Is the future of food growing in the geysers of Yellowstone? This theory is championed by Thomas Jonas, cofounder and CEO of Nature’s Fynd, a Chicago-based start-up which last year began selling an edible protein produced by a microorganism discovered in the hot springs of the famous American national park. The company has already raised more than 500 million dollars in capital and its investors include former U.S. vice-president Al Gore and billionaires Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates.
Using the same protein, known as “Fy,” Nature’s Fynd offers two very different vegan product lines: cream cheeses and breakfast patties, flat sausages traditionally featured in American breakfasts. Having already made it into several supermarket chains in the United States, including Fairway and Whole Foods, these products will soon be joined by a range of yogurts, nuggets, and chocolate mousse. “Our protein is doubly unique because it is complete,” says Thomas Jonas. “That means that it contains all the essential amino acids and can therefore replace both meat and dairy products.”
The Fy protein is also highly efficient. To produce it, the microbe discovered in Yellowstone only needs water, sugar, and salt. The process, which is similar to fermentation, is carried out in vast laboratories where the temperature and atmospheric conditions are tightly controlled. Another advantage is its environmental impact, which is far lower than animal and plant proteins as it can be produced anywhere. “We use 99% less land and water compared to cattle farming, and emit 94% fewer greenhouse gases,” says the CEO. Ironically, the first Nature’s Fynd production site is located in Chicago in the former meatpacking district portrayed by Hergé in Tintin in America!
From Packaging to Microorganisms
Thomas Jonas, 52, currently has a career lightyears from his original calling. Before becoming an entrepreneur, the HEC business school graduate started working in Hong Kong and France. He arrived in New York in 2003 as strategy director for a subsidiary of Péchiney, a French conglomerate specialized in aluminum. “I had always wanted to go to the United States, and when the opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance,” he says. He settled in New York and was then hired as the president of a division of MeadWestvaco, a U.S. packaging group.
This “incredibly intense” experience came to an end four years later. “I had salvaged the business line I was directing, and left the company with enough money saved to take some time off and think about my next steps. The first thing I did was take a vacation to Hawaii with my wife and my daughter.” This break was only supposed to last two weeks, but ended up totaling 12 months, during which he had a second child. “In reality, I didn’t exactly know what to do. I could have gone back to what I knew, but I wanted something different. I started wondering how I could have a more positive impact.”
With a business partner “met on the beach,” he created a small company to invest in projects backed by scientists. “The idea was to put money into disruptive technology, and that’s exactly what happened with Fy!” Thomas Jonas was introduced to Mark Kozubal, a researcher from Montana who had worked with NASA on a project focused on microorganisms in Yellowstone National Park. These microbes are known as “extremophiles” because of their ability to survive in extraordinary temperatures and chemical conditions. One of these organisms, a fungus called Fusarium strain flavolapis, was found to be particularly efficient at transforming organic matter.
Mark Kozubal and Thomas Jonas initially decided to use it to create biofuels and launched a company called Sustainable Bioproducts in 2012. But as the fuel sector is highly dependent on the price of oil per barrel, the founders instead turned to the food industry and renamed their start-up Nature’s Fynd. “We developed a technique for producing food proteins,” says Thomas Jonas. “It seems simple, but it took years of research. There was no user’s manual for growing microorganisms like ours! We had to understand the conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and duration, as well as the nutrients required to create a complete protein.”
Enthusiasm for Plant-Based Food
The company originally got off the ground thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And thanks to Thomas Jonas’s savings: “I didn’t pay myself for five years!” In 2018, Nature’s Fynd pitched its first successful seed-funding campaign to industry players, including the French group Danone, and investment funds such as Breakthrough Energy Ventures, created by Bill Gates to fight climate change. Since then, the Microsoft founder has become one of the company’s most visible supporters, even praising the merits of its products last year on the television show 60 Minutes.
The sector is booming: Sales of plant-based meat and dairy products in the United States soared from 4.8 billion dollars in 2018 to 7.4 billion in 2021. Even Burger King has made forays into the market by partnering with Impossible Foods to create a plant-based burger! Nature’s Fynd, which employs almost 180 people, is hoping to capitalize on this dynamic, but is also looking to take advantage of its unique status. “The real question isn’t necessarily whether our products are similar to meat or not,” says Thomas Jonas. “We have to ask: Are they tasty? Do they offer the nutrients we need? And are they
better for the planet? We want to say ‘yes’ to all three questions.”
The company now has to develop its reputation among consumers by building its brand and showing them how good its products really are. The French entrepreneur has already found a major ally in Eric Ripert. The Michelin-starred chef has recently been hired as a culinary advisor, and now features a vegan cheesecake containing Fy protein on the menu of his New York restaurant Le Bernardin. From the hot springs of Yellowstone to the gourmet eateries of Manhattan, the adventures of the microorganism discovered by the Nature’s Fynd founders have only just begun. Thanks to a partnership with NASA, it is currently floating aboard the International Space Station, and could soon be feeding astronauts on the way to Mars!