It’s not exactly a pivot, but it’s a fascinating journey nonetheless. Trophic was the name given to Umaro Foods, which is set to release a seaweed-based bacon replacement. The company was formed to compete for the $100 million Carbon Removal XPrize. It is now technically a subsidiary of the former.
The organization was awarded a $5 million prize in part because of research Beth Zotter began in 2010. At least this part of the story is familiar: with no clear commercial path forward, the firm was forced to reconsider its options. Given the planet’s generally horrifying trajectory over the last several decades, most venture capital firms are looking for some positive climate investments. The “C” in “VC” is always the tricky part.
As a result, I concentrated my efforts on identifying a new commercial opportunity in seaweed, knowing that biofuel would not be commercially viable for the foreseeable future. In the same period that alternative protein was growing in popularity as a new market segment, I identified protein derived from seaweed as a potential opportunity that had gone completely unnoticed in the industry.” despite the enormous potential scale and economics of the emerging food technology space.”
Biofuel is undeniably appealing, but these are long-term ideas that most investors dismiss. However, it has been discovered that, in addition to having a high potential for carbon sequestration, seaweed is also an excellent source of protein. It appears to be a fairly straightforward win-win situation. The seaweed farming division continues to work on longer-term breakthroughs, while the newly formed Umaro Foods investigates meat alternatives, focusing on factory farming, which hurts the environment.
However, such an opposed path to revenue is never that simple. To begin, you’ll need to find people who are knowledgeable about food. The Good Food Institute awarded Zotter a $250,000 grant for her plans to extract protein from red seaweeds. As a result, she was able to hire Amanda Stiles, co-founder, and CTO, who has a food tech background and spent four years at Ripple, a pea-protein dairy alternative company.
Because seaweeds require no fresh water and do not require synthetic fertilizers, they can produce more protein per unit area of land than conventional crops, according to Zotter. There are several reasons for this, including increased photosynthetic efficiency and protein storage across the entire harvestable tissue” (versus in seeds). Seaweeds, like soy, are a complete protein that contains all of the essential amino acids. Our goal is to create a protein that can compete with soy in terms of price and volume while matching or exceeding its quality, including taste and functionality.”
Umaro recently raised a $3 million seed round led by AgFunder in addition to their XPrize winnings. The funds will be used to accelerate the company’s go-to-market strategy, with plans to start testing seaweed-based bacon in select restaurants in Q2. Trophic, on the other hand, could have its future as a spinout, according to Zotter.
I haven’t tried Umaro’s bacon. When we met with Zotter the other week, she told me that the seaweed flavor is, at best, subtle. It’s the kind of thing that refined palates might notice. But, as someone who hasn’t eaten pork in decades and is constantly working to reduce his meat consumption, I’m willing to give it a shot. It certainly looks the part, as evidenced by the photo above.
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