Jeff Nobbs is on a mission to replace vegetable oils on grocery store shelves, in restaurants, and cafeterias.
For the serial entrepreneur, who has already started and sold a software business, opened restaurants and is trying to upend another kind of big oil industry, vegetable oils are one of the biggest unrecognized threats to human and planetary health.
That's why he founded Zero Acre Farms, a company which just raised $37 million from some high profile investors (including us) to make a better kind of cooking oil.
"I jokingly say I'm in the oil business now," Nobbs says. "Through the last decade of my life I've reached the conclusion that replacing the oil we eat is the lead domino in confronting this health epidemic that we're facing and deforestation and climate change."
Vegetable oils like corn oil, soybean oil, palm oil, and others currently account for climate ills ranging from the creation of ecological monocultures, deforestation, and extinctions thanks to industrial farming and health woes like cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses, new research has shown.
"If you look at the correlation data between when we started getting so sick and obese and the randomized trials of what happens when you eat vegetable oil this stuff is at the center of it," says Nobbs. "The big causes of deforestation are well documented… depressing data on how deforestation contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change."
For Nobbs, the kicker is that these oils aren't even all that tasty. "Selfishly, I want to eat at restaurants and eat really delicious food without worrying that it's killing me or causing some species to go extinct," he says.
The mission is also a personal one for Nobbs, who lost both of his parents to cancer when he was in his twenties. "It really pissed me off that there were no answers as to why this happened," Nobbs said. "Cancer is one of many chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease where healthcare focuses on disease management and not disease prevention. That led me to focus on disease prevention."
After launching and selling a software business, Nobbs turned his attention to food and diet and disease prevention. He started a restaurant called Kitava and focused on ways to encourage healthy eating as an extension of preventative medicine.
Fats and oils represent around 20% of the modern American diet and for Nobbs, that's probably not a good thing. "They're a fifth of our calories and we used to not eat them at all. They have been causatively linked to this health crisis. This is when I brought in my co-founders. I explained to them what I thought we should do and what the problem was and how we can use synthetic biology to solve this problem."
Working with the esteemed University of California professor, Jay Keasling, Nobbs and the team at Zero Acre Farms developed a process that uses microorganisms to produce better-for-you oils at a fraction of the environmental footprint of traditional oils.
Keasling had a long history of working with bio-oils, initially for energy applications back in the first cleantech boom. He was a co-founder of the biofuel company LS9, which was supposed to usher in a new wave of carbon neutral fuels when it launched in 2005.
Although the promise of the technology didn't pan out, Keasling persisted with the research and realized that it could have profound implications in food and human health.
"Our organisms are microscopic avocados 80% to 90% fat," Nobbs says. "In this case it’s plants that are fermented into lipids and oils and fats. We have these cells full of oil and the oil is extracted from those cells."
Zero Acre Farms isn't saying what its first product will be, but it will be coming to market within the next few months thanks to investments from us and our frequent collaborators at Fifty Years and Lowercarbon Capital.
"People often think about combatting climate change as a trade off when in fact, we will see solutions - not just in food - that are not just better for our planet, but better and more delicious for us as consumers," said Manuel Waenke, a director at FootPrint Coalition Ventures. "That’s really the sweet spot and Zero Acre is using technology to tackle a food group that is both terrible for the climate as well as people’s health. We can’t wait for what they will have in store for us over the coming months."