Interview with Ilan Samish, Amai Proteins

We had the pleasure of catching up with Ilan Samish, Founder and CEO at Amai Proteins to hear his thoughts on the role of microbial technologies in revolutionizing our food system.

What new microbial technologies do you see revolutionizing the way we produce food over the next 3-5 years?

I think that, in many ways, the Covid-19 epidemic gives us a reminder that while we are a small world, we still need to maintain some local food security and there are some hurdles which interfere with the small world import/export in the usual supply chain.

On the other hand, there is a much greater emphasis on safety; i.e. the export of pathogens and other related issues, and consequently and I think we will see, especially in the premium market – but this will infiltrate to all markets – a bigger emphasis on local production.

Local production begins from doing things, even at home. Today you have some home fermenters that will give you your vegetable amount whether it is micro algae or other, but also synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology is done in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way that, in the long run, is also very affordable. The RethinkX independent report called precision fermentation a new frontier after the industrial revolution, moving out of milk, meat and making a whole revolution killing a lot of the livestock industry. Aside from the fundamental issues of meat consumption and the inability to grow all that we are eating, we have a new aspect of simply food safety. I see a very big emphasis on moving to precision fermentation as part of this overall trend.

At Future Food-Tech San Francisco, before it was cancelled due to Covid-19, the Microbial Workshop was placed not in the main hall but at IndieBio and you (the organizers) were even surprised how fast it sold out because everyone is interested in it.

The FDA itself is also understanding the need to adapt some of its own regulatory framework to this new revolution. In June there was a very big meeting that the FDA sponsored, Institute for Science and Global Policy (ISGP), where 67 stakeholders met for a week in Minneapolis and after discussions we gave a book of recommendations to the FDA, which is now available online. The two start-ups that gave their perspective were Perfect Day Foods and Amai Proteins. The issues that arose at the meeting are since becoming much bigger and I think that this will accelerate the growth of a nutrition revolution.

What advice would you give to regulators about current processes and how they could respond faster to accelerate and support the food industry.

I am not one of the folks who has a lot of criticism for the regulators. The regulators have an incredible amount of responsibility in order to give credibility to the foods that we eat. Something that I already highlighted in the meeting was that regulators should become more prominent in education and the public relations of what they are doing.

In order to give confidence to the general public the FDA should emphasize and increase its engagement with the general public through the media.

Having a Communications Officer within the regulatory authorities at a federal level of the FDA but also at State levels, who is able to immediately respond to things at a push level, not only at a pull level, is very important. They can then be a part of every topic that arises and respond immediately.

What platforms will be key in scaling products when success is experienced?

On one hand, the food value chain is changing; over the last few years we have already seen smaller companies entering the food system because the barrier to entry is becoming much lower. In a big supermarket you have less and less dominance of the big 10 companies that used to really hold the food and beverage space.

Today the online market is concentrated in the hands of few companies and I see a situation where, in many ways, this will help consumers because you will have a more sophisticated market. It will be much easier to compare prices, drive down prices and also compare quality and ingredient lists. For consumers, I think the food value chain is going to change.

On the other hand, going back to precision fermentation and new methods of food production 2.0, transparency and traceability will also increase. This will give rise to healthier and safer food, and precision fermentation comes into this space, offering new food supply solutions. As we adopt computerized technologies, we can reduce the risk of contamination from pathogens and pesticides.

How can microbial technologies make the food system more sustainable and stable – helping us combat global food issues resulting from situations like Covid-19 and also into the future to ensure food security?

That’s a big question and that deserves a conference of its own! But I think that you have several aspects.

When you grow things in a fermenter you do it in a way that is much more sustainable, uses much less water, far fewer pesticides and other chemicals go through less hands and this can be done in a less concentrated way to enable the economy of scale. Today you have a lot of foods that are made in one location and a lot of money put into transportation, which has a carbon footprint and increases the risk of contamination. I think there will be more hubs of production by fermentation.

Then you have an additional solution, which we at Amai Proteins are very much into. Amai, which means ‘sweet’ in Japanese, applies computational protein design to fit proteins to the mass food market.

We have already shown in one case study, but we are working on other proteins, that we can make proteins better. By better we mean giving proteins better shelf life, better stability, PH to temperature, better functionality. We made the world’s sweetest protein and you can add very small amounts and because of that, it becomes much cheaper than sugar. All of those things will bring a new level, especially in the protein world, and also in the world of small molecules which are derived from enzymes; and enzymes are proteins. So the example of Impossible Foods where they took the regular vegan hamburger and added their secret sauce, which is the red pigment of our blood. The heme in our blood contains a protein called globin, which together makes hemoglobin. Impossible Foods use the same pigment that comes from soy so that it is 100% vegan. It is not hemoglobin, but with exactly the same taste and effect. This is an example of hybrid foods where it is not like a printed steak or a totally vegan steak but combine the two and you can make something that is vegan but add to that a protein created by precision fermentation in a much more humane, cheaper, sustainable, safe way. At Amai Proteins we are doing the same, not only to sweet proteins but also to other proteins that we are now working on in the space of meat, milk and plant proteins.

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