Miami — Most of the food on supermarket shelves has to stay fresh for longer than a day if you’re to enjoy it. But as consumer demands for “clean” foods have increased, at least one challenge remains: what preservatives can be used to keep foods fresh, while also complying with their clean nature?
For clean food novices, the word “clean” generally refers to food that doesn’t include any artificial ingredients. It’s often associated with fresh foods, such as foods made at home, because there are no added preservatives. But between production, transportation, and supermarket storage, it’s a challenge to get food to consumers before it spoils.
Investors are betting that Leanardo Alvarez, a biotech engineer in Chile, can solve that problem. Alvarez is founder and CEO of Protera, which today announced a $10 million Series A funding round, bringing its total funding to date to $12.4 million. The company was founded in 2015 in Santiago, Chile and Protera Guard, the company’s first product, is not yet available on the commercial market.
Now based in Chile and France, the company uses AI to design and develop new plant-based proteins to replace the harmful chemical-based ingredients in food and preserve the shelf-life of food without compromising taste or texture. The company has engineered a protein that promises to keep foods fresh for 30 days, while other clean preservatives offer about 7-15 days of freshness. Their synthetic counterparts only offer about 15 days of freshness.
“We realized that large food companies were looking for alternatives to food additives specifically in food preservation. The challenge is that consumers want clean labels but the clean label alternatives offered didn’t provide a long shelf life,” Alvarez told Bloomberg Línea. “Protera Guard is a protein so it can be digested and doesn’t offer any negative impacts on human health,” Alvarez added.
In just a few years the alternative protein market went from niche to mainstream, as more and more people are becoming aware of the sustainability and health concerns often associated with animal products. And Chile’s NotCo, arguably the most famous plant-based food startup to come out of Latin America, has been leading the way.
Protera is following suit. To test its first protein, the company has partnered, and had positive results with, the Bimbo Group, a large Mexican bakery multinational with a presence in 33 countries. “The next step for us is to figure out how to scale,” Alvarez said.
That’s where the French come in. Since Protera Guard is a fermenting agent, Alvarez is looking to the Europeans - experts in the fermentation of wine and cheese - to help him and his team figure out the missing links to the scaling puzzle.
Alvarez expects that between scaling production and getting certified by GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) of the FDA (American Food and Drug Administration), the product will be available on the market in a couple of years.
But like any new product, how consumers will react will be the real test. While Protera plans to be a B2B business, their final customer will be looking at food labels. Buyers today are educated, and when looking at ingredients, specifically when looking for clean foods, people are often told to look for ingredients they can pronounce; it’s not the most sophisticated test, but it’s a rule of thumb for the average buyer.
So the question remains: Will Protera make the cart?
In addition to this individual protein, Alvarez and his team have built madi(™) an AI platform designed to understand proteins at the molecular level.
“It can understand what kind of protein structure and chemical composition you need to have one specific function,” Alvarez said.
For example, if he’s looking for a protein with antifungal properties, Alvarez can ask the platform “What should the protein look like?” The platform has been trained to tell him the right shape and composition.
“Then we look for these proteins in nature. Once we find the protein in nature, we recreate it,” Alvarez said.
This round of funding was led by Sofinnova Partners, the largest life sciences venture capital firm in Europe. Mexico’s Bimbo Group and ICL Group’s food and agtech startup accelerator, ICL Planet, also joined the round.