Motif FoodWorks: A Food Technology Company
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There’s a popular saying that goes something like this: Some people eat to live and others live to eat. Our globe-trotting MBAs definitely fall into the latter category, which is one reason why we’ve been so tepid on the whole greentech push towards plant-based foods and alternative protein markets. More objectively, we’re skeptical that these technologies can achieve price parity with animal proteins in the near term, despite higher meat prices across the smörgåsbord. However, that didn’t stop us from taking a serious look at Beyond Meat (BYND), which seems to have a solid plan in place to price its faux meat products more competitively.
There’s certainly no denying that the plant-based meat market is hotter than a Carolina Reaper. The U.S. retail plant-based food market grew 27.1% in 2020, almost twice the rate of the total retail food market, to more than $7 billion, according to the Good Food Institute (GFI). Global plant-based meat retail sales hit $4.2 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 2019. GFI also reported that plant-based startups raised more funding last year than at any other time in the industry’s history – $2.2 billion, which is almost half of all capital invested in the industry since 1980.
A lot of that money is being spent on technology to make all of that plant-based food
more palatable taste and feel more like beef, pork, and chicken, as well as various critters of the sea. Beyond Meat competitor Impossible Foods uses synthetic biology (synbio) to even make its burgers bleed by modifying yeast and employing fermentation technology to produce heme, an iron-rich protein. A food science startup positioning itself to be the go-to supplier of proteins created specifically to enhance taste, texture, and more for plant-based foods is Motif FoodWorks.
About Motif Foodworks
Founded in 2019, Boston-based Motif is a spinout from Ginkgo Bioworks, one of the most exciting companies operating in the synbio industry today. Ginkgo’s robotic foundries manufacture biological machines out of microbes for a range of industries, including food, agriculture, and healthcare, among others. Retail investors will soon gain access to Ginkgo Bioworks stock as they’re planning an initial public offering by merging with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) called Soaring Eagle Acquisition Corp (SRNG). (Rolls eyes.) Once the deal goes through, we’ll look to begin slowly accumulating the stock while paying attention to additional information made available as opposed to what’s on their glossy forward-looking SPAC deck.
Motif Foodworks is probably the most high-profile and well-funded startup to emerge out of Ginkgo Bioworks. It has now raised $345 million following a $226 million Series B last month. That round was co-led by BlackRock, a private equity firm, and the Teachers’ Innovation Platform. The latter is part of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, a $173 billion investment fund for teachers in Ontario, Canada that has backed a pretty impressive list of tech companies, including autonomous vehicle startup Pony.ai, AI chip designer Graphcore, and digital healthcare startup Verily, to name but a few. Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the fund launched by a billionaire boys club that includes Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, is also backing Motif.
Pivot to Plant-Based Food Solutions
We first covered the company shortly after it hatched out of Ginkgo Bioworks for our list of alternative protein startups. At the time, Motif seemed fixated on engineering microbes that could brew up crazy concoctions like alternative dairy products that mimicked camel and platypus milk. Why? Because they could. Somewhere along the way a high-priced MBA must have intervened and insisted that the company produce something people might actually want to buy. Motif has pivoted to become more of a B2B food science company, specializing in developing solutions for enhancing plant-based foods masquerading as meats, cheeses, and the like.
Motif still leverages its special relationship with Ginkgo Bioworks to access the latter’s vast DNA database to screen for proteins that it can ferment at scale. But rather than create a stand-alone product like platypus milk for orphaned platypi, Motif designs ingredients to tweak taste and texture or to add nutrition and other functional benefits to plant-based foods. Its R&D goes beyond microbial fermentation and into both the psychology and physics of how food is consumed. Toward that end, the company has partnered with several academic institutions:
- University of Guelph in Ontario: Exclusive commercial rights to two different food technologies.
- Oleogel from Coasun (a company spun out of the university) replicates animal fat marbling in plant-based meats.
- Prolamin uses natural ingredients to help plant-based cheese melt, bubble, and stretch like the real thing.
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Illinois at Chicago: A two-year project, which began last summer, will unravel the rheological properties of plant-based food. That is, some big brains will try to understand physical properties like consistency and flow to improve the sensory experience around plant-based meat and dairy.
- University of Massachusetts Amherst: This partnership will characterize functional properties of food proteins, including their solubility, stability, color, and other properties necessary to produce plant-based products.
- The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia: Texture is obviously a big selling point – or turn off – when it comes to creating a burger or cheese out of a plant. This three-year project will investigate how food is processed in the mouth without using a mouth.
Last month, Motif (sort of) unveiled its first two plant-based food technologies around several sensory experiences.
- Taste and aroma: The first technology in Motif’s pipeline provides the rich umami flavor and aroma associated with beef. No, it’s not MSG, but a muscle protein produced through fermentation. It’s expected to be available for fake burgers and other beefy products by the end of this year.
- Texture: The second technology reportedly delivers real meaty chewiness and juiciness. In this case, Motif replicated the texture of animal tissue using plant proteins and plant-based carbohydrates. The company expects its texture technology to be available in 2022.
Motif recently created its own plant-based burger to showcase the two technologies, and then tested its tastiness and texture with some small focus groups. About 55% of participants said they “would eat the showcase burger every day,” while 63% reportedly preferred it over a leading plant-based meat product (presumably Impossible or Beyond Meat).
GFI lists more than 50 companies developing various ingredients and food products through fermentation, with about half using the same sort of precision fermentation technology that Motif employs through its cell factories. Fermentation-focused companies raised nearly $600 million last year, with more than a dozen fermentation startups launching in 2020 alone. Based on the $226 million Series B that Motif pocketed in June, this could be another blockbuster year for synbio food ingredient companies. Motif has to be considered a front-runner in the space, so hopefully, they go the traditional IPO route as opposed to SPAC-ing it. The only thing more trendy than reverse mergers with blank-check companies is plant-based food.
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