Startup company raises $75M to ramp up production of plant-based cheese

Jan Shepel
Correspondent

A startup company called Nobell Foods recently raised $75 million from investors to ramp up production and introduce to the marketplace cheeses that are made from plant-derived dairy proteins. The company said this project to make dairy proteins and cheese from plant-based sources supports its “larger mission” of creating a “radically more humane and sustainable food system.”

Nobell founder Magi Richani said her company creates key dairy proteins – especially casein – from high-quality soybeans, enabling the brand to make cheeses that taste, smell, melt, stretch, and even age like those made from the milk taken from animals.

Nobell founder Magi Richani said her company creates key dairy proteins – especially casein – from high-quality soybeans, enabling the brand to make cheeses that taste, smell, melt, stretch, and even age like those made from the milk taken from animals. She said the project challenges the way “we talk about, think about, and eat cheese.”

The South San Francisco company’s slogan is “Say Cheese. Think Plants.” Its website declares that “making cheese no longer requires animals.”  It claims that “animals are an inefficient and unsustainable technology for making dairy and feeding people.”

Nobell notes, on its website, that there are a number of animal-free cheeses on the market, but there are none that satisfy the “craving for an amazing grilled cheese or slice of pizza.” Other companies in this segment of the market – Remilk and Perfect Day – use microbial fermentation to create dairy proteins. Richani chose to genetically engineer plants as a cheaper method of production.

With its Series B round of funding which closed at $75 million, on July 27, Nobell emerges with over $100 million in funding for the plant-based cheese project. Major funders include Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and the company got what it called “notable support” from Robert Downey Jr.'s FootPrint Coalition Ventures. Accordingt to the company, others joining this round include: Unovis, Germin8 Ventures, Fifty Years, AgFunder, Pear VC, GL Ventures, the venture capital arm of Hillhouse Group, and Mission Bay Capital.

The company launched from seed money in 2017 and then raised $25 million. It then proceeded to enter the Series B round and raised the additional $75 million.

Richani, an engineer who earned her Masters in Engineering and Project Management from UC Berkeley, has said she wants to “cultivate plants to be the dairy of the future” and has a patented approach to making dairy proteins from plants. According to company information, it took more than four years of research and development to come up with a process to make cheeses that will stretch, melt and taste like cheese from cow milk or goat milk – based on the functionality of plant-produced casein.

Nobell says its cheese from plants creates cheese at half the cost and with 90% fewer carbon emissions than cheese from cow’s milk.

The key, she has said, is the crucial role played by essential dairy proteins like casein, in giving cheese the qualities people love. Bypassing cows and goats is part of her goal to “transform the food system.”

Like all proteins, caseins have a unique genetic code. Richani said she and her team discovered how to recreate this genetic code in soybean seeds – through genetic engineering – and grow plants that have the same dairy caseins found in the milk of cows. Richani claims that now her company can produce more casein per acre more efficiently, sustainably, and cost effectively than cows. Using proprietary processes, Nobell extracts the caseins and uses them to make cheese.

The company justifies the use of genetic engineering “that we need to leverage in order to dig ourselves out of the largest crisis facing humanity: climate change.” The company’s website claims that “cheese is one of the highest offenders when it comes to carbon emissions. It has the third-highest carbon footprint after lamb and beef.”

Nobell will use funds from its Series B round to expand its team and farming partnerships, scale up its production and bring its product to market, which is expected to happen by the end of 2022 or in early 2023. Their current focus is on mozzarella and cheddar, since they make up the majority of the cheese market and the company knows it must go after the biggest market opportunities.

After starting a career as an engineer with Shell, Richani was inspired to look for a way to “use science as a solution to feed more people, end cruel factory farming processes, address climate change, democratize food and make advancements that could improve yield and taste for more delicious experiences.” She grew up in Lebanon where she said she saw the ways that animals are “commoditized” for food. She was inspired to start the company when she saw the “disconnect to the environmental impacts and cruelty that it (the food system) causes.”

Richani saw cheese – a food that so many people are not willing to give up -- as the “last frontier” in animal-free foods and set out to create a plant-based cheese that would satisfy even the most discerning consumers. She began to shift to a plant-based diet five years ago and was loath to give up cheese. It was then she began to research the food system, which led to the launch of Nobell to challenge people's perceptions of what plant-based cheese can be, and to “pioneer a new category of satisfying animal-free cheese.”

One of her investors, Chris Rivest, noted that Nobell’s cheese from plants creates cheese at half the cost and with 90% fewer carbon emissions than cheese from cow’s milk.

For more information go to www.Nobellfoods.com.