Fermentation industry needs to overcome challenges to reach full potential in producing sustainable food

Scientific professionals identify key technologies poised to reshape the fermentation landscape and address existing barriers. Learn more about six top innovations that can unlock scalable precision and biomass fermentation of food products and ingredients.

Jasmin Kern, Senior associate

May 9, 2024

4 Min Read
fermentation tanks

At a Glance

  • The fermentation industry can help meet the growing global demand for sustainable food solutions, according to professionals.
  • The fermentation industry currently struggles with scaling production, managing costs and achieving price parity.
  • Improved organism strains, continuous fermentation, lower-cost downstream processing equipment are some solutions.

As the global demand for sustainable food solutions continues to rise, the spotlight intensifies on the fermentation industry to produce better ingredients. To truly revolutionize the multi-billion-dollar biomass and precision fermentation industry, the focus should be on overcoming the core challenges of bringing fermentation-derived food products to market.

Despite remarkable advancements in CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene editing, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) bioinformatics systems, and high-throughput screening technologies, hurdles like scaling up biological processes and managing costs persist.

“Biology is extremely complex — each bio-manufactured product will face unique challenges on its path to market,” Johannes Kung, head of bioprocess at Boston Bioprocess, who brings decades of experience in scaling up fermentation systems, said. “However, it’s precisely because of that complexity that there is still so much room for optimization. Some challenges, like downstream processing, are universal, but many require deeply tailored solutions for each host organism, bioprocess and product type instead of a broad-brush approach.”

Originally, precision fermentation technology predominantly served the pharmaceutical industry for high-value therapeutic production. Consequently, numerous companies venturing into the food sector are prioritizing high-value markets like specialty nutraceuticals or flavorings to ensure price parity without confronting the fundamental hurdles of fermentation. Achieving a broader transformative impact requires price parity and consistent quality with conventional counterparts.

“Fermentation, a timeless technique, has yet to realize its full potential in meeting the demands for alternative protein and bio-economy applications,” Jonathan Avesar, Ph.D., lead scientific advisor at Lever VC, said. “However, by harnessing the power of data-driven strategies, synthetic biology and modern bioengineering, we are uniquely positioned to propel fermentation-derived products to unprecedented levels of ubiquity and impact.”

Organism strain development with potential for productivity improvement

Precision and biomass fermentation economics are limited by the productivity of the microorganisms, with enhancing titers, optimizing feedstock utilization and managing biomass densities being crucial parameters.

Various strategies have emerged to optimize the organism, ranging from rational design utilizing AI/ML-trained algorithms to high-throughput irrational approaches, showing promise for major step-change improvements in productivity. Particularly newly developed strains often lack ready-to-go processes and require adaptation to effectively operate at a commercial scale.

Continuous fermentation for enhanced bioproduction

Continuous fermentation is widely recognized as a pivotal element in advancing bioeconomy and has been a focus of research within the pharmaceutical industry for decades. Despite this, large-scale implementation of continuous fermentation remains elusive, primarily due to challenges related to contamination and genetic drift.

Companies developing robust, generalizable continuous fermentation solutions that can slot into existing capacity stand poised to revolutionize the landscape. CAPEX (capital expenditure) costs are significant considerations in converting commercial fed-batch assets to continuous systems. Thus, the trade-off between adapted hardware and new fermenter designs needs to be considered when analyzing continuous fermentation systems.

stainless steel vats

Improved, lower-cost downstream processing equipment

Downstream processing often constitutes nearly half of the total cost involved in final product manufacturing. Within this realm, two pivotal processes significantly impact production expenses: chromatography and drying.

Chromatography, initially designed for pharmaceuticals, utilizes expensive consumables and enables high-purity separation. For most food applications, however, purity requirements are much different than those for pharmaceuticals.

Meanwhile, existing drying techniques like spray drying or freeze drying are notorious for their high energy consumption and potential to compromise nutritional quality, whereas drum drying yields inferior outcomes. The emergence of novel technologies capable of supplanting these industry standards holds the potential to revolutionize the entire fermentation sector.

Standardization of industry waste streams for fermentation growth media

Numerous companies in the biomass and precision fermentation sectors intend to utilize industry-side streams to lower feedstock costs. Transitioning to side or waste stream-based feedstocks, however, presents challenges due to their inconsistent chemical composition, which can vary by season and source. Companies striving to optimize and stabilize waste streams without inflating costs could unlock this opportunity for many firms.

Data-driven technologies to identify, trace changes in sensory characteristics of products throughout the production process

As extensively documented, taste and sensory appeal pose significant hurdles for alternative proteins, including those derived from fermentation, which may carry undesirable flavors depending on processing methods. A major challenge lies in pinpointing which parameters in the bioprocess influence the final product.

Technologies such as eNose sensors or other volatile analysis tools capable of gathering data and identifying flavor improvement opportunities, particularly in biomass fermentation processes, will streamline product formulation and yield cleaner label, consistent products. Additionally, statistical and AI-assisted algorithms that can correlate changes in bioprocess parameters with changes in sensory parameters can be incredibly helpful in optimizing for sensory experiences.

Noninvasive multi-parameter smart sensor technologies to monitor, affect fermentation processes

One of the challenges with current fermentation systems is the limited data that can be obtained during fermentation runs to enable real-time optimization. Current real-time measurement probes are limited in their capabilities, largely covering physical and physiological parameters, like pH, temperature and dissolved oxygen.

Other critical success parameters must be measured offline by taking a sample of the broth (e.g. biomass density, titer, etc.), which is time-consuming and labor intensive and doesn’t allow for real-time integration into a digital feedback-based control software. Novel sensors that can estimate these metrics in real time can unlock the next generation of data-driven bioprocess optimization algorithms for reduced costs via higher performance, reduced labor requirements and improved batch-to-batch consistency. As with all technologies to enhance fermentation, these sensors need to be affordable and easily retrofitted to existing bioreactor capacity.

About the Author(s)

Jasmin Kern

Senior associate, Lever VC

Jasmin Kern is a senior associate at Lever VC, a leading sector specialist in the food tech and ag tech sectors, backing early-stage companies creating the future of protein worldwide. Before joining Lever VC, she studied chemistry with a focus on cellular agriculture at MIT and worked in materials and texture R&D in the alternative protein space. Kern also founded a nonprofit education program that prepares the next generation of leaders and innovators in the alternative protein space, Nucleate Cultivate.

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