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There’s nothing cheesy about Nobell Foods’ push to make animal proteins with plants

Rejoice cheese lovers! Fans of the stretchy, melty, delight may soon be able to sustain their daily dairy habit without worrying about its problematic planetary footprint.

Image Credit: Nobell Foods

It turns out that chowing down on dairy and cheese made using current industrial agricultural practices is a pretty significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s right, the dairy millions are drinking and the cheese chefs around the country are currently grilling contributes to about 2% of the world’s carbon footprint. Not only that — current practices are actually a pretty wasteful way to make cheese. Scientists estimate that it can take anywhere from range from over 100 gallons to nearly 1,000 gallons of water to make a single gallon of milk.

But don’t freak out. There’s a better solution on the horizon to ensure that our land of lakes won’t run dry.

This bit of good news comes courtesy of Nobell Foods, a five year old company that’s publicly unveiling its product pipeline and technology today for the first time.

“Many fine folks are working to harness the power of plants, but substitutes for some foods, like cheeses, rarely mimic the delectable distinguishing characteristics convincingly,” said FootPrint Coalition founder, Robert Downey Jr. “Magi Richani and her Nobell team are putting the eco in queso… milking a crop instead of a cow.”

They’ve just raised $75 million from investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Fifty Years, and the FootPrint Coalition to build out a business making the key protein that makes cheese cheesy — from soy plants.

For Richani, the company’s young founder, the push to make plant-based cheeses comes from her own lifelong love of dairy.

Sentenced to a dairy-free life by a diagnosis of lactose intolerance nearly five years ago, Richani set out to find a way to satisfy her cheese habit.

A former project manager at Shell, Richani began a deep dive into the food system and what she discovered convinced her that there needed to be a better way than animal agriculture to make the foods we eat.

“The way we treat animals is a reflection of how we treat nature,” Richani said in an interview. The factory farms, overuse of steroids and antibiotics, and forced pregnancies for dairy cows are reason enough to look for a better way, according to Richani. Add the massive water and food waste that comes with cheesemaking and an alternative looks even more appealing.

“I call it my quarter life crisis,” Richani said of her decision to leave Shell and launch Nobell. “If I know better I want to do better. I told everyone I knew about what I’d learned and everyone was like, ‘Yeah, this is terrible.’ But nobody changed anything.”

Richani quit her job and began researching food science and volunteering with a group out of Berkeley working with yeast and bacteria to make proteins.

Collaborating with the Good Food Institute and its investment arm New Crop Capital yielded the first funding for Richani and Nobell and the strategy to use plants instead of microbes to make proteins.

The plants, Richani said, were just more efficient — if she and her team could get the science to work.

For the first two-and-a-half years it was the hard slog of trial and error. “Science is a lot of failure,” Richani said. “That’s the reason why we’ve been doing this for so long… The way you learn in science is you have to try a lot of things and you have to fail a lot of times before you succeed. It takes time.”

But adversity is nothing new for Richani. The young entrepreneur immigrated to the US from Lebanon to attend college, but only found out about the trip when her mother presented her with a one-way ticket to Austin, where Richani’s relatives lived.

After attending community college, Richani went to the University of Texas and from there started her career path.

The experience enabled her to address the challenges of early startup life.

Since the company finally hit its stride two and a half years ago, the growth has been remarkable. The company filed between ten and fifteen patents in the last twelve months, compared to only one throughout the first two years of Nobell’s existence.

One change, Richani said, was the addition of Viviane Lanquar, a former vice president of research and development at Hampton Creek (now known as Just Foods and valued at well over $1 billion). “All of the scientific breakthroughs we had is because of her and the team she’s leading.”

Those breakthroughs have Nobell on the cusp of the commercial delivery of plant-based cheese that actually tastes and acts like the real thing.

“We’re starting with casein and dairy but we have many other proteins in the R&D pipeline,” said Richani. “I’m obsessed with cheese and I miss it. On top of that. Most people don’t realize this but it’s the third highest carbon footprint after lamb and beef. And the consumption of cheese just keeps going up. People are drinking less milk, but we’re eating more cheese.”

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