If the idea of making a nutritious, sustainable protein from air sounds like the stuff of science fiction to you, then you’ve probably never heard much about Lisa Dyson or Air Protein, the company she founded.
A keynote presenter at IFT’s FIRST virtual event, Dyson, who is a former Fulbright scholar with a PhD in physics from MIT, founded Air Protein two years ago to commercialize production of an alternative protein from the elements of air. In the process, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen are combined with water and mineral nutrients and converted into protein via a probiotic process. It’s a bit like making yogurt or other fermented foods, Dyson says. The approach was inspired by decades-old NASA research on space flight food production that Dyson and Air Protein co-founder John Reed uncovered while seeking new approaches to creating a sustainable food supply.
Air Protein, which raised $32 million in a funding round completed earlier this year, is a subsidiary of Kiverdi, a carbon transformation R&D company that Dyson and Reed founded in 2011.
Dyson spoke with Food Technology about what’s ahead for Air Protein and the critical importance of climate-friendly food production.
Dyson: When I went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I was one of the many people that were working to help rebuild the city there and just coming up close and personal with the devastating effects of a huge weather event. And later, just thinking about climate science and how climate scientists have told us and continue to tell us that there’s going to be more intense weather events, and they’re going to be more frequent, and just seeing how people are directly affected by that, that caused me to begin thinking, how can I be a part of the solution? How can I be a part of helping address this climate change problem that we have?
Dyson: It’s mainly because of the mission. It’s mainly because we’re trying to change how things are made so that they are more sustainable and they’re able to sustain a planet that is expected to have 10 billion people by 2050. And when my co-founder, Dr. John Reed [and I], we signed up for this, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Dyson: We start with a protein that is jam-packed with all the essential amino acids, so a complete protein. There’s also bioavailable minerals, that’s a part of our ingredients, and bioavailable vitamins, such as vitamin B12, which is lacking in a vegan diet. So we start off with a really nutritious protein, and then we create really, really healthy meat.
Dyson: Mainly, it’s a question of scaling up the fermentation volumes, essentially. So you’re at a small scale initially, and you want to go to a larger volume, and when you do that, then you have to really get the parameters to be just right for your process to produce the protein or the right productivity levels, the right yield of the process, etc. And so, these are just technical metrics that you have to continue to optimize and fine tune as you get to larger [and] larger facilities.
Dyson: One of the benefits of the process that we’re developing and commercializing is what we believe will be an economic attractiveness at scale. And because our projections are that it will be low cost, that will allow us to meet the needs of people all over the planet, the nutritional needs. And so we’re focused and excited about delivering highly nutritious, nutrient-dense protein to people in all geographies.
And the good thing, as well, about our process is that you don’t need any arable land. You can actually scale it in any climate, in any geography, in rain or shine, day or night, any season. And so that also allows it to really go to anywhere on the planet, to be deployed and to meet the nutritional needs of the local populations.
Dyson: I think that we’re seeing they’re becoming more and more committed to that, which is exciting to me. Education is just knowledge, [and] is one of the first things. So as people become aware of, for instance, the environmental footprint of modern ag, we see people embracing meatless Mondays, and just changing their diets, and the rise of alternative meat. A lot of that is because people are becoming more aware, I’ll say, of the environmental impacts of meat and the foods that they eat. So, knowledge spreading is important, and as it spreads, we will see that larger adoption.
Dyson: Ten years from now, there will definitely still be people who eat meat, probably from animals. But there are many of us who are scaling up those alternatives so that there are choices out there. And as we see the choices, we’ll be making the core ingredients other ways if the way we define meat is not based on the fact that it’s from an animal, but based on the textures and the flavors that you’re looking for when you bite into a juicy steak or chicken breast.
Dyson: We believe that we stand apart because of our process being really the most sustainable way to make protein. And I measure it along the carbon footprint; we actually have a negative carbon process, negative carbon footprint for the protein production. The land utilization—we require significantly less land. If you look at soy protein, we need 10,000 times less land versus soy. So, that’s going from a Texas-[sized] farm of soy protein to a Walt Disney World–sized farm of air protein. So significant land reduction and similarly significant water reduction—2,000 times less water.
Dyson: I think that when you’re trying to do something big, what’s important is making sure that the team is aligned, aligned with the direction that you’re headed in, that they are willing to embrace challenges, that they’re willing to learn from those challenges, that they are willing to collaborate and collaborate in a way that leads to better results. So that’s something that we’re focused on doing, and we’re focused on making sure that there’s organizational clarity and that we’re all marching in the same direction.