings that could possibly be valorised and commercialised.

Karefyllakis had just completed his doctorate and was thinking about what he wanted to do.

“I needed a challenge,” he says. “I liked the fact that startups can find cracks in the market and move quicker than larger companies in bringing forward something new. For me, this was very interesting.”

This led to the establishment a couple of years ago of Time-Travelling Milkman. The startup was launched by a small team of highly specialised scientists, with particular knowledge on plant-based fats and proteins.

“We wanted to take the novel concept of oleosomes (natural emulsion droplets) out from the lab and bring it inside every plant-based dairy as irresistible creaminess,” says Karefyllakis.

Through a proprietary process, natural emulsion droplets found in sunflower seeds, are removed intact to create sustainable, healthy, and creamy fat ingredients. When consumed, these translate into a pleasant mouthfeel sensation. The production process results in zero waste and uses no toxic chemicals.

“We all come from a scientific background, and are a bit nerdy,” says Karefyllakis. “The idea of ‘time travelling’ came about because we felt we were designing food products for the future, from a natural phenomenon that has existed since forever. It felt like we were taking a very old natural concept and applying it to the future.”

Alternative fat sources

The benefit for food manufacturers looking to add creaminess to dairy alternatives is an unsaturated fat solution sourced from Europe, requiring no stabilisers or E numbers. The ingredients, which come in a powder or liquid cream form, can be mixed into products such as yoghurts, cheeses, spreads, and creams.

“Our customers are trying to move away from unsustainable and saturated fat sources such as coconut oil and palm oil,” notes Karefyllakis. “We want to show that another path is possible.”

To do this, Time-Travelling Milkman has been in correspondence with manufacturers to develop and test its products, while at the same time working to scale up its production to industrial levels.

“We are currently at pilot plant phase, producing about 100 tonnes of product a year,” says Karefyllakis. “From April though, we’ll be setting up a demonstration plant facility that will run continuously for about 1 year. This will produce around 1 000 tonnes a year. This is a really good step forward for us. It will help us to gain traction and will really set us on the path to market.”

In the meantime, the company is working with an engineering firm to gather processing data. This will enable the company to anticipate future production needs, and to scale up in an efficient manner.

“We are forecasting issues of the future, and trying to address these now,” explains Karefyllakis. Given the company’s trajectory, Karefyllakis is confident that in a few years, Time-Travelling Milkman will be considered a viable and attractive fat alternative option for companies designing new products or seeking to improve existing products.
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