Chief Marketing Officer Karuna Rawal wants to tell the world about the amazing properties of her company’s fungus-based breakfast products.
For a hearty fungus discovered in Yellowstone National Park within an acidic hot spring inhospitable to most other life on the planet, Fusarium strain flavolapis has come a long way. Its mycelium is now being used to create non-meat breakfast patties and non-dairy cream cheese, sold coast-to-coast under the brand name Nature’s Fynd. It’s being incorporated into dishes served at a couple of fine dining establishments in Manhattan. And it’s even gone into outer space.
The fungus was discovered by Mark Kozubal while pursuing his doctorate degree at Montana State University. His research project, under the aegis of NASA, set out to examine how life existing within one of the most inhospitable conditions on Earth might eventually help us to understand how life might exist beyond our planet.
Once in the lab, research began on the organism in more ways than one: A cheeky company video describes how figuratively speaking, “someone decided to lick it.” After all, the mycelium contained some surprising properties: “It’s 50% protein,” says Nature’s Fynd’s Chief Marketing Officer Karuna Rawal. “It’s a complete vegan protein with all 20 amino acids. It also has 30% fiber. So, when you think about nutrient density, it is remarkable because it exceeds both animal and plant-based proteins in that combination of protein and fiber for every 100 calories that you eat.”
From the Great Outdoors to the Windy City
As a company, Nature’s Fynd began after researcher Kozubal teamed up with Thomas Jonas, who’s now the company’s CEO. Today, the protein from Fy—short for Fusarium of Yellowstone—is being grown within a 35,000-square-foot facility located at Chicago’s Union Stockyards, the nation’s onetime epicenter of the meatpacking industry.
Unlike other mycelium-based food products, Fy protein isn’t made in a bioreactor tank. Instead, the company utilizes a process called Liquid-Air Interface Fermentation. Essentially, the fungus grows on top of a liquid food medium within open trays, which get stacked above one another within fermentation growth chambers. “We have four floors of that,” says Rawal. “So think about it kind of like vertical farming meets fermentation.” The company utilizes robotics to assist with the moving of the trays.
After Fy’s protein mat has risen like bread, it gets “washed and pressed and chopped and then packed” into freezer bags, says Rawal. “And then it’s sent to our co-manufacturers, which help us help us create the final products.”
The company had to decide where its protein would initially “have the biggest impact,” says Rawal. It chose breakfast patties as one of its first products because “consumers love the protein of a pork sausage—but they don’t really love the fat.” Nature’s Fynd’s patties contain “the same amount of protein as pork sausage, but actually has 75% less fat.” On the other hand, it also decided to make an “indulgent” cream cheese-like product to “demonstrate how we could create this incredibly-smooth, creamy product that was nearly indistinguishable from dairy cream cheese” from the same base protein.
“We can actually create products for literally every occasion, starting with breakfast, all the way through lunch, dinner, and dessert,” says Rawal. A press photo for the company displays variations of hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and a chocolate dessert on a table.
Grocery store expansion
The products were launched in September 2021 at a couple of stores in the Bay Area of California, before becoming available at Sprouts Farmers Market locations. “By the end of this year, we should be close to almost 1,000 stores,” says Rawal, thanks to the addition of newer accounts with Whole Foods and Fresh Thyme Market.
Diners at celebrity chef Eric Ripert’s restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City can also sample some upscale desserts made with Fy protein, such as chamomile ice cream. Ripert is also a culinary advisor to the company. (Some will recall the chef from his appearances on Anthony Bourdain’s TV show Parts Unknown.) “He is someone who is very much interested in the future of food and sustainability,” says Rawal about Ripert. “And, obviously, he stands for the highest standards when it comes to delicious food.”
Just as Fy is good at raising its own protein, the company has been good at raising funds and attention.
So far, it’s secured over $500 million worth of investments. It’s got an R&D outpost in Bozeman, Montana, in addition to a soon-to-completed 200,000 square-foot facility in Chicago. In 2021, the company received a Chicago Innovation Award.
And Fy itself has gone beyond the bounds of Earth—grown by astronauts on the International Space Station. As Rawal observes, “You can’t take a cow or a chicken with you on your way to Mars. So being able to grow protein in a matter of days that can then be turned into a variety of delicious products is something that, I think, is very interesting for NASA, as well.”
Nature’s Fynd’s stated goal? Feed billions of people on the planet by growing Fy across the globe, using a process that is “almost 130 times more efficient than beef in terms of protein per acre,” according to a company video.
And in terms of the types of foods that can be made from Fy—which has gone from a hot spring in Yellowstone to outer space—Rawal simply says, “The sky’s the limit.”