Lisa Dyson combined her discovery of microbes that convert CO2 into nutrients with space-age technology developed by NASA during the 1960’s. The result is Air Protein, which mimics nature’s conversion of carbon dioxide into food sources. If you’re thinking gooey, unappetizing compounds served in foil packets, think again.
Lisa’s technology might be based on feeding astronauts but forget about Tang. Air Protein produces Instagram-worthy meatless protein delicacies that can be combined with veggies and carbs to create nutritious, balanced meals. While it uses beverage-grade CO2 today, it can in the future create its healthy meat alternative by pulling climate change greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. Win. Win. Win.
Imagine Simultaneously Reducing World Hunger And Climate Change
John Greathouse: Hello Lisa. How did Air Protein come together? What initially drew you to the science and prompted you to make the leap and become an Eco-entrepreneur? (Note: Lisa’s remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and readability.)
Lisa Dyson: Thanks for the chance to connect, John. In 2008, my co-founder (Dr. John Reed) and I had the idea to fight climate change by recycling carbon. We wanted to leverage science for the betterment of the planet, and we were inspired by this idea of, “remaking how things are made” through carbon transformation.
More recently, we started exploring how we could make food production more sustainable. It’s an area where we can make some of the greatest strides in slowing climate change and also align with the rising demand from consumers and industry for more sustainable food. From there, Air Protein was born.
Our mission is to create the most sustainable type of meat in order to feed the growing population with minimal resources. By 2050 we are expected to reach 10 billion people, resulting in a 70% increase in the demand for food production. Current food production accounts for over 20% of greenhouse gases, more than all of transportation combined, and uses a land mass equivalent to the size of Africa and South America combined. Air Protein makes meat without requiring the taxing inputs and added arable land necessary to feed more people.
Greathouse: That’s an incredible mission – reducing hunger and reversing climate change. Wow.
In layman’s terms, what is the science behind creating food from air and water?
Dyson: Most people don’t realize this, but it takes about two years – and incredible farming and land inputs – to make a steak. With the soybeans, it still takes several months to produce meat. With Air Protein, it’s several hours.
The process of making meat from air is a little like making yogurt. First, we start with elements from the air we breathe – carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen – and combine these elements with water and mineral nutrients. Next, we use renewable energy and a probiotic production process where cultures convert the elements into nutrients.
The output is a nutritious source of protein with the same amino acid profile as animal protein. Finally, to give the protein the texture and flavor of meat, we use a combination of pressure, temperature and culinary techniques. The possibilities are truly endless because we can make just about any kind of meat – seafood, chicken, pork– with our air-based process.
Greathouse: Got it. Thanks for breaking the chemistry down to relatable terms.
I enjoyed your 2016 TED Talk, which I highly recommend. You’ve obviously made tremendous progress over the subsequent four years – how much of this time was split between developing the science and creating the business? I’m asking because I’ve found that entrepreneurs who come from the sciences tend to underestimate the time required to fund raise, recruit and essentially create a startup’s infrastructure. What was your experience?
Dyson: Thanks for your kind words. My dad was an entrepreneur… he ultimately was the President of a chain of 55 hair salons, so entrepreneurship is kind of in my blood. Growing up in his shadow, I got to see firsthand the joy of having ideas turn into business realities. I also got to see the myriad of other aspects of entrepreneurial life, including carrying the weight of many on one’s shoulders and how to deal with setbacks, which are guaranteed to come.
My path to entrepreneurship, however, was different than my dad’s because I was also passionate about science. My passion for science led me to pursue a PhD and scientific research. But, in large part due to living with an entrepreneur, I also wanted to immerse myself in the business world, which is why I went to the Boston Consulting Group and there (I) worked with business executives across industries to help them solve a range of business problems.
As it turns out, what I was missing was impact. The work that I am doing now combines all three. When John (Reed) and I started down this path, we knew that we were trying to solve big problems and that it wasn’t going to be easy. Particularly as we watched so many mission-driven startups come and go…
Greathouse: That’s cool that you got a virtual MBA in startups from your dad. My kids sometimes tire of my ad hoc business lessons, or so they say…
I’m a small investor in Apeel, which is also working to reduce global hunger. However, what you and companies like Apeel are doing is real science – very unlike most of the tech successes of the past twenty years which primarily distributed software over the internet, without a focus on the environment or sustainability. Do you ever wish you had created a photo app or social media platform?
I’m kidding – I was involved in a startup that helped create the medical robotics industry. It was really hard, but unbelievably rewarding.
Dyson: Solving big, meaningful problems is never easy. My mission is to create systems that enable us to leave the planet in the same shape or in better shape for future generations.
Climate is the big problem that’s facing humanity and it’s personally motivating. And if we look at our current systems, there’s a direct link between how we produce our food and our changing climate. These are the problems that drive me.
Greathouse: It seems that the last century’s entrepreneurs attempted to conquer and alter nature – creating things like plastics and other synthetic products. I love that today’s eco-entrepreneurs are looking to nature for the answers.
You’re leveraging microbs and a carbon recycling mechanism that has existed since the dawn of time. Maybe we can save nature by listening to nature.
Dyson: We have to look to nature to solve problems, it isn’t a choice. It’s not an option to not work with nature. The food system that we’ve built now inadvertently produces more greenhouse gases than all of transportation. We’re at a point where the amount of plastic in the ocean will exceed the amount of fish.
Mankind is expert at creating solutions and these solutions of the past have taught us a lot about thinking about the system as a whole – versus as a sum of its parts. We have an opportunity to live in harmony with nature. It’s up to the next generation of entrepreneurs to answer this call.
Greathouse: I’ve been a pescatarian for most of my adult life – I’ve informally surveyed friends who also don’t eat red meat and none of us have enjoyed the Impossible or Beyond Meat products. It seems these companies are focusing on meat eaters who want to eat less meat by mimicking the aspects of meat that vegetarians shun (animal fat consistency, umami, etc.).
Despite the fact that I don’t like the latest wave of meatless burgers, it seems most people disagree with me – the market is hot, with Memphis Meats announcing a substantial fundraising round. What is your take on the meatless-meat market and how is Air Protein is riding this wave of demand?
Dyson: I’ve been thrilled to see the consumer shift to sustainable food and the innovation coming from the plant-based and cultivated meat categories. The number one way you can lower your impact on the environment is to eat less meat from animals. We want to give people more sustainable options where they don’t have to sacrifice taste and nutrition in order to make that change. Today we’re developing air-based meat but we can also use this technology to create proteins for other types of foods – like pasta, for example.
Consumer food preferences don’t fit into a perfect box, and that’s part of why there’s such a tremendous opportunity to not only bring sustainability, but new choices to the market. I am mainly a vegetarian, about 95%. I have been known to eat salmon on occasion. In college I visited a friend several times on their cattle farm in Canada. After “meeting my meat,” I’ve never been the same. I decided that I didn’t know why animals were on this earth, but it wasn’t for this.
The story doesn’t end there though. A few years ago, I was having medical issues and I was concerned that I wasn’t getting all of the nutrients that I needed in my diet, so I started eating some meat again. I became a student of nutrition. As we were developing Air Protein, I was excited not only by the fact that we can make complete proteins, but we can make essential vitamins, like vitamin B12, which is lacking in a non-animal diet. It is one of the reasons that we are focused on delivering complete, nutritious food.
Greathouse: I’m looking forward to that pasta! If you also come out with a pizza, it’ll be game over for me.
Which products have you commercialized and how can consumers access your technology
Dyson: We’re focused on building a new kind of food company, one that doesn’t rely on arable land. As you can imagine, turning air into meat at a large scale takes time, and we’ve been spending the time, energy and resources perfecting this.
Our area of focus is scaling up the production of air-based meat and demonstrating the versatility of our platform to make products across a variety of categories, including poultry, beef, pork, and seafood. We’ll be showcasing air-based meat applications in 2020 as we refine our commercial timeline.