Unilever in $120m biotech venture to scale palm oil alternative

20 Jun 2022

Unilever has teamed up with US biotech company Genomatica to commercialise its palm oil alternative produced via a biotechnology fermentation process.

The $120 million (€114m) will be jointly invested in the newly formed initiative and other strategic investors are expected to join, according to a statement. Unilever’s investment with Genomatica, also known as Geno, represents its largest collaboration in biotech-produced alternatives to palm oil to date, it said. Geno is already starting to scale up the process to produce the exclusive ingredient.

Unilever in $120m biotech venture to scale palm oil alternative
Genomatica offers biotech-produced alternatives to palm oil (pictured)

With growing demand for sustainably sourced palm oil, Unilever said the venture aimed to deliver additional responsibly sourced palm oil alternatives to the market. These alternatives had a role to play in diversifying supply chains to drive sustainability, cost efficiencies and transparency. However, it added that conventional palm oil would remain an important feedstock for its ingredients.

‘Cleaning up’ cleaning products with palm oil alternatives

Currently, Geno’s palm oil alternatives replace surfactants and therefore are targeted towards the personal care, home care and industrial cleaning sectors only. Unilever – one of the world’s biggest soap and detergent manufacturers – will use it for these categories.

Ingredients Network asked Unilever whether it planned to explore the use of microbial fermentation to replace some of the palm oil in its food portfolio but the soup-to-soap manufacturer did not say.

There are a number of startups leveraging biotechnology to produce food-grade palm oil alternatives via microbial fermentation, such as Dutch startup NoPalm and US company C16 Biosciences, marketing their products as ‘deforestation-free’ palm oil or ‘conflict-free’ palm oil.

In 2020, Unilever committed to achieving a zero-deforestation supply chain by 2023 for crops with high deforestation risk, including palm oil, tea, soy and cocoa.

Unilever: ‘Palm oil itself is not the problem’

A spokesperson for the company told Ingredients Network: “Palm oil itself is not the problem. It is the most land efficient vegetable oil and the source of livelihoods for millions of farmers across Indonesia and Malaysia. It is also neutral in taste and smell and provides a smooth and creamy texture that is suitable for manufacturing a wide range of food products, such as bakery and chocolate confectionary products. It also has a natural preservative effect, extending the shelf life of food products.

“The problem lies with the rapid expansion of the palm oil industry that has accelerated deforestation and led to poor production standards. So, we will continue to work with governments, NGOs and other partners to advocate for industry change.” Unilever R&D chief: ‘Marrying science & nature for sustainable products’

Commenting on the Geno venture, Unilever’s chief R&D officer Richard Slater said biotechnology had the potential to ensure Unilever was a future-fit business.

“This new venture will sit at the intersection of science and sustainability, meaning we can continue to grow our business without relying only on palm oil or fossil fuel derivatives, while also making our supply chains more resilient from having access to ingredient alternatives,” he said.

“We will be marrying science and nature to make sure there is no trade-off for our consumers between the efficacy and sustainability of their products. We are building this innovative new venture to have the scale to drive real impact and change in our industry, helping to reinvent the chemistry of home and personal care products for the 21st century.”

According to the CEO of San Diego-headquartered Geno, Christophe Schilling, Geno’s technology has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100 million tons in upcoming years.

Geno biotech for ketogenic sports nutrition

In addition to personal care ingredients, materials and textiles, Geno uses its proprietary biotech process to make the food ingredient (R)-1,3 Butanediol. Sold under the brand name Avela, the compound is a ketogenic ingredient used in sports nutrition products that offers an easy and accessible way to raise B-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) levels in the body, leading to improved endurance, clarity and energy, according to the company.

Avela has GRAS (generally recognised as safe) status in the US and is approved for sports drinks, bars and gels.

“Raising blood BHB levels provides energy, increases endurance, aids in recovery and fuels the brain,” says Geno.

Cargill JV licences Geno’s tech for biodegradable plastic.

In 2021, a joint venture between Cargill and German company Helm licenced Geno’s technology to produce a bio-based version of 1,4-butanediol (BDO) at scale, using Cargill’s global feedstock supply and fermentation manufacturing. BDO is used to make polyester-based chemical fibres, biodegradable plastics, polyurethane coatings, and other materials.

The companies said Geno’s BDO saves up to 93% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to the use of conventional BDO.

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