Yulia Karra
July 10

Over the past few years more and more companies have been hitting the food market with enticing offers of plant-based protein.

While this may be great news for vegans, plant-based proteins are incomplete because they are low in at least one essential amino acid. Animal-based proteins, meanwhile, contain all nine essential amino acids. 

But what if we were to find a way to produce animal protein from plants? 

Egg protein in potatoes 

Israel-based startup PoLoPo says it can produce protein from potatoes that is identical to protein derived from chicken eggs. 

“We use the plant molecular farming method, which is production of valuable metabolites and proteins [through the manipulation of the cell factory] in the plant,” PoLoPo CEO and cofounder Maya Sapir-Mir tells ISRAEL21c. 

PoLoPo cofounder Dr. Maya Sapir-Mir. Photo by Tal Shahar
PoLoPo cofounder Dr. Maya Sapir-Mir. Photo by Tal Shahar

“We teach the plant to generate properties that originate in a completely different biological source,” she adds. 

Essentially, molecular farming entails insertion of genes useful for food production, through genetic engineering, into host plants that would otherwise not express those genes.

Regular potatoes already contain protein, but in very small quantities. Through molecular farming, PoLoPo specialists have created a new strain of potatoes. 

The company claims this one-of-a-kind strain produces a lot more protein, and its molecular consistency is indistinguishable from egg protein, which is rich in ovalbumin — a major protein component of egg white. 

“Our market product will be functional protein powder generated from our potato strain,” explains Sapir-Mir. 

Where it all began

PoLoPo was officially founded in 2022 by Sapir-Mir and her longtime research partner, Raya Liberman-Aloni.

PoLoPo co-founder Dr. Raya Liberman-Aloni. Photo by Tal Shahar
PoLoPo co-founder Dr. Raya Liberman-Aloni. Photo by Tal Shahar

The two plant scientists met 17 years ago during their doctoral studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in metabolic engineering of plants.

“We were researching the behavior of proteins in plants — from citrus fruits to tomatoes, and even tobacco,” explains Sapir-Mir.

“We were always the odd ones out in academia,” she laughs. 

In 2017, the two women came up with a business idea to create a plant that produces animal protein for the food industry.

“It took us some time to settle on potatoes, but once we got there, all the other pieces started falling into place.”

Market-ready by 2027

PoLoPo is still in the research and development (R&D) phase. It has raised over $2 million so far in its first and only funding round, which allowed the company to weather the storm of October 7 relatively unscathed. 

“We have just opened our second funding round that hopefully will jumpstart us from the R&D phase to commercial phase,” says Sapir-Mir. 

The company, which has six full-time employees and three part-time workers, hopes its product will hit the market by 2027. 

The startup making egg protein from potatoes
The PoLoPo team. Photo by Tal Shahar

Sapir-Mir admits, however, the company will not be able to operate commercially in Israel or Europe due to strict regulations applied on GMO (genetically modified organisms) products.  

“The plan is to first enter the market in the United States. We’ve already applied for a USDA permit to grow our plants in the US,” she explains. 

She adds that in the future the restrictions on genetically modified food products in Israel and Europe will likely be eased because “there’s no food security without GMO.”

Why do we need it?

“The food industry utilizes egg protein, normally generated from egg whites, in very, very large quantities,” explains Sapir-Mir. 

Ovalbumin has a host of valuable and functional properties revered by the food industry.

Potato plants genetically modified to produce egg protein at a PoLoPo lab. Photo by Tal Shahar
Potato plants genetically modified to produce egg protein at a PoLoPo lab. Photo by Tal Shahar

“If you were to take a random product off a supermarket shelf and look at the label, there’s a good chance you’d see egg protein among the ingredients,” she says.

Sapir-Mir adds that egg protein is used commercially in sweets, meat products, baked goods and even plant-based milk.  

“Once our product becomes fully commercialized, scaleup will be very easy. And at full scale, we will have competitive pricing compared to other commercial egg proteins on the market,” notes Sapir-Mir. 

“Our hope is that one day our product replaces egg protein entirely.”

More on Earth

Fighting for Israel's truth

We cover what makes life in Israel so special — it's people. A non-profit organization, ISRAEL21c's team of journalists are committed to telling stories that humanize Israelis and show their positive impact on our world. You can bring these stories to life by making a donation of $6/month. 

Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

More on Alternative Protein