Next gen plant protein startup, The Leaf Protein Co. ready to scale pilot production
Much is written of the rapid global growth of the alternative protein sector – driven by consumers seeking new, sustainable, and ethical protein sources. It’s a trend echoed in Australia, where the sector is tipped to reach $5 billion and create 6,000 new jobs by 2030. But while growth is swift – there’s one undeniable challenge: an over-reliance on just a few plant protein sources.
Fern Ho, Co-founder and CEO of The Leaf Protein Co., explained, “There’s been a huge explosion of plant-based foods, but most manufacturers rely on the same three proteins: soy, wheat, and pulses like peas. That makes it hard for food companies to create plant-based foods that are allergy- and GMO-free, and which meet consumer expectations around sustainability, food security, and biodiversity loss.”
The Leaf Protein Co.’s solution is the humble green leaf, whose protein – RuBisCo – is the most abundant on Earth. Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase, commonly known as RuBisCo is celebrated as the world’s most important enzyme, due to its pivotal role in fixing atmospheric carbon. Without it, plants couldn’t photosynthesise and the creatures – including us – who depend on plants couldn’t exist.
But aside of its lofty status, RuBisCo also has characteristics that make it a real contender in the field of plant proteins. It offers a well-rounded full essential amino acid profile and is free from the major allergens, so is suitable for consumers with dairy, egg, soy and wheat intolerances. And it has properties that lend it to use in other food manufacturing processes, as an emulsifier, foaming and gelling agent.
Turning green leaves into white protein
How does The Leaf Protein Co. turn green leaves into a high protein food source? “It's a thermomechanical process,” explained Fern. “Essentially, we grind down the leaves and use heat and filtration methods to separate the protein from the chlorophyll and other components that make up a leaf. Our process is focused on producing an end product that is free from chemical residue, and neutral in colour and flavour, so that manufacturers can have a "clean-label" alternative plant protein to create more sustainable plant-based dairy, meat and snack foods.”
That’s where Fern sees The Leaf Protein Co.’s future – as a B2B ingredient supplier. “Our ultimate goal is to build a library of protein ingredients from different leaf sources from around the world to give food companies a more biodiverse range of plant protein ingredients to create the plant-based foods that consumers are demanding.”
Regenerative plants provide test bed for tech development
The Leaf Protein Co.’s ‘proof of concept’ plants were ones that aren’t commonplace in Australian diets: saltbush – traditionally a forage crop known for its ability to ameliorate saline soils; and Pereskia – a low-water-use leafy cactus celebrated for its nutritional value in its native Brazil.
And while volumes were sufficient for lab scale testing, securing an ongoing supply of these plants isn’t feasible. Saltbush is currently produced in low volumes in Australia, and domestic production of Pereskia isn’t an option, given its status as an environmental weed in certain states.
“That initial work into extracting leaf protein from saltbush and Pereskia gave us the confidence that there was merit behind the processes that we were investigating,” said Fern. “But we know that if we really want to make a meaningful impact, we need to look at large volumes.”
Seeking answers from common foods
One industry with abundant green leaf matter is vegetable production. Yet with so many types in production, the challenge was in narrowing the focus.
“RuBisCo as a protein source isn’t new. It’s been used for decades as a crude protein for animal feed, where texture and flavour are less important,” said Fern. “But as a human food source we’re being really selective about finding the right nutrient profile. Looking to vegetable leaf matter is a great way of focusing our efforts.”
She continued, “We’re currently working with sweet potato leaves. But there’s a lot of other potential crops, like the Brassica family, which are produced at such huge volumes that we can secure reliable domestic supply upfront. Their leaf mass is considered waste. But what if we valorise that by-product – giving farmers another source of income?”
The concept has been music to growers’ ears, according to Fern.
“It’s said that farmers are the original innovators, and we’ve found that to be true. They’re really open to looking at new ways of doing things – to improve sustainability and to seek new avenues for their product. We’ve been overwhelmed by the number of growers who want to partner with us.”
Collaboration boosts development program
The Leaf Protein Co. team is driven by their passion for food production and sustainability. With expertise ranging from food science and leaf protein extraction to marketing and product development, the team has done a lot of the heavy lifting in getting their concept off the ground.
And now a recent project with CSIRO through the Kick-Start program is helping to accelerate their development program. Fern explained, “The CSIRO research is aimed at delivering an efficient, scalable food grade protein extraction process. CSIRO has been working with plant proteins for decades, so bringing together their knowledge, our own learnings from the lab, plus the experience of other partners we’re working with across the world, gives us a lot of confidence in what we’re doing.”
Kick-Start is an initiative for innovative Australian start-ups and small businesses, providing funding support and access to CSIRO’s research expertise and capabilities to help grow and develop their business.
Investors needed to scale pilot production
The Leaf Protein Co. is seeking to raise $750,000 to take its leaf protein extraction process from the lab to pilot scale production.
“We’re looking for like-minded investors who share our interest in alternative proteins, waste recovery and crop by-product usage, or have experience in supporting startups to scale production,” said Fern. “We have pilot facilities lined up. We just need funding to make them fit for purpose, so we can examine the process at scale and iron out any kinks before we jump to large-scale commercialisation.”
And while the newness of emerging proteins like edible insects and cell-based meats pose some challenges around consumer acceptance, The Leaf Protein Co. is seeing none of that. “All the consumer feedback we’ve received is clear: protein made from vegetable by-products is very acceptable,” said Fern. “And that’s echoed in the commercial interest from food companies. They're all clamoring for samples. It’s a strong indication that the market wants a next gen protein from a source that consumers already know and accept.”
To find out more about The Leaf Protein Co.’s investment opportunity, click here.