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Is Bio-Designed Collagen the Next Step in Animal Protein Replacement?

One company believes the possibilities go beyond vegan “meat,” from faux leather to luxury skin-care products. But is there enough demand outside of food alternatives?

This article is part of Upstart, a series about companies harnessing new science and technology to solve challenges in their industries.

The multibillion push to make animals obsolete in the food industry has already produced pea-protein “bratwurst,” fungus molded into “ham” and “leather,” and “meat” cultured from chicken cells. Geltor, a seven-year-old company based in the Bay Area, is taking a different tack: bioengineering bacteria cells to produce animal proteins you’ll likely never taste.

Geltor is producing forms of collagen they say are identical to the proteins extracted from skin and bones. For now, those vegan collagens can be found in high-end skin care creams. But as the company grows, it’s eyeing other ingredients few Americans associate with animal farming, such as the elastin in your shampoo, the collagen peptides in your smoothie, and even the gelatin (which is hydrolyzed, or slightly broken-down, collagen) in your marshmallows. Alex Lorestani, co-founder and chief executive of Geltor, likes to talk about how the company’s proteins impose a lighter burden on the environment than the meat industry. The challenge, however, is how the company gets to the scale necessary to exert that kind of impact.

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Alex Lorestani, chief executive of Geltor, at the company’s. Dr. Lorenstani founded the company with Nick Ouzounov in 2015. Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

In 2012, Dr. Lorestani and co-founder Nick Ouzounov, both 35, were both pursuing doctorates in molecular biology at Princeton University when the invention of Crispr turbocharged the field of bio-design. “We can bio-design medicine,” Dr. Lorestani recalled discussing with his labmates that summer. “Why can’t we bio-design everything?”

Dr. Ouzounov eventually came up with a method — which he and Dr. Lorestani, in typical Bay Area techspeak, call “a platform” — for genetically modifying bacteria cells to reproduce a wide variety of animal proteins, a process that biotech firms are calling “precision fermentation.” In 2015, the two scientists formed Geltor. Soon after, the new company was accepted into IndieBio, a biotech venture capital firm based in San Francisco that has incubated a host of alt-protein companies including Upside Foods (which cultures cow and chicken cells to make meat) and Perfect Day (which bioengineers microbes to produce milk proteins).

IndieBio’s leaders convinced Dr. Lorestani and Dr. Ouzounov that Geltor needed to sell a product, not a platform, and the partners settled on bio-designed collagen. Collagen is plentiful in all animal bodies, but Americans often encounter it in food-grade gelatin, nutritional supplements, and hair and skin-care products. They saw a growing market for collagen in luxury skin-care products, particularly in Asia.

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The company’s focus is bio-designed collagen, for which they saw a growing market in luxury skin-care products.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

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Testing Geltor products at the company’s headquarters.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

Geltor introduced itself to the world in 2018 with a series of experiments that verged on conceptual art. Dr. Lorestani and Dr. Ouzounov programmed bacteria to reproduce collagen from extinct mastodon, then ate the resultant gummies (elephant-shaped; mastodon molds were unavailable). They mimicked jellyfish collagen, forming jiggly sheets that they “tanned” to make a bioengineered “leather” book cover.

More than 90 percent of collagen and gelatin on the market comes from hogs and cattle, a byproduct of the slaughter industry. The goal of Geltor’s theoretical experiments wasn’t just to generate hype but to convince potential clients they could make products the current supply chain couldn’t. What if you weren’t constrained by what kind of animal is available to source your collagen?” Dr. Lorestani recalled asking.Then he suggested one mammal in particular, which is how Geltor settled on its first creation: HumaColl21, which the company calls “a virtually colorless and odorless solution.”

In 2019, the Korean company AHC released an eye cream containing HumaColl21. Orora Skin Science, based in Canada, followed with creams and serums in 2021. In the past two years, Geltor has released biologically similar marine collagen and human elastin (as the name implies, a particularly stretchy protein) for skin care, as well as a poultry-like collagen intended for use in nutritional supplements. Microbes growing in giant fermenters express each of these collagens, which are strained and refined into pure protein. “The protein is just like what you would find in the original source,” Dr. Lorestani said. (The third-party IGEN certification program confirmed there was no detectable genetic material in the final product.)

A $91.3 million investment round in 2020 allowed Geltor to ramp up production from 35,000 liters in 2019 to 2.2 million liters in 2021, which is still a relatively small amount. Tiny bottles of luxury eye creams require very little HumaColl21; large shampoo bottles and jars of collagen powder require more. Enough gelatin to supply Midwest potlucks with vegan Jell-O salads would require exponential growth.

Those limits have determined the company’s commercial path. “The volumes of product required for the beauty and personal care customers are different than what are required for food and nutrition customers,” Dr. Lorestani said.

Despite all that investment, there are skeptics. Julie Guthman, a geographer at University of California, Santa Cruz, who investigates Silicon Valley’s forays into agriculture and food, questions the “magical disruption” behind the alternative-protein industry’s promises.

“There’s this idea that if you produce protein from cells or fermentation in a lab, somehow it removes us from land-based meat production,” she said; these companies still require energy, metal and food for the microbes themselves. And, she noted, there’s little transparency into their environmental claims, since their patented processes are closely guarded secrets.

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From left, Ani Tejirian, Andrew Hagen and Ray Tsao from the company’s discovery and strain engineering team.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

The potential market for collagen as a bio-designed ingredient exists thanks to a desire for eco-conscious and ethical alternatives. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that raising livestock for food contributes 14.5 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. A third-party study that Geltor commissioned from MMG Consulting in 2020 estimated that its proteins require 73 percent less water to produce and resulted in 49 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, reductions that Geltor claims will grow as their production capacity increases. The company also has obtained halal, kosher and vegan certification for most of its products.

If Geltor proves able to produce large enough qualities of gelatin and collagen to sell to food manufacturers, replacing a commodity ingredient derived from animals with an identical commodity derived from microbes seems like a less disruptive swap than reinventing steak or tuna.

“Collagen is a very functional protein,” said Andrew Gravelle, a food chemist at the University of California, Davis: it melts just below body temperature, dissolving much like fat. Gelatin binds water molecules together (as in Jell-O) and is used to clarify juices and stabilize whipped creams. But seaweed-derived gelling agents such as carrageenan and agar, Dr. Gravelle added, don’t offer the same luxe texture and broad spectrum of uses as their animal-derived counterparts.

Across the alternative-protein industry, however, it’s easier to talk about growth in terms of investment rather than concrete commercial impact. Take the market for plant-based meats: According to the Plant-Based Foods Association, in 2021, they accounted for 1.4 percent of the total meat market. Yet a 2022 market research report from the Good Food Institute, or G.F.I., an advocacy group for alternative-protein manufacturers, reported that, since 2020, investors worldwide have poured $8 billion into protein alternatives. In 2021 alone, $1.69 billion went to companies that, like Geltor, use precision fermentation, according to G.F.I.

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Dr. Lorestani with one of the products, lipstick in this case, that uses the company’s bio-designed collagen.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

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The consumer innovation and applications lab at Geltor headquarters.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

Regulators may pose another challenge to Geltor’s growth. The F.D.A. does not have an approval process for using novel ingredients like bioengineered proteins in cosmetics. And although the F.D.A. has approved other ingredients produced through bioengineering, such as chymosin (an enzyme used in the cheese industry to curdle milk) and EVERY Foods’ egg white replacer, neither the U.S.D.A. nor F.D.A. have allowed cultured beef or chicken meat to be sold in the United States.

That raises the question of whether Geltor’s future needs to include food production. For Dr. Lorestani, growing Geltor’s capacity isn’t just about making skin care vegan or gelatin kosher. It’s about using their technology to produce other proteins, too. “We want to make the appeal of Geltor’s bio-designed products so obvious from a performance and sustainability standpoint that choosing something else extracted from petroleum or animal byproducts is simply unimaginable,” he said.

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