Food colorings such as Red 40 and Yellow 5 often contain synthetic, petroleum or animal products, but in recent years the $2.6 billion food coloring market tends to use natural ingredients as more consumers want more clean labels for the foods they eat.
Startups have stepped in with their approach to healthier food colors, ingredients and flavorings. For example Vanilla Vida, Spero renewable energies and Pigmentum work on vanilla. Motif FoodWorks is developing a beef flavor substitute, while Brightseed and Equinom are making compounds and proteins to make ingredients for healthier foods.
Likewise, Michroma develops its new technology for food colors and flavors that uses precision fermentation to scale food colors from molds.
The ingredient biotechnology startup was founded in 2019 by Ricky Cassini and Mauricio Braia, both from Argentina, who met during an accelerator program and moved to San Francisco to begin developing the technology for Michroma.
Braia’s background is developing technology for the food industry, aimed at producing enzymes using filamentous fungi. But instead of staying with enzymes, he wanted to do something different.
Braia, the company’s Chief Scientific Officer, started growing fungal strains in soil media and saw it produce a red color. He used that information in a new technology for creating fungal “biofactories” to more efficiently produce small molecules, such as colors.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity to produce natural dyes with a technology that enabled high efficiency and low cost,” he added. “We turned that idea into a project that grew into Michroma.”
The company started with a red dye substitute for Red 40. CEO Cassini said other methods of producing this color, such as beet root or insects, don’t perform well when tested with temperature and food pH stability.
The first product is called Red+, which is temperature resistant and stable across the pH spectrum of food, Cassini said. This means the colors can maintain their viability through the processes of pasteurization, cooking and extrusion, which he said were some of the most intensive processes for natural dyes. In addition to traditional food use, Red+ can be used to add color to cultured meat, he added.
The plan is to produce other colors starting on the warm side, such as orange and yellow, and will progress to blue and white.
The company has prototyped Red+ with some major food companies and is currently negotiating with suppliers for distribution and will petition both the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority to scale up. In addition, Michroma will focus on developing plant-based flavors that will be sold in combination with the dyes, Cassini added.
To get it all started, the company secured $6.4 million in seed funding led by Supply Change Capital, the corporate venture capital arm of General Mills. This gives the company a total of $7.4 million in venture capital.
Joining Supply Change in the 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 Allen Miner, Jun Ueki and Steve Zurcher of the Keiretsu Japan Forum; Guillermo Rosenthal; Franco Goytia; Pablo Pla; and Matt Travizano.
The new funding will be used to expand the R&D capabilities and grow 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 monetize it. For example, Singapore has already approved the use of cultured meat.
“Red+ is our MVP for the entire platform, but we want to provide complete solutions for businesses that don’t just want red,” added Cassini.