Onego Bio’s marvellous protein
Maija Itkonen, a Finnish industrial designer, likes to stay ahead of her time. About 15 years ago she developed a company to produce wireless charge points for devices. She had the concept, and gathered the engineers and expertise to make it happen. Five years after that, she launched a company that produces novel and sustainable plant protein foods. As a lifelong vegetarian, her personal and business interests were beginning to align and soon she was ready for a new challenge. Her latest startup, Onego Bio, wants to disrupt the supply chain for one of the most in-demand ingredients on the planet. It has developed an animal-free method for manufacturing egg-white protein using precision fermentation. It can produce the eggs, without the chickens.
Demand for eggs has never been higher. But sustaining classic models of chicken farming in the face of modern ethical and environmental standards is a growing challenge. Chicken farms contribute to environmental degradation, predominantly due to the high carbon footprint of soya-based feeds. While battery farms are more carbon efficient than cage-free farms, due to needing less chicken feed, this model has a dire record for animal welfare and is increasingly unpalatable to consumers. High-density farms are also prone to disease. Last year Europe faced its largest ever avian flu outbreak, which led to the deaths of 43 million chickens. It sent a jolt through the supply chain and the price of eggs rocketed.
To understand the impact of such a product, you have to imagine the many forms that eggs come in. As Itkonen describes it: eggs are “a cornerstone of our food system”. Think beyond scrambled, fried or boiled to the role that egg whites play in baked goods, mayonnaise or mousses, and we have a contender for the most versatile ingredient around. Globally there are about 7 billion hens producing eggs for human consumption, laying 1.3 trillion eggs each year. And over the course of each year, on average, one person alone will consume between 150 and 300 of them.
Onego Bio, which has a team of 28 people, was founded in 2022 by Itkonen, along with co-founder and CTO Christopher Landowski. Supported by €10 million in seed funding, which it received on day one, the company has brought to life the results of research conducted at the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland. It was there that Landowski, a molecular biologist, developed Onego Bio’s core technology for producing the animal-free egg-white protein. The protein is nature-identical to ovalbumin, which, out of the dozens of proteins that exist in an egg, is the one that produces the unique properties required of it as an ingredient. Like ovalbumin, this product can bind, foam, gel and emulsify. The fermentation process used to create it is comparable to that used to make beer. In this case, the genetic blueprint of ovalbumin is introduced to the fungus, which starts converting sugar and minerals into egg protein. Plant-based egg-white alternatives, for example made using aquafaba, the liquid left over from cooked beans such as chickpeas, have struggled to match the real thing, unlike this one.
Landowski brings with him the technical knowledge and intellectual property for it. As with her previous projects, Itkonen brings a design-mind to the operation; she is focused on fine-tuning the company mission – and how to create the biggest impact with the product. The company is not jostling for a place on your brunch plate, she explains, rather it is here to provide a better ingredient for commercial food manufacturers. There are competitors in the alternative egg space, but this niche still only makes up 0.2 per cent of the global egg market. And the egg market is so vast, says Itkonen – and expected to grow from 86 million tonnes to 138 million by 2030 – that there is considerable space for multiple players. “There are naturally different areas, applications, ingredients, where you could use this. But I can say our secret sauce really is this technology, which is so effective that you can actually bring it into price parity.”
Onego Bio is focusing first on the US because it moves faster than the EU, and it has partnered with a company that already has success with similar precision fermentation products in order to expedite the process. One of the biggest challenges, Itkonen explains, is the slow-moving regulatory process, which is frustrating for someone who prefers to move at pace. The company is also putting a lot of focus into customer and consumer perception, but unlike other animal-free food alternatives, theirs is not pushing to be the main event. “It’s not the cheese on your pizza, or the steak in front of you,” she says. “It’s an ingredient, and this ingredient is much needed on the market right now. Consumers would like cage-free eggs, but these are produced by only 20 per cent of farms. So, it’s a really difficult situation for the manufacturers.”
Completes an MA in industrial and strategic design at Aalto University, Finland, and another degree via the university’s International Design Business Management programme
Founds PowerKiss, which develops wireless charging solutions. In the spring of 2013, the company is sold to Powermat, where Itkonen works until 2015 as VP design and brand
Co-founds Helsinki-based Gold & Green Foods, which develops plant protein products, as CEO, later becoming Chief Innovation Officer
Co-founds Onego Bio as CEO
Onego Bio becomes a founding member of Precision Fermentation Alliance and Food Fermentation Europe, and its animal-free egg whites win Fast Company’s 2023 World Changing Ideas Awards