ProProtein: the next generation of alt-dairy

ProProtein is a food-technology company from Estonia that is developing casein proteins without the need for cattle farming. The startup was founded by Kaisa Orgusaar, who is part of the current cohort at the ProVeg Incubator. This is the ProProtein story.

What does your startup do and what is your mission? 

Kaisa: ProProtein’s mission is to create sustainable alt-dairy products with the same texture, flavour, and nutrition that people expect from animal-based dairy. We want  these products to become mainstream because this is the only way for them to have a meaningful impact.

Where did the idea for your company come from? 

Kaisa: Since early childhood, I was worried about the environment and wanted to somehow save it. Luckily, life led me down the path of food technology. I hope that developing innovative and more sustainable products is a way to contribute to saving the environment. 

Before becoming a food technologist, I decided to become vegan for environmental reasons. However, while I studied alt-dairy development, I realised how poor the nutritional and organoleptic qualities of most vegan products are.

My colleagues and I also encountered numerous technological problems in product development when using plant proteins as an alternative to dairy. At that point, I learned about precision fermentation of dairy proteins, using microorganisms, and I wanted to use them in our product development.

Sadly – or luckily – they were not available anywhere in Europe. I saw huge potential in this technology and realised that if no-one is doing it, I should be the one who does! 

Tell us about your team. Why are you the right people for this project? 

Kaisa: I recently obtained a Master’s degree in Food Technology and I have always been a “think outside of the box” type of person, with a deep appreciation and passion for nature. Tiina Tamm, our Chief Technology Officer, has a PhD in molecular biology and genetics. She has worked with yeast for over 25 years and has expressed various proteins using it. Tiina saw a great technological challenge in our research, and decided to join ProProtein.

The rest of our team is made up of ambitious international students who are passionate about changing the global food system. Brenda Juarez Garza is from Mexico and has a Master’s degree in Bioprocess Design from the Netherlands. She is our Bioprocess Designer. Adonis Hilal  is a PhD student from Poland. He has primarily researched plant proteins, so he is an expert in protein chemistry.

Eveline Russ is currently getting her Master’s degree in Nutrition and Marketing, and is mainly focused on the consumer behaviour involved in choosing plant-based products. Finally, our most recent team member is Toni Bode,  who has a scientific background and is our Project Manager. One of her biggest achievements is setting up a gene-technology lab in Melbourne. 

ProProtein’s team

What are your favourite parts about building your business?

Kaisa: It’s a great adventure! The work is never the same and never strays towards being conventional. The ProProtein snowball has really started to roll and seeing such positive results and receiving feedback is very motivating.

For me, building something by yourself is extremely rewarding. I am not very good as an employee because I like to think of solutions by myself and I do not always follow the rules. Therefore, I need more freedom in my work. That is why I had to create my own company.

What have been the main challenges you’ve faced? 

Kaisa: Finding the right team requires a lot of patience, but ProProtein has succeeded well in that respect, so far. We still have some key roles that we would like to fill moving forward, but I will not rush to employ someone in a hurry. It’s better to take our time and find the right candidate for our team and our business. 

What is it that makes your company unique? 

Kaisa: It’s the team that builds up any company. It’s the principle that the same idea would have different outcomes if it was executed by different people. Our team is unique. We are also the first company in the Baltics to work on fermentation-based dairy products.

Why did you decide to join the ProVeg Incubator? 

Kaisa: The ProVeg Incubator is a highly acknowledged incubator for the plant-based food industry the world over. Our driving reason was to connect with food-industry professionals and scientists and  to get support and knowledge from top mentors. 

ProVeg also provides funding, which is always helpful. My friend Isabella from Kinoko Labs completed the ProVeg Incubator programme before us. I only heard good things about it. I think it’s very important that an incubator knows what they are doing, is transparent, and has good terms for participating startups. Previously, I have had negative experiences with some incubators who were not fully transparent. The ProVeg Incubator has been clear from the beginning, and I highly appreciate it.

What do you think it takes for a startup to be successful? 

Kaisa: You have probably heard this 100 times before, but the commitment of the right team is the key to success. Also, knowing the right people in your industry. I owe a lot to our investor, Mariliis. She was my role model before I even started the company.

When I had the idea to start ProProtein, she introduced me to many key people who have been irreplaceable in our journey. This process finally led to an investment from their fund, which was a great boost. Also, it’s important that there is always someone available to whom you can turn for advice or support. 

What do you hope to achieve with your company in the next 12 months? 

Kaisa: Our biggest goal is to have a yeast strain that is working perfectly and have the purification process optimised at laboratory scale. We have the yeast strains, but their performance is affected by numerous criteria, and all of these criteria need to be investigated. 

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