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Inspired by a veggie burger, startup Motif Ingredients plans its own menu

Motif was inspired by the success of the meatless Impossible Burger.
Motif was inspired by the success of the meatless Impossible Burger.(ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images/File 2019)

Inspired by the success of the meatless Impossible Burger, a new biotech startup with $90 million in financing plans to engineer ingredients for food companies to make tasty and high-protein products, from veggie burgers to plant-based yogurt.

Motif Ingredients is a spinoff of Ginkgo Bioworks, a privately held Boston company that tinkers with the genes in microorganisms, transforming everyday yeast and bacteria into living factories that produce flavors and scents.

Recently, Ginkgo executives were impressed by the smashing success of the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty that resembles meat, right down to the satisfying taste and beef-like “blood,” according to Ginkgo’s chief executive and cofounder, Jason Kelly.

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That burger is made by Impossible Foods of Redwood City, Calif., and debuted in 2016. Its juice comes from heme, the molecule that makes blood red and helps carry oxygen. Heme is plentiful in animal muscle tissue but is also found in plants, particularly legumes. Impossible Foods gets the heme it uses for its burgers from a molecule found naturally in the roots of soy plants.

While many people love the burgers, Ginkgo executives concluded that other companies might prefer to outsource the science of turning plants into food, rather than have their own research and development team, as Impossible Foods does. Hence, Motif was born.

A key Ginkgo executive “thought that we could make a single company that, instead of developing consumer food products itself, would instead do all the biotech work and then supply the ingredients to the whole industry broadly,” Kelly said.

Motif will be headquartered in Ginkgo’s building in Boston’s Seaport District and intends to make the ingredients for more than veggie burgers.

Using biotechnology and fermentation, Motif hopes to brew the ingredients for nondairy ice cream, plant-based yogurt, soy milk and nut milk, protein snacks, and sports drinks. It would sell the ingredients to big food companies.

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Kelly said millennials are particularly interested in foods that are packed with protein but don’t involve killing animals and preserve the environment.

“The amount of growth in alternate protein products is crazy right now,” he said.

It’s a “reigning myth” that plant-based foods have to cost more than the old-fashioned products they resemble, said Motif’s new CEO, Jonathan McIntyre.

“Biotechnology and fermentation is our answer, and Motif will be key to propelling the next food revolution with affordable, sustainable, and accessible ingredients,” he said.

Motif is starting with only a few employees but is expected to have about 20 in 18 months, Kelly said. Ginkgo, which was founded 11 years ago, has 225 employees.

Motif investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Louis Dreyfus Cos., Fonterra, and Viking Global Investors.

“As a global dairy nutrition company, we see plant and fermentation-produced nutrition as complementary to animal protein, and in particular cows’ milk,” said Judith Swales, a chief operating officer at Fonterra.

Motif is the second startup spun out of Ginkgo. In 2017, Ginkgo and Bayer Crop Science launched a joint venture called Joyn Bio to develop more sustainable agriculture.


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.