Vertical Future receives research grant to develop plant-based protein source from vertically farmed amaranth
London-based vertical farming company Vertical Future has received a £750,000 grant from Innovate UK to develop a new source of plant-based protein from amaranth, grown using vertical farming facilities.
The two-year research project, ‘Vertical Indoor Protein from Leaf’ (VIP Leaf), will be led by Vertical Future, alongside the University of York, Crop Health and Protection Limited (CHAP) – an agri-tech research centre funded by Innovate UK – Northampton-based vertical farm Syan Farms, and plant-based food company Eat Curious.
By bringing together experts in vertical farming technology and crop biology, the project’s goal is to develop a high-yielding, high-protein and high-quality amaranth crop, which can be used to manufacture new types of meat alternatives in the UK and address the growing demand for plant-based protein.
VIP Leaf will use a combination of Vertical Future’s vertical farming technologies, University of York and CHAP’s protein and crop knowledge, and Syan Farms and Eat Curious’s food manufacture and scale up production facilities, to develop the amaranth protein source.
Amaranth is a naturally gluten-free pseudocereal, which is high in protein, fibre, antioxidants, and several micronutrients, including manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron.
Dr Jennifer Bromley, Chief Scientific Officer at Vertical Future said in a statement: “Being able to help contribute to the economy, environment and health of the UK through our extensive expertise in crop science and vertical farming technology is an exciting place to be.
“The funding from Innovate UK makes the VIP Leaf project possible, allowing us to research new methods of growing amaranth in controlled environments to form an alternative leaf-derived protein ready for market consumption.
“The VIP Leaf project will make Vertical Future the first agricultural technology company to demonstrate its systems in the production of plant-derived protein.”
While the crop is regularly consumed in South East Asia, Southern Africa and South America, the grain’s value has been relatively untapped by the UK food market. According to the consortium, amaranth has been proven to be a lower-cost alternative to more common plant protein sources such as pea protein. The vertically farmed crop also has lower environmental costs than other widely available plant proteins, it says.
Dr Ruth Bastow, Innovation Director at CHAP commented: “Our pilot study with Vertical Future proved amaranth to be a worthy candidate for an alternative plant protein that is not currently being utilised in the UK market.
“Now with funding from Innovate UK, the VIP leaf project will help translate our previous efforts into fully scaled-up operations within our hydroponic vertical farming facilities, along with taking advantage of Vertical Future’s operational R&D site.”
Professor Katherine Denby, from the University of York’s Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) added: “We work on developing improved lines of amaranth for smallholder farmers in Southern Africa and are excited to be able to now exploit opportunities for this underutilised crop in the UK.
“Together with the University spin-out, the Biorenewables Development Centre, we will assess the functionality of the plant protein and provide data on the nutritional quality of the amaranth crop.”
The VIP Leaf project will also work towards decreasing the UK’s reliance on imports of soy and pea protein to improve the nation’s economy and environmental impact.
Innovate UK has been prioritising the development of new homegrown sources of plant protein that could reduce the country’s reliance on protein ingredients like soy. Earlier this month, it invested £1 million in a collaborative ‘Pea Protein’ project, which is working towards creating flavourless pea varieties that can reduce the nation’s soy imports.
Founded in 2016 in south east London, Vertical Future’s goal is to find more sustainable ways of producing crops through vertical farming. In January 2022, the start-up secured £21 million, which it says was the largest amount of funding Europe had seen for a Series A round in the vertical farming sector at that time.