What if instead of palm oil, a multi-purpose food-safe oil could be made from food waste like potato peelings from the crisp industry? That is precisely what UK start-up Sun Bear Bioworks is doing right now.
The company uses precision fermentation to produce an alternative oil. It has the potential for all the same applications as palm oil: food, cosmetics, and biofuels. The company is motivated by the need to cut the environmental impact of palm oil and the commercial opportunities that a replacement would bring.
They have just achieved funding of £500,000 from Unruly Capital with backing from Tiny VC and Plug and Play. The money will be used for scaling the lab team and developing more strategic partnerships to validate the viability of the oil, which is produced using yeast.
The company is named after the sun bear, the world’s smallest bear, which is critically endangered. Due largely to palm oil plantations, fewer than 1000 sun bears are left in the wild. CEO Ben Wilding explains: “We wanted a name that keeps us laser-focused on why we are doing this. 90% of palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia which has led to deforestation in those regions. That has had a massive impact on biodiversity and wildlife including the sun bear. So every time we say the name, it jogs our memory as to why we’re here.”
The team uses precision fermentation, the same process being trialled for plant-based dairy, to make the oil. Ben Wilding describes it as like brewing: “We use yeast that naturally produces tiny amounts of oil that closely resembles bleached, deodorised (RBD) palm oil. In palm oil production the fruit is milled and processed into a thick orange crude palm oil that is refined into RBD oil for use in different products. The magic that we bring to the table is that we perform gene editing on the yeast so it can make enough oil to make it commercially viable. We can add different feedstocks such as sugar or starch. We are currently researching potato peel and have partners in the potato industry including a crisp manufacturer. 25% of each potato is lost when put through an industrial peeler – so they have tonnes to spare.”
The company comprises five staff – three founders and two junior research assistants, based at the Bio Innovation Hub in Oxford. The company has benefited from support and funding from the Carbon 13 accelerator programme. The scheme brought together 71 environmental innovators in Cambridge who spent six weeks discussing ideas and opportunities. Ben Wilding recalls: “At the teambuilding stage I met the other founders Ben Williams and Laura van Marrewijk. We were really excited about precision fermentation and spent two months developing a business idea and pitching it to Carbon 13. We founded the company officially in 2022. We were chosen to receive an investment of £120,000 from Carbon 13. We have also won five other grants which have created an extra £120,000. We are excited to now have £500,000 to take our business to the next stage.”
Sun Bear Bioworks has made small quantities in the lab and expects to scale up to produce 50-litre batches by summer 2023. It will then take a couple of years to get a license to sell to consumers. Cosmetics has a lower barrier to entry so might be a starting point although the main goal is food as that is where 70% of palm oil is used. Globally Singapore, Israel and the US are progressive in terms of food innovation and might offer quicker entry to the market. There has been a lot of interest from food producers including big global manufacturers with production facilities. Sun Bear Bioworks is particularly keen to work with plant-based meat companies. Ben Wilding adds: “We see them as ideal partners because many benefit from the functional qualities of palm oil but avoid it because their customers won’t accept it for environmental reasons. So they have a problem that we can solve. They can find us at https://www.sunbearbioworks.com.”
Palm oil is a $70 billion industry and is expected to grow to $100 billion by 2030. The oil has been used in food and cosmetics since the 1970s and since then, annual global production has grown from 2 million tonnes to 70 million tonnes. There are solid reasons why it is a ubiquitous ingredient. Cost is a big factor but also qualities that give it an edge over other oils. Ben Wilding points out: “As a commodity, it has the highest yield of any edible oil. To produce any other type, you need between five and seven times more land. Olive oil uses a lot more land and a lot more water. Another benefit is that it is odourless and tasteless, so it works well behind the scenes as a functional ingredient. It is semi-solid, which means it doesn’t melt at room temperature and can be used in margarine, for frying and in salad dressings. Palm oil is used in over 200 derivative products so for us to have an impact on the environment we need a replacement capable of making those derivatives.”
Palm oil production comes at a heavy price, with the destruction of tropical rainforests and the species that inhabit them. The palm oil industry produces over 500 million tonnes of carbon annually. Sun Bear Bioworks estimates their process at scale would enable an 80% reduction in carbon impact on the environment than palm oil production. In December 2022 the EU created a new law banning products connected with deforestation. So companies like Sun Bear Bioworks, that address the urgent need for an alternative to palm oil, are more important than ever.