Bel Group-Backed Standing Ovation Bags €3M from French Government & EU Fund for Animal-Free Casein
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Fresh from raising €3M, Standing Ovation CEO Romain Chayot speaks to Green Queen about the startup’s 2024 plans, its CASPEX project, and France’s stance on factory farming.
Founded in 2020, Bel Group-backed startup Standing Ovation, which makes animal-free casein from precision fermentation, has received €3M in public sector funding to accelerate the development of its proteins.
The startup aims to help food manufacturers transition towards more sustainable production. A FrenchTech 2030 award winner, the startup employs what it calls a CASPEX approach, combining the use of capital expenditure (CAPEX) with the production of animal-free proteins.
It is this CASPEX project that has attracted funding from the French government and Bpifrance. The former has injected €2M as part of the Agrifood Resilience and Capacity call for projects under the France 2030 Investment Plan, while the latter has granted a €1M seed loan under the InvestEU Green Loan.
“Bpifrance’s strong support is helping us to drive the industrial deployment of the unique process developed by Standing Ovation, an important step before the upcoming commercialisation of our ingredients,” said co-founder and CEO Romain Chayot. “This financing also marks the commitment of public authorities to preparing the food of the future and ensuring food sovereignty.”
Blending CAPEX with casein
Chayot explains that the company needed to boost the fermentation and purification capacity of its production sites for fermentative caseins in order to accelerate industrialisation. This involves the purchase of industrial equipment (CAPEX) dedicated to the purification of caseins, hence the CASPEX project.
This approach can allow Standing Ovation to implement a purification line in its manufacturing plants to optimise costs and delivery times, through a process that’s compatible with food industry requirements. “Standing Ovation’s innovative approach enables us to contribute to the food transition while significantly reducing the environmental impact of the dairy ingredients industry,” he notes.
This purification module is a key step to enable the “first industrial production” of precision-fermented ingredients for dairy products. It will improve process productivity, maximising the use of upstream production tools and thus reducing equipment and team downtime – this means faster production, but lower costs.
Chayot outlines how Standing Ovation’s casein proteins – which make up 80% of the proteins found in dairy – are versatile and compatible with a range of products, including cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, milk and protein bars. “We are producing proteins identical to the caseins of animal milk, with the same amino acids sequence, the same nutritive quality, but made by precision fermentation,” he tells Green Queen. “Our caseins have the ability to provide essential functionalities such as foaming, thickening, curdling, stretching, as well as meeting taste objectives.”
To produce these casein proteins, the company has developed a patented, proprietary process that can be scaled up thanks to the CASPEX approach. “Our process is based on proprietary strains that overproduce caseins,” Chayot reveals. Currently, its weekly casein production is at several tens of kgs, but with the new funding, it expects to produce several tonnes of it.
LCAs, regulation and France’s pro-factory farming stance
Standing Ovation is already on the move, having partnered with fellow French company Bel Group in late 2022 to develop precision-fermented proteins for the cheese industry. The dairy giant – which has an equity stake in the animal-free startup – has already released multiple vegan versions of its products, including Babybel, Boursin and The Laughing Cow. It also has a fully plant-based cheese brand in Nurishh.
Equipped with the new funding – on the back of a €12M Series A raise in 2022 – Standing Ovation hopes to apply for regulatory approval in the US soon, before launching commercially later this year. So far, only Perfect Day, Remilk and Imagindairy have received FDA GRAS approval for precision-fermented dairy, while TurtleTree has self-affirmed approval. Crucially, all these companies are working on whey protein, so regulatory clearance for animal-free casein is yet to be seen.
The startup’s state funding is part of a €54B fund to respond competitively to the climate crisis, which is dedicating 50% of its spending to decarbonising the economy, and the rest to emerging and innovative players – none of the money goes to projects detrimental to the environment.
As with regulatory clearance, all publicly available life-cycle assessments (LCAs) on precision fermentation dairy focus on whey protein. Standing Ovation says it is the first to conduct an independent LCA on its casein, and according to the results, its casein requires up to 94% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional dairy casein. The LCA was done at a pilot scale, so while this is certainly progress, an industrial-scale LCA would provide a more rounded picture.
Meanwhile, France has been pushing back against the plant-based industry and has called for a rise in factory farming to produce cheaper meat. Does investment from a government that promotes industrial animal agriculture feel contradictory? “Our protein is an alternative to intensive farming and does not aim to compete with artisanal and premium production,” answers Chayot. “There is room for both our technology that is a lever to secure the growing demand in animal proteins, and farming which is respectful of the environment, the planet and the animal.”
He adds: “To build a virtuous model, precision fermentation also requires agricultural byproducts in its functioning. The sectors are interlinked. France is famous for its dairy industry with major players (Lactalis, Danone, Bel, etc.). This country is becoming very active [around] precision fermentation industry by promoting [the] industrialisation of the fermentation process [that’s] ready for the market.”
Speaking of the market, one estimate suggests that the casein sector will be worth nearly $5B in 2033, growing by 6.3% annually from 2023. It’s a protein known for its functionality in helping cheeses stretch and melt, an important factor considering 73% of Americans are unhappy with the texture of vegan cheese and want creamy products that taste and melt better. Given the key role it plays in dairy, the importance of producing more sustainable casein is only growing, with brands like Change Foods (US-Australia), New Culture (US), Fermify (Austria) and Zero Cow Factory (India) all working towards this goal.