France is a great cheese country. Its inhabitants consume 24 kg per year and products such as Brie, Camembert or Comté are exported all over the world. It seems difficult to dislodge these sure values, but that does not prevent French Tech start-ups from attacking this market valued at more than 8 billion euros.
Their watchword? Reconcile cheese production and respect for the environment by dispensing with dairy products. In recent years, a first cohort of foodtechs has developed cheeses from plants, like the New Affineurs. This young shoot, which raised 2 million euros in 2020, uses soy and cashew nuts in particular to brighten up the palate.
“We start with plant-based ingredients. We make a paste of it and then ferment it. It can take a few days or between one and three weeks, ”explains Nour Akbaralythe founder of Les Nouveaux Affineurs, which created its first production site this year.
But biotechs are also getting into the race and trying to make cheeses based on a new technology: precision fermentation. The latter consists of cultivating proteins identical to those found in cow’s milk. This is for example the case of the start-up Nutropy.
“Our precision fermentation process is similar to that of beer,” explains Maya Bendifallah, its co-founder. “But instead of producing alcohol, our yeasts produce dairy proteins and fatty acids in vats in exchange for sugars. This is made possible thanks to the downstream programming of our yeasts. We then harvest our dairy ingredients in order to integrate them into our formulations and develop our new generation of cheeses”, continues this doctor of biochemistry.
The young shoot is still in the R&D phase. But she says her technology could replicate the flavor and texture of traditional cheeses. “We have to be able to find the same pleasure,” insists Nathalie Rolland, the co-founder of Nutropy. Otherwise, this type of product may not find its market. The start-up has just raised 2 million euros and wants to supply its raw materials to industrial partners to make cheese.
The other tricolor pioneer is standing ovationwhich was founded by Frédéric Easter and Romain Chayot and has Michel Leonard (ex-boss of Lactalis) on its board of directors. Like Nutropy, Standing Ovation cultivates casein, the main protein that makes up cow’s milk. The start-up is banking on BtoB but hopes, in the future, to also sell its own products to consumers. The start-up has just completed a series A round of 12 million euros, led by its shareholder Astanor Ventures.
“Everyone is on a quest for the Holy Grail, namely reproducing casein. But it’s very complex,” analyzes Nour Akbaraly, who considers specialists in this protein as potential future partners. Standing Ovation seems to have gotten ahead. “Our technology is mature and we can move to a commercial scale”, rejoices Romain Chayot. The young company hopes to produce a ton of casein in 2023.
Well living, a start-up that raised 4 million euros in March, also uses precision fermentation. But this biotech has chosen to bet on serum proteins to convince manufacturers to sell dairy products without animal origin. In the future, it could also enter the cheese market, confides Stephane McMillanits co-founder.
This effervescence is not just a French phenomenon. Initiatives to invent the cheeses or dairy products of the future abound in the United States (Perfect Day, New Culture), Israel (Remilk, Imagindairy), Germany (Formo), the Netherlands (Those Vegan Cowboys) and Australia (Change Foods). Financing in precision fermentation broke a new record in 2021 (127 million euros).
The reasons are many. The dairy industry, which depends on raising cattle, contributes to CO2 emissions2 and is very resource intensive. The number of vegetarians and vegans is growing and the issue of animal welfare is becoming more and more sensitive.
Precision fermentation holds promise for traceability and food sovereignty, according to its advocates. However, start-ups in the sector face major obstacles. “We must receive a marketing authorization”, comments Nathalie Rolland. However, this could take a few years… This is one of the reasons why Standing Ovation is initially aiming for a launch on the American market.
Once the technology is perfected, precision fermentation specialists will also need to be able to produce on a large scale in order to bring down prices.