SEATTLE — Start-up Atomo is developing molecular coffee. It contains the same amount of caffeine and all the essential elements found in a traditional cup of coffee. The only difference? It isn’t derived from the coffee bean.
“Our coffee is as lab grown meat is to conventional meat,” said Jarret Stepforth, Ph.D., co-founder and chief scientist at Atomo. “We are building coffee up with the same exact compounds, just like cell-based meat is built with the same protein, fat and so forth as conventional meat.”
Dr. Stepforth, a food scientist with more than 20 years of experience at companies including Chobani, Campbell Soup Co. and McDonald’s, developed the idea while exploring new ways of optimizing coffee to reduce its bitterness. He teamed up with co-founder and chief executive officer Andy Kleitsch, a serial entrepreneur, and together they reverse engineered coffee to map the key compounds that give it its familiar aroma, flavor, mouthfeel and color.
“There’s like 1,200 compounds now, but not all of them confer the perception of coffee,” Dr. Stopforth said. “We looked at that journey from the green bean to the roasted bean to the extract and started understanding the core components that make up the big characteristics.”
The more they investigated coffee’s chemical composition, the more they learned about its growing environmental impact.
“I realized how much trouble coffee is in,” Dr. Stopforth said. “Just the massive, massive inputs from the supply chain and growth perspective on water usage, the trade issues and labor issues — coffee is in trouble for a number of different reasons.”
Rising global temperatures have forced coffee farms to move uphill to cooler growing regions in recent years, resulting in an estimated 250,000 acres of deforestation annually. Around half of the land used for growing coffee will be unusable within 30 years, according to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. A report published in Science Magazine found more than half of the world’s coffee species are in danger of going extinct before the end of the century.
“We believe we have a moral obligation to stop harmful coffee farming practices, but none of us want to stop drinking coffee,” Mr. Kleitsch said. “Atomo’s technology can halt the need for further deforestation by reducing the demand for coffee beans.”
Atomo uses upcycled plant-based ingredients to create the exact compounds found in traditional coffee. Using a patent-pending technology, the company runs each ingredient against coffee’s chemical fingerprint to create ‘building blocks’ that are used to develop new varieties.
“We’re creating this molecular coffee dashboard, if you would, in which we can just put these blocks together to make up different coffee,” Dr. Stopforth said. “We’ll find in certain blocks we’re over indexing or under indexing compounds, or we have a flavor defect in it that isn’t coffee-like, so we’ll kick those out of the model and just keep creating. We’re not going to stop that process. We want to screen new materials every time and find new ways of transforming that lie within our I.P.”
The company currently is working on creating bean-free coffee grounds as well as ready-to-drink coffees. Its first product, a cold brew on tap, will launch in several locations in the third quarter 2020.
“As we started thinking about our go to market, we were originally thinking of grounds,” Dr. Stopforth said. “Then we thought, ‘There’s a lot of activity in the space of bottled or canned cold-brew coffee. Let’s do that.’ Then the market actually self-identified itself for us. We started getting large companies coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, we really want to start thinking about sustainability and carbon counting at our offices. We’ve heard about your coffee and we think that would help us offset some of our carbon to hit our target.’”
Atomo’s targets for 2020 include raising an additional $6 million in seed prime funding, which will be used to build out its roastery and ingredient facility. It also will invest in operations and expanded R.&D., roastery and marketing teams. The company will begin developing its first R.-T.-D. beverage following the third-quarter launch of its cold brew on tap, with the goal of having a product on the test market by November.
As interest in sustainable alternatives to traditional products grows, Dr. Stopforth sees opportunities for companies to continue pushing the movement into new categories.
“The coffee industry is ripe for innovation and change,” he said. “The acceptance of agriculture alternatives has been proven with meatless meats and dairy free milks. We want to continue that movement in a category we feel passionate about.”