Business

Tuesday 11 December 2018

O'Sullivan backs new company developing lab-grown milk

Smart Money: Sean O’Sullivan is backing milk maker Muufri
Smart Money: Sean O’Sullivan is backing milk maker Muufri

John Reynolds

FORMER RTE Dragon's Den investor Sean O'Sullivan has invested in an artificial milk startup, believing it and lab-produced meat and eggs being backed by the founders of Google and Microsoft - and potentially a green fuel - and the technology to produce them will be revolutionary.

Speaking in a wide-ranging interview, the founder of €155m investment firm SOS Ventures said: "Synthetic biology is a major opportunity that will take 20 or 30 years to emerge, just as computers and mobile phones did.

"Imagine a world that doesn't depend on imported energy. You could grow energy in a vat anywhere in the world.

"We're backing a company called Muufri. Imagine making better milk than exists today, without cows. It's natural milk, replicated through natural processes, mainly using yeast and DNA replication, grown in a vat. It's hugely cheaper than ordinary milk, without any issues related to shelf life or lactose intolerance."

In the US, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is backing Beyond Meats, a maker of synthetic chicken and Hampton Foods, a producer of plant protein-based egg substitutes. Last year Google co-founder Sergey Brin bankrolled a Dutch scientist's €250,000 hamburger, the world's first one produced in a lab.

Meanwhile, New York-based Modern Meadow - backed by early Paypal and Facebook investor Peter Thiel and renowned investment firm Sequoia Capital, which backed Yahoo, Apple and Linkedin - aims to use tissue engineering to produce cow-free leather and meat. These alternatives are much greener than industrial-scale factory farms found in the US that give animals no quality of life, the companies argue.

In the area of algae-based green fuel developed using synthetic biology, Irish billionaire and Alltech founder Dr Pearse Lyons's scientists haven't yet managed to produce fuel cheaply enough. US entrepreneurial biologist Craig Venter teamed up with oil giant ExxonMobil in a €440m collaboration in 2009 to try to do so.

O'Sullivan's partner at SOS Ventures, Bill Liao's interest in synthetic biology was sparked on finding out his diabetic daughter diabetic, needed insulin produced through such a process. They now hope to attract other startups to join Muufri's founders in their 'synbio' axlr8r initiative and are offering them funding and lab space in Cork.

"'Synbio' is where biology and programming meet. You can code in a web development language called Python, compile it into DNA and upload it to cells to give them a new purpose. This will revolutionise technology," Liao said recently.

O'Sullivan also told the Sunday Independent that there was a tech bubble at the moment, as demonstrated by the "nuts" valuations of app companies WhatsApp and Uber at €11.6bn and €12.5bn.

SOS Ventures has recently banked returns from four investments. News Corporation bought Storyful, Cisco bought Collaborate.com, Mapflow was sold to Lexis Nexis and a firm called Global Protein Solutions also changed hands. It's believed he received a few million for the Storyful stake; he would only reveal the investments "did pretty well,"

Sunday Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business