Is bioengineered collagen the next step in replacing animal proteins?

More than 90 percent of collagen and gelatin on the market comes from pigs and cattle, a byproduct of the slaughterhouse industry. The goal of Geltor’s theoretical experiments was not just to generate hype, but to convince potential customers that they could make products that the current supply chain couldn’t. What if you weren’t limited by the types of animals available to get your collagen? Dr. Lorestan recalled asking. He then suggested one mammal in particular, landing Geltor on its first creation: HumaColl21, which the company calls a “virtually colorless and odorless solution.”

In 2019, the Korean company AHC launched an eye cream containing HumaColl21. Orora Skin Science, based in Canada, followed with creams and serums in 2021. In the past two years, Geltor has launched biosimilar marine collagen and human elastin (as the name implies, an especially elastic protein) for skin care as well. Poultry-like collagen intended for use in nutritional supplements. Microbes growing in giant fermenters express each of these collagens, which are strained and refined into pure protein. “The protein is exactly the same as you would find in the original source,” Dr. Lorestan said. (The third-party IGEN certification program certified that no genetic material was detected in the final product.)

A $91.3 million investment round in 2020 allowed Geltor to increase production from 35,000 liters in 2019 to 2.2 million liters in 2021, which is still a relatively small amount. Tiny bottles of expensive eye creams need very little HumaColl21; Big bottles of shampoo and jars of collagen powder are more than enough. Enough gelatin to supply vegan Jell-O salads at Midwest potlucks requires exponential growth.

These limits defined the company’s commercial path. “The product volumes required by beauty and personal care consumers are different than the product volumes required by food and nutrition consumers,” said Dr. Lorestan.

Despite all this investment, there are skeptics. Julie Gutman, a geographer at the University of California, Santa Cruz who studies Silicon Valley’s forays into agriculture and food, questions the “magic delay” behind the promises of the alternative protein industry.

“There’s a sense that if you’re producing protein from cells or from fermentation in the lab, it somehow takes us away from land-based meat production,” he said; These companies still need energy, metal and food for the microbes themselves. And, he noted, there is little transparency in their environmental claims because their patented processes are closely guarded secrets.

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