Alternative feed protein production is taking off

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages
© GettyImages
There has been plenty of buzz about single cell proteins for use in animal feed over the past few weeks. FeedNavigator trains its spotlight on the trend.

This month saw Danish company, Unibio, claiming that non-land-based and non-fish-stock-based single cell proteins will become the animal feed protein source of the future.

It made that prediction when announcing backing for a new research project on its SCP product to the tune of €1.3m from the Green Development and Demonstration Program, a funding initiative under the Danish Ministry for Food, Fisheries, Equal Opportunities and Nordic Cooperation.  

Unibio, in conjunction with DTU Aqua, BioMar, the University of Copenhagen, and Danish Agro, will endeavor to validate and optimize the nutritional and functional properties of its Uniprotein when used in feed for salmonids and piglets.

That project runs through to 2022.

Earlier studies in salmonids and piglets have indicated that Uniprotein may improve growth and intestinal health and reduce nitrogen and phosphorus excretion, said Unibio. It touts Uniprotein as an alternative to “overexploited protein sources such as fishmeal or land-based soy concentrate products”​. 

That SCP is produced using methane as feedstock in Unibio’s U-Loop fermenter, developed in cooperation with the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). In September 2018, Protelux built the first full-scale​ Uniprotein production plant in Russia, under license from Unibio.

When using biomethane or waste gas, Unibio claims its SCP will have low CO2 emissions.

Attracting venture capital

There is an increase in the number of companies using methane to manufacture single cell protein (SCP) or microbial proteins for animal feed. Moreover, they are attracting funding from international investors as well.

We recently reported on leading SCP player, Calysta, generating US$30M in capital from BP Ventures​, the venture arm of the British oil and gas company.

The funds, it said, would support a worldwide rollout of Calysta’s microbial protein for fish and livestock feed as well as pet food, which is branded as FeedKind; the protein product is made via a patented natural-gas fermentation platform.

Calysta said it would benefit from BP’s operational excellence and focus on safety when deploying multiple production plants; the investment agreement will also see BP supplying power and gas to Calysta feed protein plants.

NouriTech, which was formed in 2016 through investments from Cargill and Calysta, along with several third party institutions, is set to produce FeedKind at commercial scale at a site in Memphis, Tennessee in the US.  

Indian start-up, String Bio’s SCP production process also uses methane as a feedstock. As well as feed, it eventually wants to branch out into the human nutrition side too with its protein product.

The Bangalore-based biotech firm, which was established in 2012, announced in June that it had raised an undisclosed amount of funding to take it closer to the goal of a full commercial rollout. It got backing from a number of investors including Ankur Capital and the Indian multinational Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC), French investor Seventure Partners, Karnataka’s Information and Biotechnology Venture Fund (KITVEN), and Indian poultry sector player, Srinivasa Hatcheries.  

Third-party SCP manufacturing model

SCPs, though, are quite expensive to produce.

Another Asian SCP producer, Singapore headquartered, Kinnva, believes its production model, which is asset light, will ensure its protein product, KinnFeed, will be cost competitive.

“One of our models is using capacities that are already available at third-party [ISO certified and a regulator approved sterile, pharma grade] facilities. We don’t have the luxury, as a start-up, to build our own production facility,We have intel into the network of fermentation activities that are going on and we can see, based on the capacities available, as to how we can tap into those,” ​Kinnva founder, Brian Reddy, told FeedNavigator.

The company, which also collaborates with R&D facilities globally on fermentation processes such as the Synthetic Biology Research Centre at the University of Nottingham in the UK, is exploring two SCP production methods - a methane utilizing process, which is still at lab-scale, and a methanol feedstock based liquid fermentation process that is nearer commercialization.  “Our non-GMO microbial strain is our value proposition.”

Methane derived processes are more challenging to scale up as they are associated with a lower yield and lower process efficiency, he acknowledges. “There is a lot more work to be done to enhance the yield in methane based processes.”

Regardless of the process, as far as the strategic buyers are concerned, it will come down to the cost competiveness of the product, whether the SCP is FAMI certified, and also the profile of the product, the percentages of amino acid and protein content therein, said Reddy.  

“We have a minimum of 70% protein and, with the methanol based production, we are starting to see higher amounts of protein percentages [in KinnFeed],” ​he told us.

There are quite a few variants of SCP products in the market: “There are yeast based, and bacterial based Chinese manufacturers and a bunch of others with fungal origin SCP products,​” said Reddy.

While the Chinese producers may be able to generate cheaper sources of SCP products, he cautions that their manufacturing processes are not accredited or certified.

“We are getting the certification for our methanol process as we get up to the near-commercial phase, beyond the 1,000 liter scale. We have demonstrated the methanol process at 1,000-liter fermentation. That has given us about 5-6 tons of our SCP product, KinnFeed, for market trials, which we are planning right now, subject to fundraising. A fundraising exercise needs to happen to pay for some of these trials, especially in salmon and in shrimp and in a couple of other species that we are targeting. We have just identified the trialing capacity, working out a way that we can run those trials as well as working with strategic buyers on in-house trials for the product.”

Lowering costs

Knowing that cost effectiveness of production is key to SCP production in order for such proteins to compete with soy protein concentrate or fishmeal for inclusion in fish and monogastric animal diets, last month saw US SCP innovator, KnipBio, announce ​what it termed a major development in its fermentation research.

The company said it can now produce its single cell protein for aqua feed, KnipBio Meal (KBM), from condensed distillers’ solubles (CDS), and this development will result in a dramatic reduction in cost of production. The breakthrough underscores the versatility of its particular biotech platform and fermentation technology, which relies on engineered strains of microbes, it added.

Carbon capture

We also recently heard ​from one of the founders of start-up, Deep Branch Biotechnology, a single cell protein player also not relying on methane as a feedstock.

It has just completed validation work on its technology that converts carbon dioxide into a single cell protein for use in fish and monogastric feed. Only founded in July 2018, Deep Branch is also going into the field, demonstrating its technology at the site of its first commercial partner, the Drax Group.

Drax said it would work with the biotech start-up to explore the feasibility of using the power station’s carbon dioxide emissions to make microbial proteins for sustainable animal feed products. Deep Branch will place a pilot plant within Drax’s Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) Incubation Area at its power station in North Yorkshire. It will extract flue gases from the power station’s renewable electricity generation to feed to microbes, which can make single cell proteins for feed.

The Deep Branch pilot at the Drax site will get underway in the autumn.

The wood for the trees

Looking to developments earlier this year, in January, Arbiom, a company producing a single cell protein (SCP) called SylPro from technology that combines woody biomass fractionation and bioprocessing expertise, announced​ that it had successfully produced tonnage quantities of the feed ingredient at a combined 80,000-L industrial fermentation scale, with partners globally.

Anthony Scime, senior VP of business development at Arbiom, told us then that the tonnage produced represented a significant production milestone for the company and provided it with substantial volumes of SylPro for use in animal trials as well as for customer sampling. 

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