As the Chairman of Revieve, I speak regularly at conferences around the world, often meeting fellow speakers and CEO’s who proclaim that their company will transform categories like health, beauty, wellness—and food. When I ran into Alan Hahn at a recent event, I was reminded that his Denver based company, MycoTechnology, is impacting the evolution of food, by creating the often overlooked ingredients critical to scaling the next-generation of food.
Standing in their booth at the show, as I was tasting the world’s first mushroom milk Alan’s team just produced (yum, not mushroomy, just creamy), I invited him to join me for an episode of the The Reboot Chronicles to discuss opportunities and risks around the future of food. You can watch it here on Forbes or wherever you listen to podcasts.
I should clarify that this is not something found in packages at the supermarket or a trendy psilocybin play, but unleashing the power of fungi-based food processing platforms to transform the flavor of agricultural products. As Alan says: “If we grow as a world population from 7 billion to 10 billion by 2040, it’s a 50 to 70% increase in protein requirement. So we really need to use this food that would go to waste and upcycle it into the food stream. It will be a huge way to achieve our exponentially growing needs.”
The company is growing rapidly, making an impact in over 100 countries, and raised over $200 million from investors such as Manna Tree (where I am an advisor), Wavemaker Partners, Seventure Partners, Middleland Capital, GreatPoint Ventures, S2G Ventures, Tao Capital Partners, Emerson Collective, Continental Grain Company, Tyson Ventures and Greenleaf Foods.
Making a Protein-Rich Brew Taste Good
With the largest fermentation facility of its kind in the world, MycoTechnology is using the power of fungus to make foods taste better without the bad triumvirate of salt, fat, and sugar (yum) that tends to make food taste appealing. As Alan recounts, this story started out in ancient history. “In order to preserve something, you fermented it, so it would last a long time without refrigeration. We as Americans consume about 70% of all our calories as fermented food, but it’s really simple organisms like yeast or bacteria. And that’s great if you want to make alcohol. But when you want to really transform something, you need a much more robust organism. And that’s why mushrooms and their mycellia, the root system, are transformative. They’re biological machines.”
They have bought up mushroom strains categorized and certified by universities to culture them in vast vats, something like what is used to ferment beer. He’s like a macrobrewer of shrooms. One usage is correcting the challenge that so many plant-based lab developed foods have: terrible taste and smell. “We take a blend of pea protein and rice protein, and blend it together in a ratio that makes it the nutritional equivalent to beef, as far as protein quality and with the nine essential amino acids in the right ratio,” he says. But, “the aroma is terrible, the taste is horrible.” They take that same blend of pea and rice, put it in a fermenter and add mushroom mycelia. The mushrooms start to break down the bonds within the substance that create bad aromas as well as those that create bitterness, sourness and astringency as well as phytic acid, which blocks the ability to absorb nutrients like iron.
Sustainable Plant Based Foods With Less Salt and Sugar
The value proposition seems clear, manufacturers of plant-based foods, like Planterra and their Ozo burger, can use less sugar and salt. One look at their ingredient label shows how much smaller it is than the competition. “It looks like something you would make in your kitchen when you look at the ingredient deck,” he says. “They can use less of those ingredients that we really don’t want to overuse. It’s part of addressing diseases that we actually can change by what we eat. But, you’ve got to give people options that taste good!”
Alan knows about food and health issues personally. He was on that slippery slope to diabetes and managed to improve his health by changing his diet, thanks in part to foods created by his partner companies.
Another mass-market application of MycoTechnology, that I find potential in is a bitter blocker that can help produce chocolate that is actually healthier. It can reduce the amount of sugar you need to make chocolate sweet—yes please—with half the sugar typically needed to block the natural bitterness.
Impacting Food Waste
In addition to enhancing the taste and improving the nutrition of existing foods, MycoTechnology is addressing the nearly 40% of the food that’s produced every year that is wasted. “Instead of getting thrown in the trash, we use food waste and extract sugars from it to grow mushroom based protein,” he says. The chemistry is pretty simple. “You need carbon and an energy source like sugar, and you need nitrogen. An inexpensive carbon source is critical to really grow these organisms in a very high volume way. You’re not talking about just eliminating food waste, you’re saying take byproducts of food manufacturing and use it to make other things.”
As cool and sustainable as all of this is, Alan recounts how VCs at first were hesitant. They didn’t want to invest in anything involving steel on the ground. Thankfully that has changed in the 9 years the company has been in business. We have seen the VC, PE and CVC communities rally around food the industry, funding competitive companies like Quorn and Enough—and targeting all the categories that feed the global food, health and wellness ecosystems.
Food as Medicine
Perhaps the biggest potential in my mind is when we stop just trying to replicate a meat, chicken or fish experience and create something fundamentally new. Alan takes it a step further to thinking of food as a healer. “Rather than taking a multivitamin that your body can’t really absorb that well, what if you eat a nutrition dense food that delivers those benefits.” Mushrooms, with their anti inflammatory antioxidants that have been know to improve cognitive abilities may be just the ticket. “There’s all kinds of interesting compounds that could be blended in different combinations to an additive food to create truly food as medicine.”
What’s Next in the Future of Food
I appreciate leaders who understand what got them to where they are is not what they need next. To impact global food supply chains you must think big and have a plan that scales beyond known capabilities—with speed and agility.
MycoTechnology stared out by creating a food processing platform that used mushroom mycelia to create novel new foods. Now their development is moving to mushroom based protein, derived from products that would go to waste. They are also developing new lines, like a honey truffle sweetener, the first new natural high intensity sweetener in 30 years—that has no calories, no aftertaste, and apparently is a thousand times sweeter than sugar! What’s next is the exploration of the compounds. To be at scale with speed, you need high throughput screening methods that can collapse the time it takes to evaluate compounds—which can then produce methods and processes to produce the industrial quantities the world needs.
“As the population grows we’re going to need every form of protein we can produce, whether it’s animal based, plant base, cultured, mushroom. I’m excited to really contribute to the solutions out there of how we feed everybody and do it in a way that really meets people’s tastes.” To scale this promise, we will need to continue to fund hundreds (and then thousands) of organizations that can bring together new products, technologies and partnerships to scale the next generation of the global food supply.