Late last year, Solugen, a startup using synthetic biology to take hydrocarbons out of the chemicals industry, decided against pursuing a new round of funding that would have valued the company at over $1 billion, TechCrunch has learned.
Instead, the Houston-based bio-manufacturing company raised an internal round of roughly $30 million from existing investors and continued working on its latest project — a new bio-based manufacturing process for a high-value specialty chemical that can act as an anti-corrosive agent.
That work represents a potentially lucrative new product line for the company and charts a course for a host of other businesses that are refashioning the basic building blocks of life in an attempt to supplant chemistry with biology for manufacturing and production.
If Solugen can get its high-value chemical into commercial production, the company can follow the path that sustainable tech companies like Tesla have mastered — moving from a pricy specialty product into the mass market. And rather than over-promise and underdeliver, Solugen wanted to get the product line right first before raising big bucks, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.
As the world looks to move away from oil and its byproducts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down or reverse global climate change, the chemicals industry is in the crosshairs as a huge target for disruption. Vehicle electrification solves only one part of the oil problem. The extractive industry doesn’t just produce fuel, but also the chemicals that make up most of the products that defined consumer goods in the twentieth century.
Chemicals are everywhere and they’re a huge business.
Companies like Zymergen raised hundreds of millions of dollars last year to develop industrial applications for synthetic biology, and they’re not alone. Startups including Geltor, Impossible Foods, Ginkgo Bioworks, Lygos, Novomer and Perfect Day have all raised significant amounts of capital to reduce the environmental footprint of food, chemicals, ingredients and plastics through synthetic biology.
Some of these companies are seeing early success in food replacements and ingredients, but the promise of biologically based chemicals have been elusive — until now.
Solugen’s new product will produce glucaric acid, a tough-to-make chemical that can be used in water treatment facilities and as an anti-corrosive agent — and the company can make it with a zero carbon (or potentially carbon negative) manufacturing process, according to Solugen co-founder and chief technology officer, Sean Hunt.
The glucaric acid from Solugen is cheaper to produce and more environmentally friendly than existing phosphonates that are used for water treatment — and the company has the benefit of competing against chemicals manufacturers in China.
Given the continuing tensions between the two countries, the U.S. is looking to make more high-value products — including chemicals — domestically, and Solugen’s technology is a good way forward to have home-grown supplies of critical materials.
Solugen still intends to raise more capital, the company just wanted to wait until its latest production plant for the acid came online, according to Hunt.
It’s also the fruit of years of planning. The two co-founders, Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti, first realized they could potentially use the technology they’d developed to make specialty chemicals back in 2017, according to Hunt. But first the company had to make the hydrogen peroxide as a precursor chemical, Hunt said.
“It’s advantageous for us to focus on this,” said Hunt. “As we scale, we can enter more commodity-type markets down the road.”
It’s all part of the notable strides the entire industry is making, said Hunt. “Synthetic biology has really made significant strides,” he said. “We have our commercial plant coming online this summer [and it proves] synthetic biology has gotten to the point where we can compete on price and performance.”
So the capital infusion will come as the company gets closer to the completion of these commercial scale facilities.
“It’s not like we were sitting on a term sheet and we said no,” Hunt said. “We want to make sure that we are hitting the milestones and the goals at a commensurate pace which is this year. I’m extremely bullish and optimistic of 2021.”
Solugen’s co-founder sees the path that his company is on as one that other startups working in the synthetic biology space will pursue to bring profitable products to market at the higher end before competing with more sustainable versions of commodity chemicals.
“How do you start a company that has this level of capital intensity?” Hunt asked. “You can start in the fine chemicals space where everything sells for tens to hundreds of dollars per pound. For us, glucaric acid is that specialty chemical and then we will do commodity.”
After tumbling earlier today, Beyond Meat shares are shooting upward on news that the company did indeed collaborate with McDonald’s on its new McPlant vegetarian menu.
McDonald’s made waves this morning when it announced its new McPlant, and the company’s statement, which said that the new plant-based patty and chicken substitute formulation was made in-house, caused Beyond Meat shares to slide.
However, McDonald’s overstated its own role in the creation of its McPlant, which was actually developed in conjunction with Beyond Meat, according to a statement provided to CNBC.
Beyond Meat shares turn sharply higher after spokesperson for the company says “Beyond Meat and McDonalds co-created the plant-based patty which will be available as part of their McPlant platform."https://t.co/RqHoNhOrlt pic.twitter.com/cVkE7m5hAf
— CNBC Now (@CNBCnow) November 9, 2020
The stock has been on a roller coaster today, with shares sliding on fears that it had been rebuffed by McDonald’s and then rising on the clarification that it was involved in the process.
The partnership seems like a win for the alternative protein provider, which is locked in a meaty competition with its privately held rival, Impossible Foods, for fast food burger chain dominance.
However, there’s still more news from Beyond Meat that’s coming later today as the company announces its latest earnings report.
The numbers could have investors asking, “Where’s the beef?”
If it seems like Beyond Meat’s sausages, patties and chicken offerings are cropping up everywhere, that’s because they are. The company announced a deal with the Jamaican patty company Golden Krust, and expanded its partnership with KFC both in the U.S. and in China, where the chain sells a Beyond Burger.
However, the number of protein replacement competitors continues to expand with startup companies galore looking to pitch meatless alternatives to the burger. The Spanish company Heura has a new meat alternative that it boasts can replicate the fatty texture of meat with fewer ingredients than the first generation of suppliers.
Meanwhile, vegetarian spam has made its way onto McDonald’s menus in Hong Kong, a meatless chicken brand, Nuggs, is going direct to consumers, and Tyson Foods and Kellogg’s are both making vegetarian alternatives.
McDonalds is developing what it calls a plant-based platform called the McPlant that will debut in markets around the world early next year, according to a report in USA Today.
In an investor meeting McDonald’s announced that it had worked to develop its McPlant formulation exclusively. “McPlant is crafted exclusively for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s,” Ian Borden, McDonald’s international president, said at an investor meeting, quoted by USA Today.
The company’s special formulation could extend across plant-based products including burgers, chicken-substitutes and breakfast sandwiches, according to Borden.
To date, McDonald’s has been a laggard in the corporate fight over plant-based burgers and chicken — at least in the U.S.
In McDonald’s around the world — including locations in Germany, the UK, Hong Kong, Israel, Canada, and Finland — diners under the golden arches can find a vegetarian sandwich option.
Indeed, in Canada, McDonald’s launched a pilot last year with Beyond Meat for the PLT sandwich (a play off of the company’s previous sandwich the McDLT, I’m assuming).
Compared to some other fast food chains in the US, McDonald’s has been something of a laggard. Burger King has worked with Impossible Foods to launch the Impossible Whopper and Beyond Meat has partnered with KFC on a plant-based nugget.
The two leading alternative protein makers have done a fairly good job of carving up the fast food market to date — but McDonald’s entry with its exclusive formulation must come as a blow to the companies (and the other startups that were hoping for a bite of McDonald’s food empire).
That includes startups like Chile’s the Not Company and Hong Kong’s Green Monday Holdings, which have both been vying for McDonald’s plant-based patty business.
Startups that produce lab-grown meat and meat substitutes are gaining traction and raising cash in global markets, mirroring a surge of support food tech companies are seeing in the United States.
New partnerships with global chains like McDonald’s in Hong Kong, the launch of test kitchens in Israel and new financing rounds for startups in Sydney and Singapore point to abounding opportunities in international markets for meat alternatives.
In Hong Kong, fresh off a $70 million round of funding, Green Monday Holdings’ OmniFoods business unit was tapped by McDonald’s to provide its spam substitute at locations across the city.
The limited-time menu items featuring OmniFoods’ pork alternatives show that the fast food chain remains willing to offer customers vegetarian and vegan sandwich options — so long as they live outside of the U.S. In its home market, McDonald’s has yet to make any real initiatives around bringing lab-grown meat or meat replacements to consumers.
Speaking of lab-grown meat, consumers in Tel Aviv will now be able to try chicken made from a lab at the new pop-up restaurant The Chicken, built in the old test kitchen of the lab-grown meat producer SuperMeat.
The upmarket restaurant doesn’t cost a thing: it’s free for customers who want to test the company’s blended chicken patties made with chicken meat cultivated from cells in a lab that are blended with soy, pea protein or whey, according to the company.