Luminous Ventures is proud to welcome Climax Foods to our portfolio. Climax, based in Berkeley, California, uses data science and machine learning to transform plants into foods that we love, eliminating the need for animals in the food system — beginning with cheese.

Our investment in Climax epitomises our mission at Luminous Ventures: to back mission-driven founders who are addressing the world’s biggest challenges. This is our first investment in the future-of-food space.

Beyond trial and error

Humans are natural innovators: the food we eat today is the result of millennia of experimentation with combinations of ingredients, as well as selective breeding of plants and animals. But today is not the end of history, and today’s agricultural technologies are not the end of the story.

In particular, there is an urgent need to develop alternatives to animal-based food production, which is energetically inefficient, ecologically unsustainable and nutritionally inadequate for a global population expected to reach 9.5 billion people in 2050 [1]. A seismic shift is needed, one as momentous as the “Green Revolution” instigated by Norman Borlaug in the 1950s.

Our reliance on animal-based foodstuffs reflects the historic difficulty of finding alternatives. While our forebears were every bit as ingenious as we are, they were restricted to trial and error. Thanks to big data and machine learning, we are not. Luminous and Climax believe these technologies will play a huge role in creating new alternatives to foods on which the world depends.

That is why we are proud to partner with Oliver Zahn, the former Head of Data Science at Impossible Foods. Oliver has built Climax Foods to recreate the foods we love from sustainable, plant-based materials, using machine learning to improve their nutritional and flavor profiles.

Our investment in Climax will help it to develop plant-based cheeses that will be offered to consumers, with the aim of resetting expectations in the way that Impossible did for burgers. The firm will then move on to further dairy products and other foodstuffs.

Why cheese?

The global cheese industry is worth $118B; even a small slice of that would make for a substantial business. It would also make a substantial environmental impact: every kilogram of dairy cheese uses water equivalent to the daily needs of 3,500 children and produces the equivalent of 10kg of CO2.

So far, however, the cheese sector has been left untouched by the broader pivot to sustainable alternatives. Current plant-based cheeses are costly, with poor taste and mouthfeel and little nutritional value.

That’s because cheese is an extremely challenging target. The vast number of cheese varieties that already exist epitomise the process of lengthy trial and error. And yet there are many possibilities that have never been explored: there are 10,000 potential ingredient combinations, 10,000 flavour compounds, 1,000 process variations, 100 curdling agents, and 100 cultures.

Exploring all the possible combinations the old-fashioned way would take an estimated 1 billion years of standard experimentation. But by using machine learning to simulate flavor and texture, Climax aims to cut that down to just three years.

Climax then leverages machine learning again to scrutinise animal products at a molecular level to understand what makes them cravable, and then to determine how plant based materials can be manipulated to mimic and replace those compounds. In order to do this, Climax will need to investigate trillions of combinations across thousands of plant sources.

Furthermore, Climax isn’t just trying to recreate existing cheeses: it will develop new cheeses, optimizing flavor and improving nutritional value, creating cheeses that are twice as high in the good stuff (protein, lysine and leucine), and twice as low in the bad stuff (cholesterol).

The bigger picture

Industrial farming accounts for 77% of the world’s agriculture, 23% of the world’s water usage, and 25% of the world’s greenhouse emissions [2]. It leads to mass deforestation and biodiversity loss, and also contributes to such ills as antimicrobial resistance and the emergence of novel diseases. And despite all this, it does not feed the world’s population adequately: around a third of the world’s people are deficient in key micronutrients [3].

Changing this situation is a job for society as a whole, and requires levers ranging from economic incentives to cultural preferences. But there are areas where targeted innovation can make an outsized difference. We at Luminous Ventures are focusing on two areas that we believe can significantly move the needle: dairy and meat.

We have chosen these because they are particularly resource-intensive — and demand is skyrocketing, driven primarily by population growth in Africa and income growth in Asia. By 2030, Africa’s population is expected to consume 125% more beef, 60% more poultry, 46% more milk and 77% more eggs than in 2010. Meat consumption is expected to jump 16% in China and India [4].

Climax is a first-mover with regards to cheese, but recent funding activity indicates that alternative dairy is gaining momentum. Perfect Day, with its plant-based milk proteins, recently raised a $300M Series C; the Danone-backed Forager Project has launched a range of nut based yogurts and milks that are already on shelves; and Oatly’s plant based milk recently raised $200M from Blackstone Growth.

Where Climax differs, however, is in its data-driven approach, which will help it rapidly identify the most palatable and nutritious alternatives, and it has assembled the deep bench of talent needed to rise to this formidable challenge. In addition to Oliver, Climax’s founding team includes COO Caroline Love, previously head of sales and operations at JUST, and Head of Chemistry & Analytics Pavel Aronov, Ph.D. in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology with experience at Stanford and Thermo Fisher. Climax continues to hire top talent from across the food science, data science, food safety and traditional dairy backgrounds: apply at climaxfoods.com.

We are proud to support the team at Climax on their noble mission and also to be part of a fantastic investor syndicate including AtOne, founded by GoogleX co-founder Tom Chi, as well as Manta Ray Ventures, Valor, S2G, Artis, Prelude, Index, and Global Founders Capital.

[1] https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2019.html

[2] https://ourworldindata.org/food-ghg-emissions

[3] https://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/ida/en/

[4] http://www3.weforum.org/docs/White_Paper_Livestock_Emerging%20Economies.pdf