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16 Sep 2022

How mycelium innovation is ‘unlocking the potential of the fungi kingdom’

How mycelium innovation is ‘unlocking the potential of the fungi kingdom’

Mushroom production is on the rise. China, the global leader in mushroom production, is growing ‘masses’ of fungi, while in Europe, production is also increasing. In Germany, for example, 60,000 tonnes of mushrooms are produced annually.

But not all fungi are grown for their ‘fruiting bodies’ – the part of the mushroom we purchase in supermarkets. An increasing number of entrepreneurs are cultivating mycelia: the root-like structure from which the fungi grow.

When certain fungal strains are exposed to particular substrates, they can absorb nutrients for the production of alternative proteins.

At the University of Giessen in Germany, researchers are screening around 5,000 edible fungi to investigate optimal growing conditions using different side streams from industry as substrates.

“We’re looking for a good conversion ratio of substrates [into] protein,” ​explained Dr Martin Rühl, who heads up the working group on biochemical and molecular biological food analytics and biotechnology at the university. “We want to have high protein compounds in our mycelium and a high share of fungus.”​

According to Dr Rühl, who was joined by four mycelium-based start-ups at the Future Food Series: Mycelium ​panel discussion last week, fungi have the potential to transform the food industry.

Entrepreneurs are clearly catching on. How are start-ups innovating to bring these versatile, sustainable fungi strains to market? Is it true that ‘the sky’s the limit’?

Ingredients in plant-based, meat, and pet food products​

Some businesses are developing mycelia as a high-protein ingredient for the plant-based meat alternatives market, which makes sense given the category’s trajectory.

According to Bloomberg Intelligence, the plant-based foods market could make up to 7.7% of the global protein market by 2030, with a value of over $162bn – up from $29.4bn in 2020.

Entrepreneurs Daniel MacGowan von Holstein and Franziskus Schnabel co-founded Keen 4 Greens in 2019. Although the duo set out to build a meat alternatives business, they changed tack when they observed a shortage of pea protein.

“That made us really start to question where alternatives proteins would be coming from in the next four-to-five years. We started looking into mycelium to try and move away from soy or pea, [towards] an alternative protein that could be produced locally,” ​MacGowan von Holstein told delegates at the Future Food event co-hosted by ProVeg Incubator and Zinitinus.

Keen 4 Greens grows its mycelium ingredient over a 5–7-day period leveraging submerged fermentation technology. By submerging substrate in liquid, oxygen exposure is prevented, and anaerobic growth of mycelia is promoted.

The start-up plans to sell to a variety of sectors. Unlike the business’ first iteration, these days the co-founders – and their now 14-strong team – are not focusing on the end product. “Rather, we’ll be working with producers…and not just for vegan meat alternatives, but they could be [conventional] meat producers or pet food producers – anybody who has a need for these alternative proteins.” 

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