Many start-ups, scale-ups and SMEs in the food sector are developing new products and innovative techniques for extracting proteins from raw materials on a laboratory scale. NIZO helps them bring these innovations to the market faster, with knowledge and practical tests in the largest food-grade pilot plant in Europe. This can significantly reduce the costs and time-to-market for new products.
NIZO can support the entire innovation process: from concept to food-grade pilot production. “For me, this is paradise for Research & Development,” says Ben van der Deen, Business Development Manager at NIZO. “We don’t do research for the sake of research. Our aim is to translate concepts into practice. We focus on three core areas: proteins, micro-organisms and processing. The things that are developed here in the lab and in the pilot plant will often be found on supermarket shelves later on.”
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Responding to needs
Making food production more sustainable is currently one of the most important political and social themes. Sustainability is also high on NIZO’s agenda. That’s why in the coming period significant investments will be made in upgrading existing and purchasing new equipment for the pilot plant; the largest publicly accessible food grade pilot plant in Europe. These investments are co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (REACT-EU) as part of the Union’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With this grant, the EU stimulates a green, digital and resilient recovery of the regional economy.
The provincial executive of Gelderland decided in late 2021 to allocate a budget from this programme to NIZO for the SPRINT project. Nel Zoon, CSO at NIZO, is proud and pleased that NIZO was selected: “We are always trying to stay one step ahead of market developments. We do so by anticipating future needs and always looking for opportunities to finance those developments.”
Traditionally, NIZO’s focus was on processing milk and other liquids with easily soluble components. For a number of years now, the organisation has been focusing more on processing plant and microbial raw materials, such as corn, soy and peas, as well as emerging sources; think single cell proteins from algae, yeasts, fungi and bacteria, for example. “Plant-based raw materials have different technological challenges than dairy,” Nel explains. “They place different demands on the equipment and often require different process steps. Subsidies, such as REACT-EU, are therefore indispensable to make the research facility accessible and keep it there. Keeping’ accessibility does not only mean having the right knowledge and equipment in-house, but also that the price level is such that companies can realistically make use of it. The REACT subsidy enables us to purchase the necessary equipment, but also to pay for initial tests. In other words, when a company comes here, the groundwork has been done. Knowledge is of course a precondition for innovation. “But cooperation with other parties, both industrial partners and knowledge institutions, is at least as important,” she emphasises. “You can’t innovate by yourself!”
Nel provides an impressive list of companies we work with, both start-ups and established ones, such as FUMI, Ruitenberg, Unilever, Kraft Heinz, DSM, AVEBE and Cargill. “But we also collaborate with parties such as Foodvalley NL, the open innovation platform BraveNewFood, StartLife, Rabobank, Region FoodValley and the Sustainable Food Initiative, as well as other knowledge institutions, colleges and universities.”
She explains that NIZO is a private Contract Research Organisation (CRO). “That means we conduct confidential research on behalf of companies. The specific data is for the company, the generic knowledge is for us. This is how we build on the growth of our expertise.”
In addition, cooperation with several parties takes place in consortia; such as the Internet of Food project and EFRO-subsidised EGGCITED; a consortium of NIZO, start-up company FUMI Ingredients and Ruitenberg Ingredients. “The aim of the latter is to reduce the carbon footprint of food and increase the circularity of food production,” Ben clarifies. “To this end, we are jointly developing an innovative and scalable technology in our pilot plant for the extraction of functional proteins and protein-fibre complexes from spent yeast from breweries. These proteins appear to be a good replacement for egg protein. Beer brewer AB InBev supplies the raw materials.”
Nel: “We are going to carry out this type of project for start-ups structurally, partly thanks to the subsidy.”
A look at the pilot plant
The pilot plant where the research is taking place is an impressive collection of shiny stainless steel. “Look, there’s a very large dryer behind it, for example”, Nel points out. We look down on the food grade pilot plant from behind an enormous glass wall. “Such a large spray dryer is very useful for processing milk,” she continues. “But now that we also want to dry ingredients on a smaller scale, we need a smaller version. That is on our wish list. We already have a decanter, which is a kind of centrifuge for separating solids. It allows us to separate cell walls from soluble substances such as proteins. On the right, you can see a scraped-off heat exchanger for making cream cheese-like, thick-viscous mixtures. After some tests, this turns out to be perfectly suitable for processing products based on vegetable raw materials. Although it does require some modifications. An extruder will be installed soon. Then we will be able to make more fibrous and solid structures for the meat replacement industry
The pitfall of scaling up
“We look at the application from the very beginning of the research,” Ben continues. “If you don’t, you will come up with solutions that are not scalable in a factory. That is a real pitfall. You see it happen very often. Scale-up and pilot production are also called the ‘valley of death’. This is because of the large investments required, the uncertain outcome and the need to realise the ‘proof of concept’ quickly. Because we work with multidisciplinary teams and can scale up production in our pilot plant, we can better assess the risks and control the scaling-up process. This allows us to reduce the costs and time-to-market for new products.”
Nel: “In the lab you work on a millilitre to litre scale. If you scale up to 100, 1,000 or 10,000 litres, then logically the lead times become longer. It takes longer to heat the liquid, for example. But we work with biological material, which contains all kinds of active components. If you spend eight hours heating a kettle instead of half an hour, all sorts of chemical reactions occur. All kinds of things start working and react with each other. That can have a major effect on the composition and therefore the functionality of the product! Before we enter the pilot plant, we use our predictive computer models. These allow us, among other things, to predict at which time-temperature combination it is best to run a certain process, for example in order to prevent contamination of a tank as much as possible and to achieve sufficient eradication of undesirable micro-organisms. With the computer models, we calculate these kinds of variables to determine in advance what the best operating conditions are. If all goes well, a scale-up to 1,000-10,000 litres provides a representative scale for industrial production. Based on that, you can calculate what your business case really is.
How long will it be before proteins from brewer’s yeast outgrow the paradise in Ede, and enter the battle for consumer preference in the supermarket? Ben: “We expect the first commercial production to take place within about a year!”
Investing in pilot plant NIZO for making food production more sustainable