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Zero Acre Farms
Fifty Years partners with Zero Acre Farms to produce oils and fats using fermentation, not deforestation
Oil is destroying our planet and our health. But not the oil you're picturing. The black sludge that comes from the remnants of dead organisms buried underground millions of years ago is definitely ruining our lungs and destroying our climate while making our homes warmer. The oil that we often use for cooking, though, is creating a different kind of catastrophe.
The vegetable oils you use on that stir-fry or the palm oil restaurants use for frying are rapidly destroying our environment due to the enormous amount of land and resources dedicated to producing it all. The crops used for oil are terrible when it comes to using land efficiently. An area of land used to grow one kilogram of vegetable oil from soybean, canola, or sunflower could instead produce 30-50 kilograms of actual vegetables, like spinach, sweet potatoes, and carrots that could promote healthy living and help curb food inequity!
To create enough oil through this inefficient process to meet the world’s growing demands, we’ve exploited some of our most important and precarious ecosystems. Every minute, the planet loses more than 60 football fields worth of forest via deforestation.1 That’s one football field worth every second! Oils are the second largest driver of this deforestation, ahead of forestry and after only animal agriculture.2 As our forests go up in flames to make room for these destructive crops, we lose our beautiful biodiversity and exacerbate the effects of climate change as these critical sinks of carbon dioxide are lost.
But oil isn’t going anywhere, even if our land is. It was probably in the shampoo you used this morning, the vitamins pills you swallowed, or the make-up you applied. It is definitely in the packaged food we “sometimes” indulge in and the cooking oil we use for dinner.
To add insult to injury, our addiction to vegetable oil also comes with dire health consequences. As vegetable oil consumption has grown, rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes have also surged. But not all oils and fats are created equal.
These days, the cooking-oil section at the supermarket is a crowded spot – so which one is the healthiest for you? From a biochemical standpoint, all fats are similar: three fatty acids bound together by a glycerol molecule. All the cooking fats we buy get most of their unique properties from these molecules. By simply swapping out different fatty acids that vary in size and composition, we change its chemistry and give fat new properties. This subtle difference is in the fats’ levels of saturation, essentially driving an oil’s health properties.
Our bodies are good at using triglycerides with some fatty acids but are far worse at processing others. Naturally occurring types of unsaturated fats are absolutely essential in our diets. Think olive oil, omega-3 fats, and avocados. Eating these are associated with improved blood cholesterol and decreased risk of heart disease. On the other hand, certain types of saturated fats are not great for you. Think lard, corn oil, and palm oil. Although natural, these may increase your risk of heart disease by increasing bad cholesterol.
But perhaps the worst – the one we check the label for when we pick up a bag of chips – is trans fat. Think margarine or vegetable shortening. These result from human intervention – taking healthier unsaturated fats and pushing them through a process called hydrogenation that increases their shelf-life. These unnatural fats have a different chemical composition than what our bodies are used to and are therefore hard to process and a major driver of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Vegetable oils, while nearly nonexistent a hundred years ago, now account for 20% of our caloric intake.3 Their ubiquity is, in large part, due to their unique properties that make them easier for food manufacturers and restaurants to use at scale. They’re made relatively flavorless as a result of an intensive extraction and refining process, using harsh chemical solvents. They’re cheap as a result of having a market for their leftovers in factory farm animal agriculture; after being pressed for oil, rapeseed (canola), sunflower, and soybean leftovers are fed to animals in feedlots – the most unsustainable form of animal agriculture..
But what if there was a better alternative? What if we can find a different, more sustainable source of oils and fats that don’t make us sick, wreck the environment, or propagate factory farm animal agriculture?
Enter Zero Acre Farms, who are brewing up a new category of healthy oils and fats, made by fermentation, not deforestation. Within the cell of some microbes lie an organelle that – in addition to a host of other functions – can also store triglycerides. In other words, some microbes carry little packets of potential cooking fats, just waiting to be utilized.
Zero Acre has developed a method to harness a particular type of microbe with an extremely useful storage mechanism. These microbes are fermented, much in the same way we make beer. But instead of making alcohol, they convert the plant inputs Zero Acre feeds them into triglycerides. This gets converted into liquid oil or solid fat, depending on the type of microbe and the fermentation conditions, which is then ready to be used in our deep fryers. Their products have less saturated fats than lard, palm oil, other vegetable oils, or animal fats and is less prone to trans fat conversion than canola, sunflower, or soy oil. In addition, their fermenter origin means a much smaller environmental footprint.
At its current scale, Zero Acre’s oils and fats are already cost competitive with premium oils and fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and clarified butter. As they continue development and rapidly scale, they will approach the cost-effectiveness of soy or palm oil. By refining the method, upscaling cheap waste products, and using optimized facilities, Zero Acre’s oils and fats will become a cheaper, healthier, and more sustainable alternative to the oils used across our food chain. There's a lot more going on under the hood that will make Zero Acre’s oils preferable from a cost and function perspective that we can't talk about just yet. Stay tuned!
But the biggest advantage Zero Acre has is the deep knowledge of the platform they are working with. By tweaking the culture conditions that their microbes grow in, they have already demonstrated they can change the triglyceride composition of the lipid. Leveraging their expertise in synthetic biology, the team can also tweak the biology of their microbial strains and fine-tune the oil that is fermented to fit the target profile of any fat they need.
In a world where Zero Acre Farms succeeds, the inefficient and unsustainable use of our forests to produce oils will be a thing of the past, and all fats used – from cooking to cosmetics – will be made by fermentation instead of deforestation.
This audacious dream doesn’t come from just anyone – the Zero Acre Farms founders are exactly the type of people to build this business into a billion dollar behemoth that can truly make a positive impact on the world. Co-founder & CEO Jeff Nobbs is a serial founder with a background in food and technology, having built the clean casual San Francisco Bay Area restaurant Kitava, the food security nonprofit HelpKitchen, and ecommerce websites Perfect Keto and Extrabux. Dr. Steve del Cardayre, co-founder and CTO, is a biochemist and microbiologist, with over 23 years of professional strain engineering and fermentation expertise from his time at Maxygen and through his experience co-founding LS9, a start-up using yeast fatty acids to make biodiesel. They’re joined by co-founder Dr. Jay Keasling, an authority on synthetic biology and the luminary behind metabolic engineering. A serial entrepreneur himself, Jay has co-founded several companies that have engineered microbes to produce pharmaceuticals, commodity chemicals, and cellulosic biofuels. Together they’re an indomitable team and are uniquely prepared to usher in this new era of sustainable, healthy, and cost-effective oil for whatever meal your palette desires.
At Fifty Years, our sweet spot is supporting founders at the early stages of building deep tech companies that can generate huge financial outcomes and create massive positive impact.
Deep Tech: The team has invented proprietary methods that enable the optimization of new microbial strains. Combined with their vast experience in dissecting biochemical processes and scaling microbes, they have the technology and know-how to optimize the composition and yield of their oils and fats.
$1B yearly revenue potential: Oil is an essential part of our world, touching everything from food to consumer goods. Vegetable oils alone are a $200B+ annual market. Zero Acre’s ability to create a more cost effective version that performs better than the oil harvested from monoculture crops means their products can add value in virtually every part of the market.
Massive positive societal impact: The health benefits of Zero Acre Farms’ oils and fats means that consumers can enjoy many modern foods without taking on the health risks associated with many alternative oils. For the planet, Zero Acre’s products will stop rampant deforestation, restore carbon-sequestering natural habitats, and reverse destructive monocrop agriculture that destroys soil health.
Zero Acre Farms is an example of how excellent science can create extraordinary impact through entrepreneurship. Inspired by their vision to create radically more sustainable, healthy, and cost-effective cooking oils and fats, Fifty Years was proud to lead Zero Acre Farms’ previously unannounced Seed round. And we’re excited to deepen the partnership by co-leading Zero Acre Farms’ Series A with our friends at Lowercarbon Capital. Also joining in the Series A are several other investors including S2G Ventures, Virgin Group, and Footprint Coalition Ventures – Robert Downey Jr.’s climate-focused investment fund. At Fifty Years, helping great innovators, scientists, and engineers become great entrepreneurs is our jam, and we’re looking forward to continuing to help Jeff, Steve, Jay, and team build a radically better food system for people and the planet.