While many startups in the alternative protein arena are focused on meat and dairy analogs, Equii is focused on improving the nutrition of staple foods such as bread and pasta by fermenting grains from wheat to oats and rice with strains of baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) to create grain flours with high levels of complete protein such that an avocado sandwich could deliver as much protein as a burger.
“You take two slices of our bread and add an avocado filling and you have 25 grams of protein, the same as a Beyond Burger [in a burger bun],” said co-founder Dr Baljit Ghotra (CTO), a cereal scientist with years of experience in industrial-scale fermentation and food science gained at firms from Nature’s Fynd and ADM to Cargill; who teamed up with Dr Monica Bhatia (CEO), a fermentation scientist who has previously worked at TerraVia and Geltor, in late 2021.
“We cannot just rely on meat and dairy alternatives as we look at the future of food.”
‘A major portion of our diet is dedicated to staple foods that come from wheat, rice, corn, pulses, potato, oats, cassava, sorghum, and millet’
Compared to regular wheat flour, Equii’s grain flour contains 3-6 times more protein, all 9 essential amino acids and carbohydrate content that is lower by 40-50%, Ghotra told FoodNavigator-USA.
“A major portion of our diet is dedicated to staple foods that come from wheat, rice, corn, pulses, potato, oats, cassava, sorghum, and millet. The scale and outreach of agricultural crops are key to feeding 9.6bn people sustainably by 2050. However, the lack of protein quality and quantity in agricultural products must be addressed first.”
“At Khosla Ventures, we seek out companies that have the ability to make a massive impact on society. Equii is redefining the natural staples of our diet – starting with bread — to make healthier nutrition more accessible, and we are excited to back them on their journey.” Alice Brooks, principal at Khosla Ventures
Product #1: Sliced bread
Equii deploys a proprietary, non-GMO approach to discovering microbial proteins that can be used to ferment grains and create high protein grain flours. Its first product, sliced bread, will be launched “within the next few months,” said the founders, who initially plan to target restaurants, cafés, and online sales with a wider rollout in late 2023 through retail stores and direct-to-consumer.
So how does it work, and how will the grain flours emerging from Equii’s process be labeled?
In a nutshell, Equii adds microbes (yeast) to grains such as wheat. The microbes then break down some of the carbohydrates in the grain to release sugars that they convert into protein.
The wet biomass in the fermentation tank contains protein-rich microbial biomass and plant biomass (grains with depleted starch levels). Equii separates the two so it can conduct proprietary processing steps that functionalize the proteins (removing nucleic acids from the yeast cells for example), and then re-combines them and dries them to make low-carb, protein-rich grain flour that can be used in everything from bread and pasta to crackers and cookies.
Ghotra explained: “During the fermentation, the yeast is essentially breaking down the starch and converting it into proteins. We then harvest the biomass, which contains two things, plant biomass [the grains] and microbial biomass [the yeast] and separates them. Then we do our proprietary refining steps of purifying protein and then both streams are combined again and then that is dried.
“The end product would be labeled as ‘wheat flour, yeast protein’ as it’s a combination of both.”
‘When we ferment the wheat grain, the native proteins remain intact’
To then use this in bread, he said, “We replace 25-30% of [regular] wheat flour in a bread recipe and the resulting bread has 10g of high-quality complete protein in a slice instead of instead of 3-5g of lower-quality protein lacking certain amino acids in regular bread.”
Bhatia added: “During that separation process we are affecting the properties of the protein so it works beautifully in a recipe, and that is an unlock on process that people haven’t really achieved before.”
Ghotra stressed: “When we ferment the wheat grain, the native proteins remain intact; we’re not changing those proteins, so we’re not opening up any regulatory problems [by creating a novel protein].
He added: “A lot of work is going on right now on strain improvements [to achieve more] targeted hydrolysis of carbohydrates in grains.”
These carbohydrates comprise starch and more complex carbohydrates such as xylanases and cell wall materials, which are both targeted in Equii’s process, he explained.
“So we’re using as much sugar that is available from these carbohydrates, which can be then converted [by the yeast cells] to proteins.”
IP: ‘We can predict very quickly protein quality information from genomic information about a microbe’
So where is Equii’s IP?
“The most important thing is how we are evaluating these microbes,” said Ghotra. “So that’s in our bioinformatics platform; we have filed a provisional patent already on an algorithm that connects genome information to proteome information, so we can very quickly predict protein quality information from genomic information about a microbe.”
This slashes R&D time “and saves us lots of dollars so that we don’t start off with the wrong microbe and our discoveries are not accidental, as you see with many startups right now,” he added. “So our intellectual property framework is both the bioinformatics platform and then use of microbes, which covers our fermentation process, downstream processing to make high-protein grain flours, all the way to applications like high protein bread.”
Importantly, said Ghotra, as Equii is not creating any novel ingredients (it’s not altering the native protein in the wheat, while baker’s yeast has been consumed for centuries), it won’t have to put together a GRAS determination or other regulatory filings.
Wheat first, followed by oats, rice, and cassava…
While wheat is the firm’s initial focus, said Ghotra, Equii’s technology can apply to multiple grains: “In North America, we deliberately chose wheat as our first grain because we want to really disrupt staples like bread and pasta, but as we look at the other options such as gluten free, or breakfast cereals or alternate milks, we need to get to oats and rice, the next two grains in our pipeline. In other geographies, we’re looking at cassava.”
‘We select microbial strains not only based on protein quality, but also on taste’
But why not just add some plant protein powders to bread or pasta if you want to make a higher protein staple? First, it won’t taste good and second, you can’t get as much protein in there, said Ghotra.
“There are taste issues in products enriched with plant proteins, whereas we select microbial strains not only based on protein quality, but also on taste, so they taste bland and can be easily formulated into products which are very delicate in flavor like bread, which doesn’t contain sugars and other things that can do a lot of masking in products such as cakes and cookies.”
The business model
While down the road there will likely be opportunities to partner with large ingredient providers and CPG companies making bread or pasta, Equii’s initial plan is to launch its own consumer products, said Bhatia: “We need to take this product to the consumer ourselves.”
On the manufacturing front, however, Equii is working with co-manufacturers at every stage, said Ghotra. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
* The round brings the Bay area-based firm’s cumulative funding to $8M. Previous investors include kdT Ventures, 1derlife Partners, Accelr8 Partners, Axial Ventures, and a slew of angel investors in agtech, AI, food tech, precision fermentation and synthetic biology.