The spin-off of the spin-off | More and more plant-based dairy products are coming onto the market, but the truly creamy taste of milk has been hard to recreate until now. But it can be done with a new technology.
Author: Linda Bak, Innovation Origins | 4 February 2021
More and more people are eating plant-based products. For many people, contributing to a more sustainable world is an important reason for choosing this option. It is not only a matter of eating less meat, but also about cutting down on animal products, such as dairy products. There are already several variations available, for example, those based on soy. Time Traveling Milkman, a spin-off from Wageningen University and Research (WUR, The Netherlands), has developed a new ingredient for plant-based dairy products: Fat from seeds. “This is much tastier and more sustainable than most plant-based variations,” states Dimitris Karefyllakis, CEO of The Time Traveling Milkman.
Nowadays, as Karefyllakis explains, palm oil or coconut oil are commonly used to add a creamy flavor to plant-based food. “These oils are associated with a negative environmental impact and a disruptive influence on local communities,” he continues. “Chemicals are used in the production process and any cultivation is linked to deforestation practices. This causes a lot of damage in areas where palm oil and coconut oil are produced, like in the tropics.” In addition, these vegetable oils have to travel a long way to Europe which invariably leads to high levels of CO2 emissions.
But things can be done differently, as research by Costas Nikiforidis and Karefyllakis at the University of Wageningen has shown. “Water is all that is needed during the production process of our vegetable fats. What’s more, it has a deliciously full and creamy taste,” Karefyllakis adds. The researchers have developed a method to extract fat from the cells in seeds. “Fat is present in the form of droplets inside the cells, we extract this which leaves us with a creamy fat ingredient.”
This is a different process from that used in the making of standard vegetable oils. Seeds are actually pressed in that process. That does not yield the creamy texture that the Time Traveling Milkman is working on, because it breaks up the fat droplets. “Moreover, the seeds we use come from Europe, so they don’t have to travel so far to their final destination either. That saves a lot in terms of CO2 emissions,” says Karefyllakis. These vegetable fats have not been used in food before. “They can greatly improve the nutritional value and flavor of vegan food,” he notes.
In addition to dairy, the Time Traveling Milkman vegetable fat can also be used for its creamy flavor in all kinds of products, e.g., meat substitutes, cookies and in a vegan alternative to Bailey’s Cream. Why is the Time Traveling Milkman product better than other creamy ingredients for vegan food? “Our ingredient is healthy, sustainable – and most importantly – creamy. None of the existing fatty ingredients combine all three of these qualities,” Karefyllakis contends.
“Nikiforidis has been researching vegetable fats and proteins for twelve years. I did my PhD research in that direction as well,” he continues. The researchers will be able to market some of the findings from their research. That’s why they set up their spin-off: The Time Traveling Milkman. “The university sees a lot of potential in this technology and was consequently also keen to see a spin-off set up,” says Jan Meiling, director of StartLife, a foundation affiliated with the WUR to help guide spin-offs and start-ups to the market. Karefyllakis and his colleagues followed an accelerator program through StartLife. They were also able to contact business developers for coaching when it came to the legal part of setting up the company and attracting funding.
Photo: © Time traveling Milkman
Image: Wageningen University and Research
Flavor has been proven
So far, Karefyllakis and his team have proven in the lab that this technology does work. They have tested it on a number of products. “Several manufacturers have already expressed an interest in buying the product once it is on the market,” states Karefyllakis. In the coming months, they are going to create a pilot setup to test the process on a larger scale. The spin-off is currently looking for an experienced process engineer to carry out the planned pilot with.
Research is still ongoing. Karefyllakis started a company after his studies, but is still closely connected to the university in Wageningen. Jan Meiling: “It was a conscious decision by the university to use a pin-off to take this technology further. The product that they are developing has considerable added value for the market. However, established companies often find it pretty risky to invest in these kinds of products at this stage of development. This is why setting up a company yourself is such an important step.”
WUR often supports a fledgling company for a few more years. For example, Nikiforidis, the adviser to Karefyllakis, is a university lecturer and is permitted to devote part of his time to the spin-off as a scientific adviser. Apart from that, the team is able to use the laboratories and other facilities at the university.
Dairy that tastes good is the most important thing
“We want to become a major player in the field of vegetable fats in dairy alternatives over the next five years,” he says. Karefyllakis hopes to have the ingredient on the market by the end of the year. Food producers will then be able to buy it and use it in their products that are available in the supermarket. Karefyllakis wants to convince consumers with his product that plant-based dairy is not only sustainable, but can also be just as delicious and creamy as traditional dairy.