More than 90 percent of the collagen and gelatin on the market comes from pigs and cattle, a by-product of the slaughter industry. The goal of Geltor’s theoretical experiments was not just to generate hype, but to convince potential customers that they could make products that the current supply chain could not. “What if you weren’t limited by what kind of animal is available to get your collagen?” dr. Lorestani remembered asking for it. Then he proposed one mammal in particular, and that’s how Geltor came up with his first creation: HumaColl21, which the company calls “a virtually colorless and odorless solution.”
In 2019, the Korean company AHC released an eye cream containing HumaColl21. Orora Skin Science, based in Canada, followed suit in 2021 with creams and serums. Over the past two years, Geltor has released biologically similar marine collagen and human elastin (as the name implies, a particularly stretchy protein) for skin care, as well as a poultry-like collagen intended for use in dietary supplements. Microbes growing in giant fermenters express each of these collagens, which are strained and refined into pure protein. “The protein is just like what you would find in the original source,” said Dr. Lorestani. (The third-party IGEN certification program confirmed that there was no detectable genetic material in the final product.)
A $91.3 million investment round in 2020 enabled Geltor to ramp up production from 35,000 liters in 2019 to 2.2 million liters in 2021, which is still a relatively small amount. Small bottles of luxury eye creams require very little HumaColl21; large shampoo bottles and jars of collagen powder need more. Enough gelatin to supply Midwest potlucks with vegan Jell-O salads would require exponential growth.
Those limits have determined the commercial path of the company. “The product volumes required for beauty and personal care customers are different than what are required for food and nutrition customers,” said Dr. Lorestani.
Despite all those investments, there are skeptics. Julie Guthman, a geographer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies agriculture and food in Silicon Valley, questions the “magic disruption” behind the promises of the alternative protein industry.
“There’s the idea that if you produce protein from cells or from fermentation in a lab, it somehow takes us away from meat production on land,” she said; these companies still need energy, metal and food for the microbes themselves. And, she noted, there is little transparency in their environmental claims, because their proprietary processes are closely guarded secrets.