Food technology startup Nobell Foods is making dairy-identical cheese without the need to exploit cows or the environment, which actor Robert Downey Jr. says is a game-changer. The startup was founded by Lebanon-raised Magi Richani who has been working with a research and development team for four years to crack the code for creating dairy-identical proteins. 

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Richani (who is lactose intolerant) and her team discovered how to recreate the genetic code for casein—a milk protein responsible for the cheesy qualities of dairy cheese—in soybean seeds and grow plants that have the same dairy caseins found in animal milks. Nobell then extracts the caseins to create a variety of dairy-identical cheeses, all without the need to exploit cows, goats, or any other animal for their lactal secretions all while reducing carbon emissions by 90 percent when compared to traditional animal farming. 

While Nobell Foods can create any type of cheese using its animal-free casein, it is choosing to initially go to market with mozzarella and cheddar, the two most popular types of cheeses. The startup expects its dairy-identical cheeses to hit restaurants, including pizza shops, sometime next year. 

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Robert Downey Jr. is all about vegan cheese

Thus far, Nobell Foods—a graduate of prestigious startup incubator Y Combinator—has attracted a total of $100 million in funding, with $25 million raised in a Series A round in 2019 and a $75 million Series B funding round closed this month. The innovative startup is backed by investment firms Andreessen Horowitz, Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition Ventures (FPCV). 

“Given the stresses our planet faces from population growth and climate change we need to find new ways to feed the world. Many fine folks are working to harness the power of plants, but substitutes for some foods, like cheeses, rarely mimic the delectable distinguishing characteristics convincingly,” Downey Jr. said.

“Magi Richani and her Nobell team are putting the eco in queso … milking a crop instead of a cow,” Downey Jr. said. “FPCV wholeheartedly supports the product and believes its quality will speak for itself.” 

The actor’s interest in dairy-free cheese aligns with his shift away from eating animal products. In January 2020, Downey Jr. revealed that he was transitioning to a plant-based diet during the premiere of Dolittle, a film produced by his wife Susan Downey in which he stars as lead character Dr. Dolittle. In a back-and-forth with Variety, the actor joked that his wife “is the greatest creative producer in the history of cinema,” and added, “And I make faces for cash and chicken. Even though no, I’m off chicken now.” Susan Downey chimed in with “not chicken anymore,” to which Downey Jr. said, “I’m going plant-based. For cash and legumes.” 

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Taking the cow out of dairy

Nobell Foods is not the first to tackle the replication of casein outside of the cow. San Francisco startup New Culture uses synthetic biology techniques to grow casein micelles, or clusters of casein proteins, through a proprietary process where microbes modified with a DNA sequence that instructs them to produce casein are kept in fermentation tanks. The microbes are fed sugar and the casein they produce is then collected to make cheese. New Culture is aiming for a similar path toward commercialization as Nobell Foods, with a launch planned for its animal-free mozzarella at pizzerias in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2023.  

While Nobell Foods and New Culture work to replace casein, California-based startup Perfect Day is tackling animal-free whey—another protein vital in the cheesemaking process and a popular nutrition supplement. Similar to New Culture’s process, Perfect Day creates dairy-identical whey proteins by inserting a cow’s DNA sequence into microflora, which then undergo an acellular fermentation process. The resulting “flora-based” proteins can be used as a base for milk, cheese, and ice cream. Thus far, Perfect Day has demonstrated the dairy-identical qualities of its animal-free whey in the form of ice cream.

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In 2019, Perfect Day launched a limited batch of 1,000 animal-free ice cream pints, which sold out in 24 hours. In order to make the largest impact, instead of continuing to make its own ice cream pints, Perfect Day decided to pursue partnerships with companies already in the business of making consumer-facing dairy products. Perfect Day’s animal-free whey protein is now used by several ice cream companies, including San Francisco-based Smitten Ice Cream shop, Swedish-style ice cream brand N!CK’S, and Graeter’s Ice Cream. 

After raising $300 million in 2020 to fund its mission to take cows out of the dairy equation, Perfect Day teamed up with  longtime dairy developer Paul Kollesoff to launch The Urgent Company, which creates its own product lines using the Perfect Day animal-free whey proteins. The Urgent Company’s vegan ice cream line Brave Robot made a limited retail debut in July 2020 and is now available in more than 5,000 stores nationwide. 

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Outside of the United States, several companies are working to decouple the cow from cheese production, notably Those Vegan Cowboys—a company started by The Vegetarian Butcher founders Jaap Korteweg and Niko Koffeman.

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