April 11, 2024

Member Spotlight: Climax Foods

Climax Foods is Combining Data Science and Machine Learning to Reimagine the Way Plant-Based Cheeses are Produced

Food scientists have made notable advancements in creating plant-based meat and milk alternatives that are flavorful and mimic the textures of the originals. However, options for dairy-free cheese have yet to take off, until now. Climax Foods is reshaping the perception of vegan cheese with its line of soft cheeses—blue, brie, “goat” and feta—that are all plant-based. The Berkeley-based company uses an AI-driven process called “precision formulation” to produce an animal-free casein that stretches and melts like dairy without the use of genetic engineering, novel fermentation solutions, or large capital expenditures. The company won the “Best Vegan Product” award from VegNews in 2023, and it launched a partnership with The Bel Group to create a “new generation of cheeses.” Several chefs around the country are fans, with the blue cheese served at acclaimed restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York City and Millennium in Oakland. In this month’s Member Spotlight, Daniel Westcott, Climax Foods’ head of protein and texture, shares insights on the environmental benefits of vegan cheese, how the company secured an impressive $7.5 million seed funding round and what’s in store for the future.

Can you tell us more about how food is created through your ‘precision formulation’ process?

We use a combination of domain expertise and data science to create comprehensive models of cheeses, allowing us to use smart statistical optimization techniques to minimize the differences between plant-based products and dairy. By the end of any product development cycle, we create delicious products and valuable models of ingredient and process combinations used to create these products.

Talk to us about the environmental benefits of producing cheese in this way versus traditional dairy cheese. If we completely adopted these methods, how could this change the environmental footprint associated with cheese production?

Even the most efficient animal loses about 90 percent of input feed energy to metabolic maintenance. The only way dairy is financially sustainable in the U.S. is due to subsidies. In 2023, $19 billion tax dollars were spent on supporting U.S. dairy farmers. We envision a food system where humans consume crops directly, rather than indirectly through an inefficient animal intermediary.

If we were able to implement this tomorrow, it would require less agricultural land use, allowing for carbon sequestration through the rewilding of natural spaces; reduce water use by 90 percent; reduce methane emissions due to cattle digestion; and be the equivalent of decarbonizing the aviation industry. All while reducing the suffering of our ruminant roommates.

What have been some of the biggest challenges since Climax Foods was founded?

Understanding when to stop improving! We love our cheeses and want to make sure that anyone who has the opportunity to taste our cheeses loves them, too. Sometimes we keep working on things beyond when it is totally necessary.

We envision a food system where humans consume crops directly, rather than indirectly through an inefficient animal intermediary.

Climax Foods secured an impressive $7.5 million seed fundraising round in 2020. What key factors contributed to the success of this fundraising round?

The proof is in the pudding in the first bite. We take pains to explain the benefits of our data-centric approach to partners and interested parties, however the most convincing thing we can do is close our mouths while they open theirs for a bite.

What’s next on the horizon for Climax Foods? What other types of food besides cheese, if any, do you plan to produce in the future?

There are thousands of cheese varieties in the world. We’ve currently got our work cut out for us. In the near future, keep an eye out for expanded and additional partnerships as we work with commercial partners to scale our work. We expect to have products on the shelves later this year or early next, at the latest.

Earth Day will be celebrated on April 22 this year. What does this day mean to you and why is it important that we celebrate it?

The task of our generation is to leave the planet more habitable than our ancestors. Earth Day is an annual restatement of the work that must continue the remaining 364 days of the year to accomplish this goal. The team at Climax Foods is mission-driven and committed to manifesting a more sustainable food system.