Food colorings, such as Red 40 and Yellow 5, often include synthetic, petroleum or animal-derived products, but in recent years the $2.6 billion food coloring market has favored natural ingredients as more and more consumers want what they eat Food has more clean labels.
Startups are already taking their approach to developing healthier food colourings, toppings and flavorings. For example, Vanilla Vida, Spero Renewables, and Pigmentum are working on vanilla. Motif FoodWorks is developing a beef flavor substitute, while Brightseed and Equinom are developing compounds and proteins to make healthier food ingredients.
Likewise, Michroma is developing its new technology for food coloring and flavoring that uses precision fermentation to amplify fungal food coloring.
The ingredient biotech startup was founded in 2019 by Ricky Cassini and Mauricio Braia, from Argentina, who met in an accelerator program and moved to San Francisco to start developing the technology for Michroma.
Braia’s background is in developing technologies for the food industry, focusing on the production of enzymes using filamentous fungi. However, instead of sticking with enzymes, he wanted to do something different.
Braia, the company’s chief scientific officer, started growing the fungal strain in a soil medium and found that it produced a red color. He turned this information into a new technique for creating fungal “biofactories” to more efficiently produce small molecules like color.
“I think this could be a good opportunity to produce natural colorants with a technology that allows for high efficiency and low cost,” he added. “We turned this idea into a project that eventually became Michroma.”
The company started using a red colorant instead of Red 40. Other methods of producing the color, such as beetroot or insects, do not perform well when tested for temperature and food pH stability, CEO Cassini said.
Cassini said its first product, called Red+, is temperature resistant and stable across the entire food pH range. That means the colors stay alive through pasteurization, cooking and extrusion, which he explains are some of the most intensive processes for natural dyes. In addition to traditional food uses, Red+ could be used to color cultured meat, he added.
The plan is to produce other colors, starting on the warmer side like orange and yellow and then moving to blue and white.
The company has partnered with a number of large food companies to produce prototypes of Red+, is currently negotiating with suppliers for distribution, and will submit applications to the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority to scale up. In addition, Cassini added, Michroma will begin developing plant-based flavors that will be marketed alongside coloring.
To kick it all off, the company has raised $6.4 million in seed funding, led by General Mills’ corporate venture capital arm, Supply Change Capital. This provides the company with a total of $7.4 million in venture capital.
Joining Supply Change in this round are existing investors SOSV’s IndieBio and GRIDX, and a group of new investors including Be8 Ventures, CJ CheilJedang, Fen Ventures, Boro Capital, The Mills Fabrica, Portfolia’s Food & AgTech Fund, New Luna Ventures , Siddhi Capital, Groundswell Ventures and Hack Capital. There is also a group of angel investors, including Keiretsu Japan Forum’s Allen Miner, Jun Ueki, and Steve Zurcher; Guillermo Rosenthal; Franco Gautier; Pablo Pla; and Mat Traveza promise.
The new funding will be used to expand research and development capabilities and increase the size of the Michroma team from 15 to 35 people over the next two years.
Cassini expects the regulatory process to take at least two years and is exploring ways to generate revenue before then. For example, Singapore has approved the use of artificial meat.
“Red+ is the MVP of our entire platform, but we want to provide a complete solution for companies that don’t want red,” Cassini added.