Revisiting the ‘world’s first’ fungal protein: Dairy giant and start-up join forces for R&D and production

  The world-renowned Finnish century-old dairy company Weiyou signed a research and development cooperation agreement to develop fungal protein in cooperation with the Finnish Alternative Protein Company. These include optimizing the production of mycoprotein, testing its properties and its application in various foods, with the goal of commercializing it by 2025.
  What exactly is Pequilo mycoprotein?
  Pekilo – The world’s first commercially produced mycoprotein product was born in Finland in the 1960s. At that time, at the Espoo laboratory in Finland, research was being carried out by the pulp and paper industry to extract by-products from sulfite wood pulping to add value to production.
  At the time, fungi were already considered a promising source of protein, and since the early 1900s there had been concerns about protein deficiencies due to massive population growth. This has spurred the development of so-called single-cell protein production technologies, in which microorganisms are cultivated for use as food or feed, rather than through the traditional means of plants or animals.

  The study evaluated more than 300 microbes and ultimately determined that the best fungus for sustained production of mycoprotein was Pequilo KCL-24, and engineers quickly dropped the awkward Latin name in favor of the Latin acronym “Pequilo.” Subsequently applied for a production patent and registered the trademark “Pekilo”.
  A series of feeding trials on pigs, calves, chickens and broilers have shown that Pequilo is an excellent source of protein, especially for feeding pigs and poultry. The Finnish Food Safety Authority officially approved Pekilo protein as a feed ingredient in Finland in 1971. This lays the foundation for its industrial and commercial applications.
  The first full-fledged Pekilo factory was completed in 1974 in Jemsankowski, Finland. 10,000 tons are produced annually to be sold as pig and poultry feed, and detailed scientific tests have been carried out on various animals.

  In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, pequilo protein was also actively used in human testing, such as allergy testing, and a batch of sausages, meatballs, and breads containing pequilo protein was tested for research Protein characterization and sensory analysis; in 1984, MIT conducted a trial to compare the then commercially available pekiro protein with the biomass of another fungus, Fusarium graminareum (which was subsequently used in the UK as a Quorn’s trademark listing), studies have found that both are very suitable for human consumption.
  Unfortunately, in 1991, due to various problems such as factory closures, this research and production stopped. At the time, Finland was in the grip of a once-in-a-century economic depression, global markets were opening up, cheap imported proteins abounded, there was no demand for alternative proteins, and no one was interested in this unique R&D until 30 years later.
  Once cheap soybean imports were seen as a boon to economic globalization, the world is now aware of the negative impacts of natural resource-dependent agricultural production, as well as the fragility of global supply chains.

  In 2019, the biotech company eniferBio was created, looking to re-establish Pequilo production. And completed a $1 million seed round through NordicFoodTech VC and Voima Ventures.
  At the level of molecular control afforded by modern biotechnology, the company has further optimized the Pequilo protein, which had been in production for 15 years, to adapt it to the global protein demand of the 2020s. Its improved Pequilo protein has been confirmed in the first round of aquafeed testing, with good results in pet food. Aquafeed Pequilo P65 has been approved and marketed by the European Union.

  Pequilo protein contains 65% crude protein with a balanced amino acid profile equal to or better than soy. In addition, it contains up to 20% beta-glucan, other fibers and small amounts of minerals (6%) and fats (1%). Not only sustainable, but also competitive with current standard plant-derived proteins in price and performance.
  The next step of eniferBio is to cooperate with Weiyou to develop human edible protein based on Pequilo protein.
  “Adding the value of by-products has always been an important part of our development efforts,” explained K allioinen, Senior Vice President of R&D at Weiyou. The company claims a strong track record of innovation in this area: “Historically, we have been very successful in this area. For example, we have been using cheese whey very efficiently in food production since the 1980s.” He believes that combining Weiyou’s scale and supply chain with eniferBio’s scientific research will help accelerate the field innovation.

  Like soy, pea or animal protein, it is perfectly suitable for human consumption. However, some regulatory hurdles remain, according to eniferBio’s CEO Elilli? “We need regulatory approval for protein in food, and in animal nutrition, it’s already accepted in the EU.”
  Regarding whether this commercialization might take the form of a finished consumer product or a fungal protein ingredient, Kallioinen said: “We are very excited about our partnership with eniferBio. Interested in all the possibilities the collaboration can offer. However, finished consumer products are a very attractive opportunity.”