Thomas Jonas, CEO and co-founder of Nature’s Fynd, outlines how social investors are supporting the private sector innovators who are combating the climate crisis by developing alternative proteins to feed the world.
In a volcanic hot spring in Yellowstone National Park is an organism we can learn a lot from.
Its scientific name is Fusarium strain flavolapis.
It lives in an extremely inhospitable environment — a vibrant, steaming cauldron of mud, microbes, and minerals that has a temperature of over 400 degrees Fahrenheit and an acidic pH level approaching that of a car battery.
And yet, the microbe thrives.
It has evolved to demand so little of its environment. And so must we.
NASA-supported scientists discovered the microbe in 2008 when they were conducting research in Yellowstone’s hot springs on what sort of living organisms they might find on seemingly inhospitable planets.
The microbe is remarkable for a number of reasons. It is a fungus that is nutritionally dense, high in protein and fiber, and, unlike many other vegan proteins, includes all nine essential amino acids. The fungus is like a sourdough starter — given the right conditions and a steady diet of sugar, salt, vitamins, and minerals — it replicates quickly. So quickly that at maximum efficiency you can grow the equivalent of 25 chickens’ worth of protein on a standard cafeteria-size tray of F. strain flavolapis over the course of a year.
I first saw the organism through the lens of a microscope in 2016 and in that moment, it was like I was holding an acorn, imagining the forest. I realized that in a glass vial small enough to fit in the palm of my hand was enough of this self-replicating fungus to feed the world — and feed it well — with minimal impact on the planet.
Every business has a creation story.
Microsoft, Google, and Amazon each started in a garage.
My business originated in that ancient thermal pool in Yellowstone National Park.
Over the last eight years, my team has worked to bring to market a new vegan protein from the tiny microbe F. strain flavolapis.
Our business is inspired by a desire to leave the planet better than we found it, and the existential crisis of climate change that impacts us all. Agriculture is on both sides of the climate change equation, both contributing to it and affected by it. Our food system generates 35% of total global human-made greenhouse gas emissions — most can be traced to animal-based foods. This is to say nothing of the biodiversity that agriculture devastates, the water it siphons off, and the chemicals it spreads across huge swaths of our planet. At the same time, the changing climate is making water scarce, increasing the temperature, and causing extreme weather events — each another challenge for our fragile farming system. Add to this fraught picture our growing population with its increasing demand for protein.
The need to reinvent agriculture couldn’t be more urgent.
Changing How We Sow and What We Grow
In primary school, we all learned about the Fertile Crescent, where humans first domesticated a handful of crops about 10,000 years ago. Our changing climate demands a rethink of this tradition. Not only how we grow, but also what we grow.
Alternative proteins provide a potential pathway forward. For example, our scientists have succeeded in developing a fermentation method that turns F. strain flavolapis into a foodstuff we have dubbed Fy, a nutritional fungi protein. We grow Fy using 99% less land, 99% less water, and emitting 94% fewer greenhouse gasses than beef production at scale. We’ve made Fy into meatless breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheese.
Likewise, the scientists behind the Beyond Meat brand spent more than six years developing a formula for transforming pea protein (which takes 740 gallons of water to produce) into something that mimics the taste, texture, and smell of beef (which takes 18,000 gallons of water to produce). Other vegan visionaries are similarly developing planet-friendly proteins around the world.
I’ll add that the products we’re making don’t require denying your tastebuds. In 2019, Burger King Sweden challenged its customers to taste the difference between its plant-based Rebel Whopper and their traditional Whopper. Forty-four percent of customers couldn’t taste the difference.
But Nature’s Fynd and the other alternative protein pioneers who have taken up this pursuit can’t achieve an agricultural revolution without social investors to help accelerate this paradigm shift.
Social investors often focus their giving on effecting change through nonprofits and civil society organizations. And no doubt those are important and worthy. But an often overlooked yet powerful use of social impact capital is as a catalyst to solve some of the world’s biggest problems through the private sector. Social investors who are seeking both financial and social impact returns can find both.
In our case, we benefited from the social investors behind Breakthrough Energy, which was established in 2016 by Bill Gates. Breakthrough Energy’s coalition of private investors includes Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, and Patrice Motsepe, among others. Concerned with the impact of climate change, they invest in game-changing innovations capable of addressing the root causes of climate change by transforming energy, food systems, and other heavy carbon sectors like cement production.
In Breakthrough Energy, we found not only the supportive, more patient capital we needed, but also a deep alignment of values. We are really trying to do the same thing. And so, they shared their extraordinary network and worked with us as thought partners.
With Breakthrough Energy’s support, we are producing alternative protein without the need for sun, rain, or soil, in a facility in Chicago’s old stockyards, 15 minutes from downtown.
Working with F. strain flavolapis all these years, I’ve developed a profound respect for this formidable fungus. It has taught me that life finds a way forward no matter the obstacles. And that fills me with optimism.
Humanity faces a tremendous challenge: feeding 9 billion humans on our warming planet while reducing our carbon footprint. If we think about things differently, collaborate across sectors, and learn from F. strain flavolapis, we too can do more with less.