Brevel founder Yonatan Golan says that in time, the microalgae his company makes will be the alternative protein ingredient of choice.
And he’s not just talking about this protein dominating the nascent microalgae ingredient space. Golan said it will eventually topple today’s standards: soy and pea. Those two ingredients, he said, have been major parts of the food system for decades. They’re widely cultivated with easy, inexpensive access, and food scientists have used them to create products for generations.
Microalgae, on the other hand, is a newer ingredient on the scene. These tiny one-celled plants have been looked to as a potential source for food, but several species have proved challenging. Many of them have relatively unpalatable tastes, and current cultivation methods can be expensive or easily contaminated. But Golan said the work Brevel is doing to perfect microalgae is making the ingredient more desirable and accessible.
“The world is burning and we have to save it. Let’s find solutions,” he said. “Microscopic algae, compared to any other protein source, is just off the charts. …This is the ultimate source of protein for the future.”
Brevel’s microalgae protein ingredients, which it demonstrated at a tasting event last month at the Future Food-Tech conference in New York, come in powder form. There were two different versions: a yellow powder that Golan said had a 40% to 50% protein content, and an off-white powder with a 60% to 70% protein content. The powders tasted creamy, neutral and maybe a bit like cheese, tasters said — not the bitter or fishy taste commonly associated with microalgae.
Golan said the microalgae strain the ingredients are made from is already approved for consumption, so what’s holding Brevel back now is capacity. The company is building its commercial-scale pilot production facility in Israel now. The facility, slated to be up and running by the end of the year, will produce 120 tons of protein annually — enough for the ingredients to start getting into plant-based products.
Golan is not the only one that believes in Brevel’s potential. Last month, the company closed an $8.4 million seed investment round. Participants included FoodHack, Good Startup VC, Tet Ventures, Nevateam Ventures, Horizon2020 and Israel’s Innovation Authority.
Brevel is ready to charge forward with its ingredients and sense of purpose, Golan said, and he believes the company can both revolutionize alternative protein and food in general.
“We’re only now starting to scratch the surface of this huge opportunity,” he said. “To get into this opportunity, we first have to solve taste and cost, which is exactly what we do.”
Fermentation and photosynthesis
Brevel, which was founded in 2017 by Golan and his two brothers — Ido Golan, who is the chief technical officer and Matan Golan, the general manager — utilizes a novel approach to cultivating microalgae. Their system, which previously only existed at lab scale, combines fermentation and photosynthesis.
Golan said this system speeds the growth of more microalgae — feeding it sugar helps it grow 100 times faster than spirulina, another common microalgae, he said — and amps up the nutrients in the end product. Many other microalgae growing systems don’t use light, which is needed for the microscopic plants to create valuable nutrients, he said.
“With a single system of ours, we can produce more protein than 5,000 square meters of current outdoor microalgae production systems, more than 14,000 square meters of soy protein production, and more than 250,000 square meters of beef production,” Golan said. “This is the future of our food system.”
Golan wouldn’t disclose what strain of microalgae the company uses, but he said when it’s harvested, it needs minimal processing.
“The world is burning and we have to save it. Let’s find solutions. Microscopic algae, compared to any other protein source, is just off the charts. …This is the ultimate source of protein for the future.”
CEO and co-founder, Brevel
Because of the way it is developed, nothing is needed to improve its natural taste and smell. The microalgae is removed from the water, dried and mechanically crushed, rupturing the cell walls. The resulting powder is ready to be used by manufacturers, Golan said.
The large-scale production makes Brevel’s microalgae protein relatively inexpensive. However, Golan said they also can sell the byproducts from making the ingredient.
In order to make the higher-concentrate protein, Golan said they extract oil from the microalgae. That oil also can be sold as an emulsifier, further defraying the production costs.
Pigments extracted from the microalgae in this process include lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that are popular health supplements. They can be sold to keep the main protein product’s price down. There are other carbohydrates and fibers Brevel gets from producing its protein ingredient as well. Golan said they are currently working to valorize those.
Even though Brevel’s microalgae ingredient leaves behind valuable other components, about 50% of the weight of the microscopic plant is protein, Golan said. A fifth of it is oil, and the rest is small amounts of pigments and other starches.
A nutrition boost
Brevel’s protein has impressive nutritional qualifications. It has all of the amino acids and is high in protein, the company says.
The nutrition level is important since many other plant-based analogs are not necessarily healthier — and sometimes have worse nutritional profiles — than the animal-derived products they replace, Golan noted.
“These are tasty products. They behave well. The texture is fine,” he said, describing the current selection of pea, and soy-based meat analogs. “But all of them are lacking good nutritional values, which consumers deserve. And the reason is that the current protein sources are incompatible with flavors or with costs, which make these products much more expensive.”
Brevel’s ingredient is in powder form, and it is a relatively easy addition to different products looking for more protein — as well as a hint of flavor. The absence of a strong flavor also is a benefit, Golan said, since other ingredients are not needed to mitigate it.
The company is currently working with several businesses on prototypes of applications. It has agreements for plant-based cheese made by Vgarden, and it will bring nutrition and flavor to YoEgg’s plant-based eggs. At Future Food-Tech, the company served small grilled cheese sandwiches made with Vgarden’s cheese, and a sauce-free variation of eggs florentine made with a poached version of YoEgg’s plant-based product.
As soon as Brevel’s new facility is operating and there is a ready supply, Golan said, these companies will be able to use the protein in their products. Many other companies are working with Brevel’s proteins to make product prototypes. Golan said they’ve had particular success with plant-based yogurt.
Brevel also has worked with plant-based meat manufacturers, Golan said. The ingredient has performed well, but they are not concentrating on that segment at the moment. He said those manufacturers already have an arsenal of ingredients to choose from, and they can currently use additional soy or pea. There’s more of a need for a protein boost in alternative dairy and eggs right now.
Golan said after Brevel’s first plant opens, it will look to aggressively expand. With additional space, it can produce more of its microalgae ingredient and demonstrate to manufacturers why this should be their top plant-protein choice.
Golan said he can clearly see the path: First, show consumers microalgae protein doesn’t taste bad and significantly enhances a product’s nutrition levels. Then, ensure it is priced inexpensively enough to be easily incorporated into many items. And finally, play up the sustainability aspects of microalgae protein.
“The path to becoming accepted is very short. It’s not like eating crickets,” Golan said with a smile.