Cornell startup cultivates animal protein from plants

The future of creating animal protein won’t need a drafty barn, but instead may reside in a toasty greenhouse: Forte Protein – a new startup that grows commercial animal proteins inside agricultural plants – has joined Cornell’s Center for Life Science Ventures business incubator.

The proprietary method that creates these nutrients and food ingredients has a propensity for quick growth and a sustainable, low-carbon footprint.

“We don’t use animals at all,” said microbiologist Kathleen Hefferon, Forte Protein co-founder and CEO. “Our carbon footprint is minimal. We’re not having to feed any animals and we don’t have animal waste. We are producing animal proteins with very near to zero carbon emissions.”

Rather than growing, feeding and maintaining livestock and then harvesting their protein, the company offers plant-based animal nutrients and food ingredients, ranging from the simple to the complex, grown affordably within days or weeks – and all without disturbing the environment.

“The concept of Forte Protein – this new business – remains absolutely brilliant,” said Lou Walcer, director of the Center for Life Science Ventures. “The company has figured out how to use plants to grow animal protein. It has potential to be plant-sourced material for use in feedlots, fish farms or commercial food ingredients – all without creating the need for a large amount land and all without creating methane or carbon dioxide.”

If a food company had a need for animal proteins, such as collagen, myoglobin, ovalbumin or casein, Forte Protein’s proprietary technology can grow it in plants using a technology with rapid duplication. The company can introduce the animal protein gene into a plant – such as lettuce – during a rapid-growth stage. The technology can be used for food, beverage, health and wellness, and other industrial applications. As an example, the system can produce casein – found in milk, the protein needed to make cheese – in about three days.

“In our system, the protein multiplies like crazy and then we harvest it,” Hefferon said.

Prior to the pandemic in 2019, Hefferon had joined the initial cohort of Women Entrepreneurs Cornell, known as W.E. Cornell, a program that helps women researchers develop and commercialize their own innovations into a technology-based business. She had sought to develop proteins for biofuels and create a sustainable economy, but as the pandemic progressed, she switched to developing proteins for food.

From there, Hefferon and Cornell filed for a patent, and she applied to develop her business at the Center for Life Sciences Ventures incubator. Hefferon brought on Tracy Kirkman as the chief operations officer and Deborah McConchie as chief revenue officer to develop a marketing strategy. Postdoctoral researcher Imran Kahn opened the Forte Protein laboratory in the Weill Hall incubator space in January 2023.

“There are a lot of people on the planet who are anemic, so I can see where we can help nutrient-deficient people or provide better access to high quality protein,” said Hefferon, who was a Cornell scientific researcher for more than two decades.

“I realize that my work, my ideas could help the world,” she said. “And that’s why I started this company.”