Why we write about this topic:
We’re in the middle of a carbon crisis and in desperate need of alternatives to animal proteins. This company takes on both challenges at the same time.
Based at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Sittard-Geleen, the British-Dutch startup Deep Branch appears to be on its way to becoming a real game-changer. In short: it’s capable of capturing CO2 gas from factories, for example, and converting it to protein. Brit Pete Rowe is the CEO. A man on a mission? He waits a moment before answering. “Let’s just say we’re a company on a mission.”
Rowe is traveling by car to an executive finance course in Paris. We spoke with him as he was trying to find his way through the banlieues on the eve of a significant Deep Branch breakthrough: the opening of a factory at the campus where the exclusive protein Proton will be produced for the first time.
Rowe actually aspired to be a professional rugby player. “In England, you can do that, but I gradually discovered I just wasn’t good enough.” He fell back on another one of his loves by him: biology, and this soon became biotechnology. “At the university in Manchester, where biotechnology was linked to entrepreneurship, I got interested in technical and industrial applications. This was where I learned all of the principles of process technology, especially in microbiology, and how to start a small business in this field. It gave me a very good foundation. After that, I got particularly interested in the possibility of sustainable production.”
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Pete Rowe earned his Ph.D. in molecular microbiology at the University of Nottingham’s Synthetic Biology Research Center for a company that develops sustainable solutions in biotechnology. One example is using industrial gas as a by-product. “This put me on the path towards what I’m doing now.”
In 2018, Rowe laid the groundwork for Deep Branch. The company got its start in Nottingham, then initially operated from Leiden before moving to Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen, where it is now based. CO2, water, hydrogen, and microorganisms are used to make proteins that can in turn be used as ingredients for chicken and fish feed. Rowe is delighted with this, not only because he can convert gas generated as a byproduct in other industries into protein through a seemingly simple process such as fermentation, but also because of the considerable positive impact on the environment. Just imagine, chickens and farmed fish in Europe are fed mainly a diet of fishmeal and soy from Brazil and Argentina. Aside from the effects on the oceans that are being depleted and the rainforests that are being cut down for soybean cultivation, the transportation of unprecedented amounts of fish and soybean meal is incredibly harmful to the environment. Rowe claims their method can reduce the carbon footprint of ingredients by 90%, compared to the current overseas transport procedure.
30 Under 30
In 2017, he went to the Netherlands for the first time to spend a year working for a biotechnology firm in the agri-food sector. “That was where I first encountered the technology for making proteins from chemical byproducts.” He commuted between the Netherlands and Nottingham and still does to this day. Thinking in terms of solutions has always appealed to him. While at the Research Center in Nottingham, he designed a toolkit for CRISPR, part of the bacterial defense mechanism against viruses. This toolkit could be applied to both biotechnology and healthcare. And this didn’t go unnoticed. Pete Rowe made it onto the 2019 Forbes list of “30 Under 30 for Manufacturing and Industry.” He worked on solutions such as sustainable fuel for aircraft and preventing the euthanizing of chicks with gas in the bioindustry. Three years later, Deep Branch launched the slogan Clean ingredients for climate-friendly food.
‘I’m a real foodie so I also really want us to be able to continue to enjoy food. But rather in a responsible manner’
May we conclude from all of this that Rowe is a man on a mission? He waits a moment before responding; he’s still looking for an address in Paris. He repeats the question. “Let’s just say that our company is partly mission-driven. We want to contribute to making this world a better place, and firmly believe the food chain is a good way to do this. On the one hand, because food will always impact the environment, but also because we can’t live without it. We could also talk about taking fewer planes, electric cars or technology that can get us off fossil fuel, but that doesn’t change the fact that people will always need food. To a certain extent, it’s a win-win: we need more food to feed the world’s population, and if we can do that in a way that generates less pollution per capita, we can achieve huge savings in terms of CO2, water consumption, deforestation, and a whole host of other things. The thing is, I’m a real foodie, so I also really want us to be able to continue to enjoy food. But rather in a responsible manner.”
Rowe doesn’t want to publicize much about possible applications other than fish and poultry feed. The pilot plant at Brightlands Chemelot Campus will soon be open to producing Proton. According to Rowe, there is demand from all over the world for different applications of single-cell protein. “This includes the food industry. Players in this sector are very interested in a sustainable high-protein ingredient with no animal components. We hope the new pilot plant will enable us to roll out the technology on a commercial scale to enable us to produce and explore how we can develop the volumes.” To get to this scale, Rowe believes that ten tons per year should be enough to scale the process up for larger quantities.
‘We’re facing a global climate, so the problem needs to be addressed on that scale’
Pete Rowe also follows the ongoing nitrogen debate in the Netherlands. Can Deep Branch contribute to this? “We are facing the global climate crisis, so the problem needs to be addressed on that scale. Exporting problems doesn’t help anyone. I think we need to make food production more sustainable on all fronts. And this means, above all, producing locally. The war in Ukraine proves how fragile our food system is.” Back to the chicken and fish meal we use in Europe then? Pete Rowe: “No, apart from the transportation aspect, I think being so dependent on a few countries in South America is dangerous.”
According to Pete Rowe, the developments at Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen are very interesting and promising for the future in many areas. “The entire transformation of DSM ultimately led to a lot of activity, knowledge, entrepreneurial spirit, and facilities at the campus. We’re taking full advantage of these developments.”