Onego Bio, a food-biotech spin-off from VTT, uses precision fermentation to produce egg protein without chickens. By harnessing living microorganisms for protein production, the game-changer company produces Bioalbumen® – real egg protein that is sustainable, healthy, and tasty. The goal of the company is to rethink the way we produce food and to take a giant step towards a more sustainable and healthy food system.
Eggs are one of the world’s most used animal proteins. In fact, they are considered the perfect protein: they contain all the needed amino acids, and they play a critical role in food manufacturing to bind, thicken, coat, leaven, emulsify and foam our food, which makes eggs the world’s most versatile and widely used animal protein. Due to the status of eggs as a nutrition powerhouse, global egg production has almost doubled in volume during the past 20 years and is forecasted to reach 138 million tonnes yearly by 2030.
But the current egg production system is not sustainable. According to Maija Itkonen, CEO of Onego Bio Ltd., it is downright broken. And the food industry has been looking for a viable replacement for the egg ingredient for years.
The food system needs fixing. Luckily, there is a solution
“The agribusiness has evolved dramatically in recent decades, and the direction it’s heading in is damaging to the environment”, says Itkonen. “We are now faced with problems such as climate change, availability of clean water and arable land, and the decline of biodiversity.”
What is more, a recent outbreak of the worst-ever bird flu has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions of captive birds and more than tripled the price of eggs in some countries. In others, eggs are completely off the menu as the industry struggles to keep up with the demand.
As the price of animal feed has simultaneously more than doubled and the energy prices have gone through the roof, the egg industry finds itself in an impossible situation.
“If we keep heading this way, the challenges on the horizon will be monumental,” says Itkonen.
“But there’s an alternative way: with precision fermentation, we can create proteins that are bio-identical to the foods we know and love. And we can do that using 90% less resources, without major risks such as pandemics.”
Harnessing Trichoderma reesei for egg protein production
Precision fermentation is a bit like beer brewing. In both processes, microorganisms are fed sugar to produce the desired molecules. In beer brewing, the desired outcome is alcohol. In Onego Bio’s bioreactors, it is egg protein. An the most revolutionary part? They leverage an existing technology used in industrial enzyme production. It makes driving down production costs and reaching price parity with traditional eggs possible.
“We have taken a microflora called Trichoderma reesei, and trained it to produce ovalbumin, the main protein found in egg white, instead of its own enzymes,” explains Itkonen. “In a way, we have domesticated this hungry fungus and turned it into a living factory. And the fungus quite likes it. When we feed it plenty of glucose, it’s as happy as can be.”
The Trichoderma reesei is very good at its job. While the traditional way of producing eggs is highly inefficient, the fungus can make protein with a much higher efficiency and volume. At most, a hen can lay one egg per day. They also need energy for staying warm, walking around, and socialising, among other things.
“Unlike chickens, the fungus’ only purpose in life is to gorge on whatever it is served and grow. Once it is deprived of food, it starts sweating proteins,” Itkonen explains.
Bioalbumen®: real egg protein without the environmental, ethical and safety-related concerns
At the end of the process, the “hen house”, or fermentation tank, is filled with fungal biomass, ovalbumin protein and water. Onego Bio then separates the biomass from the egg protein and dries the liquid into a powder form. This powder Onego Bio calls Bioalbumen® – real egg protein made without animals.
“Bioalbumen is bio-identical to the ovalbumin egg white protein. It has the same exact nutritional profile and taste. More importantly, it has all the functional properties that make eggs so special: it foams, coagulates, emulsifies, and binds other ingredients,” lists Itkonen.
The bio-identical nature of Bioalbumen means it can be easily integrated into existing industrial applications without the need to tweak recipes or change the equipment – as it is the real thing and not an egg-white substitute.
“The only difference is the way the protein is produced. And our way is much more ethical, efficient, safe, and sustainable,” Itkonen says. “What’s more — our egg protein can be produced at industrial scale, with stable supply and at a competitive price point, too.”
Finland and the microflora Trichoderma reesei go back a long way
Precision fermentation has been used for decades in the enzyme, food additive and pharmaceutical industries for producing insulin, for example. Now, the same technology is being applied to producing foods such as milk or egg protein.
“The story of Trichoderma reesei and its journey to become the leading production host for enzymes and proteins is quite remarkable,” Itkonen says.
The hungry fungus was discovered during World War II as it was eating away at the uniforms and tents of the U.S. Army. The discovery led to a surge in the study of Trichoderma reesei – especially in Finland.
“Researchers in Finland have been running successful experiments on Trichoderma reesei already in the 1980s”, Itkonen elaborates. “We are now reaping the benefits of those pioneering studies, just changing the protein that is produced to benefit the food industry.”
VTT played a key role in harnessing Trichoderma reesei for food production. “VTT had the idea to house bio- and food sciences under one roof and see what kind of magic the two innovative teams could cook up together,” Itkonen explains.
“There is something quintessentially Finnish about such an open-minded approach, not characterised by bureaucracy. To drive change, we need people that are fearless, innovative and willing to do things a bit differently.”
VTT’s long-term research – the egg from which Onego Bio was hatched
One of those fearless people was Christopher Landowski, a molecular biologist, cellular agriculture trailblazer and the inventor behind the Bioalbumen® technology. Before becoming the CTO and co-founder of Onego Bio, Landowski worked at VTT on the development of T. reesei as a production host for more than 15 years.
After decades of use and development, the Trichoderma reesei is well-known and established protein producer, and now the technology Onego uses is proprietary and heavily patented technology that is absolute world-class.
“We salute the remarkable work done by VTT. They encouraged freedom of creativity and gave the technology the time it needed to mature, understanding that great insights take time”, Itkonen says.
Once the technology was ready, VTT wanted to find it the best possible home. That home was Onego Bio – and the company hit the ground running.
“From the get-go, our main objective was to put the Onego Bio on the map. We knew there was a real need for animal-free egg protein, and that we were the right people to get the product out there”, explains Itkonen. “We got to work and were able to raise 10 million euros in seed funding to commercialise the breakthrough technology. That was enough to convince VTT that their “crown jewel” technology was in safe hands,” Itkonen laughs.
Next step in changing the world: commercialisation in the US
Onego Bio celebrated its one-year anniversary in February 2023. For a company that’s been around for little over a year, Onego Bio has achieved a lot: they have secured millions in funding, built key partnerships and their own piloting in Helsinki, received numerous awards such as the Fast Company’s 2023 World Changing Ideas Award and stirred up a lot of interest.
“We have started our commercialisation efforts in the US where the regulatory landscape allows a faster market entry. We are already collaborating with several of the world's biggest food companies – they are hungry for the product. If all goes as planned, we will be selling the product next year,” Itkonen reveals.
Onego is on the way of reaching scale and price parity in record time. This, if anything, proves that when you have the right product, technology and people, it is possible to make impact fast.
“We are ready to start changing the world.”
As Onego Bio puts it: someone has to do it. It might as well be them.