Danone gets hands-on with precision fermentation

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/	showcake
Getty/ showcake
The French dairy major is adopting a ground-up approach in a new partnership that aims to unlock bottlenecks in the precision fermentation space.

 Danone will work towards scaling up different bioprocesses, including precision fermentation, in a new partnership project that features Michelin and biotech firm DMC Biotechnologies.

The dairy major’s focus will be to develop bio-based ingredients that can enhance the nutritional and functional qualities of its products and reduce their carbon footprint.

The project’s wider aim will be to develop technologies and infrastructure that will support R&D on a pre-industrial scale to bridge the so-called ‘valley of death’ – the stage between initial investment and R&D, and commercialization. The ‘valley of death’ is a major barrier for foodtech start-ups due to a lack of available facilities of the type and capacity required to progress product development from prototype stage to commercial scale; or due to the high investment cost that companies face if they consider building their own infrastructure.

The Biotech Open Platform – as the partnership is called – will leverage a fermentation tank of around 10 cubic meters and multiple types of downstream equipment on the site at Cataroux Park, the former industrial park that tyre manufacturer Michelin has turned into an innovation accelerator.

By 2025, the project plans to install an initial demo-scale production line, including a fermenter and purification equipment. Additional equipment will be installed in the following years, including a second production line.

In addition, Danone is investing €16m ($17.1m) towards a precision fermentation production line, to be installed in 2025, with a scope for a second production line to be installed in the future.

The site will eventually be available to other host companies, start-ups and partners looking to assess ‘different recipes on a semi-industrial scale’, we were told.

“The recent announcement is the first step for Danone,” a company spokesperson told us. “We will be working closely with our partners to see how we can apply the technology to new product ideation.

“We hope to gradually ramp-up production and open the platform to other companies, allowing the development of more futures and supporting ecosystems that focus on environmental issues in the industry.”

Asked when active collaboration will begin, the spokesperson said: “We have already started the engineering process and equipment delivery will be underway in 2025 for the initial line set-up. We’re looking to get started with R&D through the platform as soon as possible.”

Who is DMC Biotechnologies?

Alongside Michelin and Danone (with investment bank Crédit Agricole also supporting the project), the fourth key player in the Biotech Open Platform is US-based start-up DMC Biotechnologies.

DMC was set up in 2014 as a spin-off from Duke University where the company’s core technology was developed by co-founder and assistant professor, Mike Lynch MD, PhD.

By 2019, the start-up had scaled up its first ingredient, the amino acid L-alanine, to commercial levels. The firm’s Dynamic Metabolic Control technology was also validated in real-world conditions. In particular, DMC’s tech limits the ability of the microbes used in fermentation processes to react to their environment, meaning that developing a new strain is more efficient and cost-effective.

Over the years, DMC has attracted attention from the chemical industry and will now focus on showcasing its products and technology to transition from a start-up to a producer as part of the Biotech Open Platform, we were told.

What the partnership means for Danone’s work with Wilk, ImaginDairy

We asked Danone if it was looking to develop animal-free dairy ingredients on its own accord as part of this project.  

Last year, the multi-national invested in cell-based dairy outfit Wilk as well as precision fermentation dairy specialist ImaginDairy​. This suggested the company was open to exploring technologies that can help produce dairy products and ingredients in alternative ways to animal agriculture.

Cellular agriculture – where cells from cows are used to cultivate milk - and precision fermentation – where microbes such as yeast are programmed to produce proteins that are genetically-identical to whey and casein - are both viewed as potentially more eco-friendly dairy production alternatives to traditional agriculture. But major barriers to innovation exist.

For example, cell cultivation requires high temperatures and energy use to produce milk without the cow; while precision fermentation can involve a lot of testing and learning until the correct ‘recipe’ is developed, including high-energy and water output in addition to the required biotech know-how and investment.

Regulation is also a major barrier in both cases, with only a handful of markets allowing the sale of precision fermentation-derived dairy alternatives. 

While DairyReporter can confirm that Danone’s work with Wilk and ImaginDairy will continue alongside the Biotech Open Platform project, the CPG major remained tight-lipped on the specific end-result it was seeking from its new R&D endeavours in France.

“Danone’s involvement in the platform focuses on leveraging precision fermentation to innovate for the food industry, including the development of bio-based ingredients that can enhance the nutritional and functional qualities of our products and reduce carbon footprint,” a company spokesperson for Danone told us.

The Biotech Open Platform project is also supported by local authorities and the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes with €1.45m and €3.5m respectively. The region’s support will take the form of a subsidy under the FEDER, a European investment fund which serves as the managing authority.

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