How this startup is making protein from air with a 100x smaller carbon footprint

How do we make the future of food sustainable? This article is based on episode eight of the Red to Green  food sustainability podcast as they delve into their first season on cell-based meat, dairy and seafood. Check out their earlier episodes here ​if you’re interested in learning more about cell AG. 

Can you make food out of thin air? Yes, you can! And in their latest podcast episode you will find out how as they speak to the startup making this all possible; introducing Finnish Solarfoods. CEO Pasi Vainikka talks all about their protein Solein which is created by feeding microbes CO2 and hydrogen which creates a mostly taste-neutral powder to replace animal protein or stronger tasting plant protein pretty much anywhere. It can also be used for cultured meat to provide the protein for the cells to grow. The best part? Solein leaves only a small carbon footprint on the planet, in fact, it’s about 5x smaller than plant proteins footprint and 100x smaller than that of animal protein. Additionally, it avoids deforestation and is pesticide and fertilizer free, offering a natural and clean protein like never before. 

Current challenges in the food system 

CEO Vainikka describes the food sector as having “so many problems” including overfishing and overuse of arable land. To deal with such issues we have innovated in areas like aquaculture – in fact, did you know that most of the marine food you find in supermarkets is not natural? Aquaculture feed often contains soy and corn which requires the use of land, fertilizers and pesticides to grow. With around 50% of arable land on the planet already used for agriculture, we need alternative solutions to feed an ever-growing population and an increased standard of living. 

This is where Solar Foods comes in, the team behind the young company wants to be part of a more sustainable food system. 

“I think we’ve somehow reached the limits of (the) system” 

Solein protein solution & benefits 

Solein is produced with gas fermentation – similar to the process  of winemaking – but instead of sugar the microbes feed on carbon dioxide and hydrogen. 

They run this process continuously and when the liquid grows thicker they remove it and dry it and are left with a powder that is 65% protein with the rest being mostly fats and carbs. Soleins aim is to use this natural occurring microbe  to create a more efficient food production system. It offers diverse functionality to be used in most food products and unlike the traditional ag tech industry, Solar foods doesn’t rely on animals that require space, light and land to grow. Inherently its a zero waste solution and they only grow the most relevant part of the organism which is 100% natural. In fact, it was here on this planet before humans. You can’t get more natural than that! 

Vainikka states that the solution is perfect as an animal protein alternative; “You don’t need the concept of irrigation or (the) open land application of fertilizers. We can also go to areas where nothing grows. You could go to produce food in (the) desert with solar electricity and let the forest grow back.” 

Offering a more natural solution is a cornerstone of the startup – if it was modified it may not be suitable for human consumption, especially in the EU. Offering a natural solution means it promises to be a more sustainable alternative to traditional ag tech – it can be developed anywhere including in dark or dry spaces, there are no limits. 

“If it would be (a) modified organism, it would be rather difficult to have it approved for human consumption, especially in the European union.” 

What does it taste like? 

The taste is mainly neutral, in fact, Vainikka assures us that it won’t be what we expect. In fact, it’s less masking than the taste of most plant-based proteins that don’t really offer much for our taste buds. 

Who are Solar Foods main consumers & where can we expect to see it applied in the future? 

The team has established a b2b model, with three main industry focuses: 

  1. The protein market including soups, ready meals, sauces etc. as Solein can  offer a certain functional and nutritional value.
    2.
    Emerging foods such as plant-based meats and dairy alternatives.
    3.
    Cultured meat as we move towards a future where keeping traditional livestock may no longer be an efficient option anymore Solein can be used to feed the cells.

What are Solar Foods plans for the next few years? 

“We are here to master what we know, which is basically turning air and electricity into edible calories” 

The team plans to go to market in 2022, after their original aim to launch this year was somewhat thwarted due to the current situation. That said, they have some exciting plans in the pipeline including building a small factory and raising more funds. After that, it’s all about scaling and more scaling. The real dream? To have their ingredients discovered for innovative products of the future. 

The future of food tech sustainability 

Vainikka is sure that if he had 50 million to invest (in anything other than Solar Foods, of course!) he would invest it all into  the foodtech space – its in the same league as ICT was back in the 80’s according to Vainikka and offers many new possibilities with the help of technological development, including providing more sustainable solutions to save our planet. 

“I’m not a pessimist, I’m not an optimist, but rather possibilist that new technologies make new things very quickly possible.” 


You can listen to Red to Green interviews on sustainable food tech on Spotify
here and on Itunes here. 

Comments? Ideas? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below. 

Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for Red to Greens next episode here.

Want to get involved? For sponsorships, collaborations or feedback write to Marina at redtogreen.solutions@gmail.com & to get involved in our next post write to food entrepreneurs at sayhi@foodentrepreneurs.com

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