Edible Protein from Thin Air: Dyson Knows a Bargain When She Sees One

Lisa Dyson Kiverdi co-founder and CEO

Kiverdi co-founder and CEO: Lisa Dyson

Lisa Dyson looked to nature for inspiration on how to combat climate change; now she runs a biotech company that spins edible protein from the air that we breathe.

Say the word “carbon” and most people’s minds turn to the negative — pollution and greenhouse gases. But Dyson, CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based Kiverdi, reminds us that we are all carbon-based life forms. Carbon is emitted and captured as part of the Earth’s natural cycle, but centuries of unchecked human activity have disrupted a delicate balance.

“Our system is out-of-whack,” Dyson said at the 2019 VERGE Carbon Conference. “We’re removing natural carbon sinks. The Amazon is on fire. We are destroying our soil, which is also a carbon sink, and we’re pumping carbon into the atmosphere at a rate that is faster that our natural ecosystems can handle or recycle.”

Dyson and fellow MIT alum John Reed co-founded Kiverdi by piggybacking on 1960s NASA research that targeted supercharged carbon recyclers to sustain deep space travel. The study focused on microbes called hydrogenotrophs, which have the power to transform hydrogen into energy — including food — through carbon-dioxide reduction. NASA wanted to create a closed-loop system, using the microbes to convert the exhaled breath of astronauts into a sustainable food source. The plan was eventually shelved, but when Dyson unearthed the study, she realised she had the key to a puzzle.

Many medicines are microbial biproducts. Kiverdi has pushed the science further to replicate the natural chemical refineries that are fuelled by single-celled organisms such as yeast, algae and bacteria to create matter from carbon-dioxide. Kiverdi uses a bioreactor to process different microbe and input combinations and create a variety of fine-tuned solutions.

“We’ve created a bunch of closed loops that we’re working to commercialise,” Dyson reports; about 50 patents for carbon transformation technology have been granted, or are pending.

The Kiverdi business model promotes environmental and economic sustainability — by converting low-cost carbon waste into high-value products. Kiverdi has proven the profitability of carbon recycling and won over investors and partners in the process. The company has secured multiple rounds of non-dilutive grants and early capital funding.

Kiverdi’s list of eco-friendly breakthroughs started with a microbe-based alternative to palm oil, a key driver of global deforestation. The company also recently made headlines by introducing the world’s first air-based protein, presenting a timely step forward in the fight against world hunger.

The Global Carbon Project reported a modest 1.3 percent increase in 2019 emissions; bad news when that represents an annual record of more than 43 billion tons. Land-use emissions were singled out as prime culprits, with deforestation at a five-year high. Land use in 2019 contributed to 14 percent of total global emissions — and more than half of the annual increase in carbon emissions. Grabs for the world’s arable land — in a bid to provide for the 820 million people suffering from hunger — have been haunted by outdated production methods and short-term wins at the expense of long-term benefits.

“The fact that our modern agricultural system produces more greenhouse gases than our planes, trains, trucks and cars combined means that we have to think about how we eat,” Dyson points out.
She believes that it’s time to switch to a futuristic, hyper-efficient version of agriculture. Traditional farming relies on horizontally scaled, land-based, weather-dependent operations. Kiverdi’s high-tech system is vertically scaled — and requires 10,000 times less surface area and 2,000 times less water.

The world population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, but Kiverdi hopes to bring in sustainable, mass-market protein alternatives before then. Kiverdi has launched a spin-off company, Air Protein, to produce and market its protein powder. The flour boasts a strong nutritional make-up: 80 percent protein, a full set of essential amino acids, and plenty of vitamins and minerals — including the B12 component that vegan diets lack.

“One-in-three Americans considers themselves a ‘flexitarian’,” Dyson said in an interview with Medium. “Air Protein will enable consumers to make the choices they are increasingly interested in making: eating delicious, healthy foods without the footprint.”

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