Victoria-based start-up The Leaf Protein Co. recently raised $850,000 in pre-Seed funding for its green leaf-based protein extraction technology.

Launched in 2020 by CEO Fern Ho, the company later added food scientist Connor Balfany as a co-founder.

Following the first part of our two-part interview, the two continued their conversation with Future Alternative about the target customer for their leaf protein products and how they plan to use their newly raised funds.

What kinds of leaf protein products are you making, and for which kinds of customers?

Fern: [We have a] range of different products, starting from the pure Rubisco isolate, which is neutral colour and neutral taste. It’s also an ingredient that offers eggwhite-type replacement functionality. The application for that specific ingredient is quite broad across different categories, so it sits more in the food additive category. A lot of the big ingredient companies like Kerry, General Mills, your baked good companies, they’re really interested in this ingredient for its functional benefits.

But what we’re seeing, particularly since COVID, is a lot of interest also in the nutraceutical space. This is a space where food manufacturers are increasingly aware that their end consumers are now more concerned about the nutrition behind their foods.

Our new green leaf protein ingredient that we showcased at Evoke Ag is where the nutraceutical market has a real interest. Because it’s very high in additional minerals like iron, calcium, and zinc, which is stripped off from your standard soy protein and wheat protein.

Connor: What’s more, those proteins in soy, wheat and pea, they’re very simple. They’re just meant to be resilient and store nutrients. But the complexity of leaf protein means it needs to have a much more diverse amino acid profile. Anyone who’s vegetarian or vegan knows that sometimes limiting essential amino acids can be very hard to overcome. You either have to take supplements or be very mindful of what protein sources you eat.

All of a sudden, here comes a plant-based protein that is a complete protein, meaning it has all essential amino acids to the quantity where you don’t need to ingest supplements. 

F: We also know that the digestibility of leaf protein is higher than the existing plant proteins in the market, even compared to soy, which is already fairly high. So in terms of nutritional availability, leaf protein outcompetes what’s out there currently.

[With regards to customers], we are a B2B company. Our focus has been with the food manufacturers, but with new ingredients you need to show how it can be applied. That’s why we do the demonstrations, to show that you can use [our protein] in a pasta that’s better for you. That gives the food manufacturers confidence – we’ve had all this positive feedback from end consumers trying it out.

We’ve done a lot of that prototyping, but we are B2B focused, which sometimes is a bit of a shame, because when we’re at these trade shows and conferences, people come up to us and ask us where we are selling. 

Fettucini made with The Leaf Protein Co.'s Nüleaf Protein complete ingredient.
Fettucini made with Nüleaf Protein complete ingredient. Image via The Leaf Protein Co.

Is there already an existing regulatory umbrella for this kind of protein, or is there something unique to it that means you still have to go through the process?

F: There’s been a lot of alternative proteins out in the market, from cellular agriculture created in a petri dish all the way to insect protein. And at the end of the day, food is something that you put in your mouth. So you want to have a certain comfort level with what you’re consuming and where it’s coming from. That’s why we’ve been very strategic in selecting plant sources that are recognized already as edible.

It helps knowing that [our protein] comes from a plant that’s already eaten as a vegetable, such as alfalfa, which is very much used in the nutraceutical space for health benefits. This means there’s not that same level of going through the whole novel food regulations of introducing something that’s unique or not really recognized in the market today.

The Leaf Protein Co. is one one of very few companies doing this. What makes your product unique?

You are right, there’s a very small handful of leaf protein startups looking to commercialise this. As Connor’s mentioned, it’s not a new concept, but in terms of making it economically viable, there are lots of different moving parts that need to be considered and the science behind the extraction to scale up is no mean feat as well. We’re definitely one of a number, a small number, but we’re a bit different in terms of our approach.

A lot of the other leaf protein startups tend to focus on a single plant source for a variety of different reasons, but ultimately, that still continues where we’re at today where we have these major mono crops. We don’t want to go down that same route, which is why we feel that we’re different with respect to having looked at extraction from a range of different plants.

Connor: Exactly 17 that I can count, and probably a few more slipped in there from people reaching out to us and asking us to try. We want to plug into everything that’s out there and be a platform technology rather than developing a single pipeline with a single ingredient, having a wide spectrum that can be as diverse as leaf protein is to begin with.

What’s the next step for you following your fundraise?

C: The support and feedback that we’ve gotten at each step, that momentum hasn’t run out. It’s been really encouraging and has continued to be so with the successful raise that we just closed with some incredible impact driven supporters. I think it goes to show that people are being a lot more mindful of ingredient sourcing, even with these convoluted food products. Nothing is safe from scrutiny on labels right now, and consumers are going to vote with their dollar and their health. And we’re happy to be able to push that forward in a novel way.

F: We’re really excited for this next phase. Now that we’ve closed our fundraise, it means a lot in terms of pushing the company forward. One of the big things is that this raise allows us to grow the team. We are looking for people either with a food science background or with plant operations experience. Connor’s done an incredible job up in Queensland with himself and a very small team, but we are looking to build out that team.

Shout out to anyone that is interested in what we’re doing or knows people that have experience in food manufacturing. We are really keen to chat with them.

Also, on the food manufacturer side, now that we do have our pilot plant and are able to produce those larger quantities, we’re able to actually start to field interest from food manufacturers, particularly the ones in the nutraceutical space. So we ask any nutraceutical companies that are interested in an alternative green plant protein that is sustainable to please reach out. We’re keen to see what you think of our ingredient.

After Australia, which markets are you hoping to expand into?

F: Our pilot plant is in Queensland, so production at the moment is out of Australia. Logistically, it makes sense that we are speaking with a lot of interested Australian food manufacturers. But as I said, we’ve had a lot of interest from the global ingredient companies all over the world, from North America all the way through to Asia as well.

Connor was in Bangkok for two months working with one of the big food manufacturers out there. We’ve seen global interest and we’re interested in making a real impact on our food system, which is not just here in Australia, but global. So we’re global from day one.

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