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The startup reviving a 1970s-era protein brewed from paper-making byproducts for the modern, warming world

Thirty years after World War II, the world was in a food crisis so dire that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched a committee on World Food Security.

The crisis was catalyzed by rising oil prices and economic shocks, viral farm animal diseases, severe drought, and environmental pollution. Leading up to the official world food crisis of 1972-1975, scientists spent the early ‘60s preparing for massive protein shortages as the world population skyrocketed with the baby boomers. 

Of these scientists, were a group of researchers in Finland working to convert forest industry side streams into protein using fungi. Then finally, in 1975 as the food crisis began to downturn, 12 years of lab work, animal trials, and piloting, led to these scientists establishing the world’s first mycoprotein factory in Jämsänkoski, Finland. 

At this point, the plant could produce up to 10,000 tons of PEKILO, a mycoprotein the scientists developed from a byproduct of paper-making called sulfite liquor. Mycroprotien is developed using a fermentation process utilizing fungus that is similar to how we brew beer.

However, in 1991, when byproducts from pulp and paper from Finnish forests stagnated, as the world moved on to cheaper options like soy-based meatless meat, the plant closed down. 

But in 2020, as the world pandemic and climate crisis clashed in what has created another global food shortage, a group of five scientists from the Technical Research Centre of Finland decided to revive the production of PEKILO, waking up a dormant fungus after three decades. 

They launched the startup Enifer intending to feed the world with fungus. Now they’re using byproducts from the agri-food industry to create mycoprotein that is both ​​nutritious and sustainable, as the world seeks to diversify protein options in the face of the meat industry’s mounting emissions

Announced last week, Enifer received a €12 million (about $13 million) grant to build a first-of-its-kind mycoprotein ingredient factory.

Once up and running, the new factory will produce about 3 million kilograms of mycoprotein a year – equal to the amount of protein from 30,000 cows but with at least a 20-times-lower hoofprint of carbon emissions on top of the considerably lower water, land, and energy use, as Enifer operates using solely renewables.

Where the current iteration of PEKILO differs from the 1970s version is that Enifer has turned it into what they call a protein- and fiber-rich powder with a neutral taste and color that can be used similarly to how plant-based are used proteins in the food industry today. 

“A key objective for the original developers of PEKILO was to take this amazing source of protein to food applications. It is an absolute privilege for Enifer to be able to finally complete that mission, more than 50 years on,” Simo Ellilä, CEO and co-founder of Enifer, said in a statement. 

That plant is projected to have a price tag of €30 million and is slated to be completed by 2025 and production to ramp up by 2026. 

The grant adds to Enifer’s spring 2023 €11 million round and came from the European Union’s NextGenerationEU, an instrument intended to help businesses recover following the COVID-19 pandemic. Enifer also has partnerships with big global players in the feed and food industry including Skretting, the global aquafeed division of Nutreco, Purina for pet food, and Valio for consumer food products.

“This plant will be a critical stepping stone to scaling the production of PEKILO as a truly universal protein source – which we aim to commercialize globally across different applications. Thanks to the unique history of PEKILO, we are able to take this giant leap from our existing pilot directly to a commercial-scale facility,” Ellilä said.

Enifer isn’t the only one in the mycoprotein space. In fact, the startup is part of a rising focus on mycoprotein in the broad portfolio of plant-based foods.

The market is expected to rise 12.6% between 2022 and 2032, the drive towards mycoprotein is mainly influenced by consumers’ demand for healthier options to traditional meat, especially in wealthier countries. Nevertheless, the climate benefits and potential to stand in for proteins amid food shortages are positive side effects. 

Other mycoprotein developers taking advantage of the rise in demand include Scotland’s Enough, which last year, nabbed €40 million ($43.5 million) to pump into doubling the output capacity of its first production site in the Netherlands, Sweden’s Mycorena, which last year launched its fungi-based fat, and also had partnerships that led to 3D printed myco-salmon, and which recently partnered with synthetic biology firm Ginkgo Bioworks to use artificial intelligence to further develop its single-ingredient meat alternative.

Additionally, FootPrint Coalition’s portfolio company, MyForest Foods, also uses a fermentation process for its mycelium “pork” bacon and “beef” jerky, and earlier last year, raised $15 million in Series A-2 funding.  

Regulatory approval often opens up many doors for non-traditional alternative proteins and Enifer expects to receive the approval this year. The company is confident the revived PELIKO product can become a key player in the plant-based protein market.

 “We are extremely grateful for the financial support approved by Business Finland and the European Union NextGenerationEU program, which will enable us to take this huge step in the coming year,” Ellilä said. 

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