In a world where the traditional manufacturing processes are harmful to the environment and to the health of both humans and animals, Israeli food-tech is striving to change reality using integrated technologies and tools that sound like they are taken from science fiction – Remilk and Bee-io Honey are transforming vision into reality with cow-less milk and bee-less honey.

Dr. Ori Cohavi comes from a background in biological research and pharmaceutical development. Aviv Wolff comes from the worlds of hi-tech and cyber entrepreneurism. So, what do they have in common? A burning desire to make an impact by doing important things that benefit mankind.

This was exactly the foundation on which Remilk was founded in 2019. Wolff is the company’s co-founder and CEO while Dr. Cohavi is the CTO. “The worlds of food-tech have generated great interest in recent years”, says Dr. Cohavi, “and we began to understand the heavy toll the world of food production we are familiar with as consumers has on the planet’s limited natural resources and, specifically, animal-based food”.

Out of the wide world of food, the two chose to focus on milk – a huge global market worth almost 1 trillion dollars, and one of the leading global contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and refuse and largest users of land and water resources. This is a market that has numerous substitutes which sometimes constitute good solutions but which most of the population is yet to adopt due to considerations of flavor, nutrition, habit, and price. 

“We saw that the milk market, despite its range of diverse products, had almost no good alternative solutions”, says Dr. Cohavi, “and we thought about how we, as two Israelis without funding, a food-tech background, or backing could overcome this challenge”. The dilemma quickly became a scientific-technical question and, after examining several possible angles and in-depth research, the two decided that their solution was precision fermentation.

The process developed by Remilk uses micro-organisms in the form of yeast into which the DNA sequence containing the production instructions for the milk protein is inserted. “This is a recognized and safe technology for manufacturing food products, but we use it in a unique way to produce large quantities of milk protein”, says Dr. Cohavi. “For years, humans have assembled the relevant database which we used to ‘download’ the relevant milk protein DNA sequence, copied it, and inserted it into the yeast”.

According to Dr. Cohavi, it is the amazing reality of our lives that enables synthetic biology. “Until recently, we only had the tools that nature provided and the maximum we could achieve was to develop them incrementally, but now we have a set of tools the use of which is limited only by our imagination”.

Replacing the Cows with Yeast

Remilk’s solution is intended to enhance the efficiency of the protein production and to meet the needs of the world’s growing population and, with it, the need for nutritious and healthy food without having to rely on animals. “The yeast consumes very little resources and emits very little waste into the environment”, explains Dr. Cohavi. If the DNA sequence is inserted into the yeast, it produces the milk protein just like a cow, without the need to grow the animal for years, with all that entails.

The practice is based on bio-convergence – a combination of biology, computation, and engineering: “We took the bio-informatic data of how to produce the protein, implemented it using molecular biology methods to produce the strain and then produced the protein via precision fermentation in fermentation tanks”, Dr. Cohavi explains.

Remilk employs every means possible in the development process, including extensive use of AI, for example, by creating the optimal conditions for the yeast to be more productive in a constantly improving process.

To facilitate the combination of disciplines, the company’s human capital encompasses a diverse range of abilities, from computation and engineering via bio-informatics and biology to food professionals whose role is to develop familiar milk products while using the protein as the base component.

Of all the milk’s components, Remilk only produces the protein – a basic and critical component that contains the necessary nutritional qualities, but which is not itself a milk product. The company therefore employs a talented team of food development professionals who specialize in the development of recipes for a variety of milk products for its partners, the large food corporations.

This is not a trivial process. Milk is an extremely complex product. Although most of it consists of water, there is also protein and milk fat which Remilk does not produce, as well as lactose and many other components, not all of them desirable.

“We don’t copy the cow milk with all its components, because people don’t need cholesterol, growth hormones or lactose, which most of the population are sensitive to”, Dr. Cohavi explains. “We focus on the protein as the most basic component providing nutritional value. We build the protein on which the product is built ‘bottom-up’ by starting with the protein, adding sugar and plant-based fat, water, and the lactic bacteria that provide the good flavors. This way, our product is devoid of the components that constitute disadvantages. It is important to point out, however, that because the composition of our protein is identical to an animal-based milk protein, the milk products based on it are not a solution for people who are allergic to the milk protein”.

In addition to the health advantage, Remilk’s products have numerous ecological and animal welfare advantages. Its method enables a dramatic change in the environmental impact: a significant decline in cows’ greenhouse gas emissions, and in the use of land resources and water because the huge grazing areas are replaced by vertical tanks.

Furthermore, Remilk’s process uses no animals and therefore avoids issues of animal suffering and disease, as well as the use of hormones and antibiotics etc. “The present method served the world’s population for a long time”, says Dr. Cohavi, “but to feed eight billion people – or many more very soon – there is an urgent need for another solution and that’s what we offer”.

The Aim: To Hit the Shelves Worldwide

The prerequisite for selling milk products from Remilk protein is regulatory approval from the various food authorities in the US. Remilk has already received approval to sell in Israel, Singapore, and the US, and is working on approvals to do so in other places around the world. The factories can be located anywhere in the world, and the result is a very stable powder, so this is also a very efficient process from a transportation perspective”.

The vision includes the manufacture of a variety of products for the general public at accessible prices. According to Dr. Cohavi, this is possible and depends on a combination of an efficient process and increasing quantities. “One should remember that milk is a subsidized industry”, he says. “The milk industry employs tens of thousands of people and we are on their side. The process whereby products like ours enter the market and the cows leave it is long and gradual. Traditional industry will not disappear anytime soon, and we believe in cooperation with the food companies to create superb milk products together.

“The protein is manufactured overseas and not in Israel, due to lack of factories of the required size”, says Dr. Cohavi. “But the core activity and all the R&D – from the micro-organism to the final product – are performed in Israel and with Israeli partners.

“We would be happy to manufacture in Israel with the appropriate industrial infrastructure, both for Zionist reasons and because we have the talents, the right attitude, and great professionals here. We must however solve the difficulty of setting up factories in Israel. We would be very happy for greater involvement in establishing genuine manufacturing infrastructure and in removing regulation barriers associated with such facilities, to help put us on the map”.

Removing such obstacles will, in his opinion, enable Israel to become a ‘scale-up nation’. He has no doubt that this will ultimately contribute to our common environment, will create work and jobs, and will also enable Israel greater economic independence.

“In response to the need for scale-up in the food-tech world, the Innovation Authority is promoting the field of fermentation, while integrating biology and engineering in solving technological problems that require advanced solutions”.

Tzachi Schnarch – Deputy CEO and Head of the Technology Division

Saving the Bees

The bee is a vital organism in the food chain. Bees are responsible for about 75% of the pollination of agricultural crops, hence their importance to the food security of the world’s population.

Because of their important role in the food chain, many are concerned about the bees’ situation in recent years. The number of flowers is dwindling due to desertification and urbanization processes, they bloom for shorter periods, and the diversity of species of wild bees is gradually declining. In reality, it is estimated that a third of the world’s bee population has already become extinct.

The bees are an organism that constitutes a sensitive indicator for the environment. If Albert Einstein was correct when he said that once the bees disappear, the human race will have only four years left, it’s obvious that we are in trouble.

There are several reasons for the bees’ extinction including attacks of viruses and parasites, pollution of pesticides etc. and, of course, climate change and the ongoing damage to the environment – the air, water, and land. Beekeepers tell of the phenomenon of colonies collapsing when the worker bees disappear from the hive for no apparent reason, thereby leading to the colony’s demise.

Another central factor in the bee problem lies specifically in the honey industry. A specific species of European honeybee is used today for pollination. This bee is becoming widespread in increasingly more places around the world and, being very intrusive, it is causing the extinction of other species. This, in turn, also harms the European honeybee itself, weakening its immune system and lowering its life expectancy by 50%.

In contrast, honey consumption presents a completely different picture: the world demands more and more honey. After all, honey is a unique sweetener with added values that make it a superfood.

Humans have used honey for millennia. There are about 300 types of honey, each of which contains hundreds of special substances including vitamins, polyphenols, and antioxidants that originate in the plant, and proteins that come from the bees, together giving honey its special attributes such as its antimicrobial quality. Honey also has low acidity (pH) and can be used in medicine and cosmetics.

However, honey is not as beneficial to human nutrition today as it was in the past: the pesticides, antibiotics and pathogenic spores found in the environment are collected by the bees and may make their way into the honey. Another contributing factor to the impaired quality of modern honey is the fact that bees are fed sugar water, sometimes with added allergenic milk proteins.

What is the Solution? Innovation!

So, people like honey – but its production depends on two things of which there is currently a shortage: bees and flowers, because bees drink nectar and produce honey.

Bee-io Honey was founded out of an understanding of the need to think differently about honey production, and the desire to provide a sustainable solution for existing demand. The company has developed an innovative technology that produces honey for human consumption without bees, with the aim of introducing sustainable honey that is beneficial to both humans and bees. The technology imitates the process that occurs in nature – and brings it to the laboratories under the slogan “Out of the hive and into the future”.

The natural process of producing honey is inefficient: The bee needs to wait for flowering, drinks the nectar, and transfers it to its honey stomach where a lengthy process starting with secreting enzymes and royal jelly proteins begins, eventually producing honey with its viscosity, aroma and other special qualities.

“The original process of extracting honey, as was performed for thousands of years, can no longer support both the nutrition of humans and of bees”, says Dr. Efrat Dvash Riesenfeld, the company’s CTO who has worked there since its inception. “We need to think of another way that won’t harm the environment”.

“Adopting technologies from the worlds of pharma such as genetic engineering and fermentation, advancements in food engineering and chemical analytics, and a combination of computation and biology – all create an ideal situation for achieving what was previously considered impossible. Today, science enables us to create this complex product in a completely different way”.

“We imitate what takes place in the bee’s stomach using alternative proteins via a process of precision fermentation, with micro-organisms that we have taught to produce our target proteins”, says David Gerbi, the company’s CEO. “We then clean them out of the medium and combine them with nectar components that we produce from plants in a stringent process. At the end of the process, we get honey which, from a molecular perspective, is almost identical to pure honey – just without the pollutants. Our method also allows to produce honey without the pasteurization that impairs its quality”.

“The molecular structure of the final product is almost identical to pure honey in its sugar and protein composition etc. The honey’s qualities are also preserved, for example its osmolality and anti-microbial nature”, Dr. Dvash Riesenfeld explains. “This should preserve its long shelf life, like honey, and it can also be used in cooking and baking”.

Bee-io Honey currently produces six types of honey in different flavors, including lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, and even coffee – all produced locally without the need to import or set up hives. The company, located in the Rehovot Science Park, established a pilot facility, with a production capacity of 3 tons of honey a week. It is also in the planning stages of a large commercial production line that will manufacture about 1,000 tons a year – approx. 20% of Israel’s total annual honey consumption.

As far as the target audience is concerned, Bee-io Honey is, in principle, targeting the entire population, especially vegans and consumers with heightened environmental and health awareness. Parents of toddlers who, until now, have refrained from honey, will be able to use the new product safely.

In addition to all the environmental and health advantages. The cultured honey has proven, already in the pilot stage, to be competitive in price with natural honey. The significance of this is that not only private consumers will be able to find interest in it, but also companies that use honey as a raw material, such as in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. The company is also developing cultured royal jelly for the food additives sector.

“Our vision is to go global”, says Gerbi. “The goal is to establish a production line, first in Israel and then to replicate that model to different places worldwide. We will bring our product to the whole world and let the bee go back to doing what it has always done – natural pollination of nature that will restore the ecological balance”.

“Humans use honey for their own purposes”, adds Dr. Dvash Riesenfeld. “When bees are allowed to pollinate, agriculture will blossom. We will make sure people can have honey without taking advantage of the bees”.