Food colorings, like Red 40 and Yellow 5, often include synthetic, petroleum or animal-derived products, but in recent years, the $2.6 billion food colors market has trended toward using natural ingredients as more consumers want more clean labels for the foods they eat.
Startups have come in with their approaches to healthier food colors, ingredients 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 creating compounds and proteins to make ingredients for healthier foods.
Similarly, Michroma is developing its novel technology for food colorings and flavorings that uses precision fermentation to scale fungal food colors.
The ingredient biotechnology startup was founded in 2019 by Ricky Cassini and Mauricio Braia, both from Argentina, who met at 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, focused on producing enzymes using filamentous fungi. However, rather than stick with enzymes, he wanted to do something different.
Braia, the company’s chief scientific officer, started cultivating fungal strains in soil media and saw it produce a red coloring. He leveraged that information into a new technology for creating fungal “biofactories” to produce small molecules, like colors, more efficiently.
“I thought that this could be a great opportunity to produce natural colorants with a technology that allowed for high efficiency and low costs,” he added. “We turned that idea into a project that evolved into Michroma.”
The company started with a red colorant replacement for Red 40. CEO Cassini said other methods for producing this color, like beet root or insects, don’t perform well when tested with temperature and food pH stability.
Its first product is called Red+, which is temperature-resistant and stable across the food pH spectrum, Cassini said. This means that the colors are able to maintain viability through the pasteurization, cooking and extrusion processes, which he explained were some of the most intensive processes for natural dyes. In addition to traditional food uses, Red+ can be used to give color to cultivated meat, he added.
The plan is to produce other colors, starting on the warm side, like orange and yellow, and will move to blue and white.
The company has prototyped Red+ with some large food companies and is currently in negotiations with suppliers for distribution and will submit its petition to both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority to scale. In addition, Michroma will move into developing plant-based flavorings that will be sold in combination with the colorings, Cassini added.
To kick all of this off, the company secured $6.4 million in seed financing 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 from the Keiretsu Japan Forum; Guillermo Rosenthal; Franco Goytia; Pablo Pla; and Mat Travizano.
The new funding will go into expanding R&D capabilities and growing the Michroma team from 15 to 35 people in the next two years.
Cassini expects the regulatory process to take at least two years and is exploring some ways to generate revenue prior to that. For example, Singapore has already approved the use of cultivated meat.
“Red+ is our MVP for the whole platform, but we want to provide complete solutions for companies that don’t want only red,” Cassini added.