One Canadian start-up has spun gold from the common white button mushroom

By Jana Manolakos

Consumers today are demanding transparency when it comes to the ingredients in their food and beverages. They’re looking for healthy, sustainable solutions, but up until now, natural preservatives for these products were hard to find. Who would have thought that an ordinary mushroom held the key? Canadian start-up Chinova Bioworks did.

The food ingredient manufacturer grabbed hold of a unique niche five years ago, developing a natural preservative for processed food and beverage products extracted from the stems of white button mushrooms that improves the quality, freshness and shelf life of foods in different categories. The company says it’s a natural alternative that is sustainable, effective and works as a food safety solution without compromising taste, texture or appearance.

The journey for company co-founders Natasha Dhayagude and David Brown began in a home basement research lab in 2016 in Fredericton, New Brunswick. They pioneered the use of chitosan, a mushroom fiber that they’ve trademarked Chiber. It offered a clean-label solution to food spoilage by inhibiting microorganisms like mold, and it could achieve similar results to the traditional chemical preservatives that food companies are trying to replace.

They determined the optimal amount of white button mushroom extract to support a shelf life that was similar to synthetic preservatives and identified doses that would be affordable for food and beverage processors.

“We’re really lucky to have had a lot of amazing support and we’ve leveraged a lot of different programs and leaned on a lot of grant funding to just kickstart the company,” Dhayagude says.

So, as soon they founded the company, the first program they participated in was IndieBio, a global venture capital company located in the US and Ireland. The IndieBio gave them access to a number of resources, including a lab facility from which they could build on their initial research and develop a viable product.

“We were able to pitch to different investors. We were able to talk to our first early customers to gain validation that this is why this technology was needed in the marketplace. And then (we had) a lot of pitch training,”recalls Dhayagude.

On returning to Canada, they leveraged federal and provincial funding programs like the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program and the Canadian Food Innovation Network. And, they hired their first employees through local university co-op programs.

As a female entrepreneur who identifies as a visible minority, Dhayagude is on a mission to open opportunities for other women in STEM.

“Creating these positions and empowering women really helps to promote representation to empower them to grow,” she says. “We’ve been collaborating with some amazing female-led companies within this space. It’s really been great to get their support and learn from the things they had to overcome to create change. And I’m just proud to say that to date our company is 90% women in STEM.”

“Mushrooms are on the rise within the industry,” explains Dhayagude. “Both brands and consumers are starting to recognize the health benefits they’re offering. But, what we find, especially within the ingredient space, is that they’re a great source of protein or macronutrients.”

According to Mushrooms Canada, an industry trade association, there are more than 100 mushroom farms in Canada. More than half (52%) of mushroom production is in Ontario, 39% in British Columbia and the rest comefrom the remaining provinces. Nearly 300 million lbs. (146,000 tons) of mushrooms are grown in Canada each year. Most are sold fresh, some are canned. Out of these, the most popular among consumers is the White Button.

During harvesting, a large portion of the fungus stem is left behind and discarded by farmers. For Chinova, that is where the opportunity lies.

The team connected with farmers to collect the leftover stems. Dhayagude explains, “Our mission really has been to provide value throughout the food supply chain, right from collecting that mushroom stem from those farmers, which would otherwise be wasted, and then transforming it into that commercially viable ingredient that can then be sold to brands and then can be included on a label that will provide that end transparency and food safety solution.”

Gaining acceptance for mushroom extract as a natural preservative on product labels has had its challenges. “We get a lot of questions and work really hard to educate our clients and customers. We really push to showcase the efficacy because there are limited options when it comes to natural preservatives and limited ways in which you can label.” The company provides information sheets to clients to help them respond to consumer questions.

The good news is that a lot of Chinova’s clients are innovators who are already disrupting the plant-based dairy and meat landscape. The company supplies a number of innovative mushroom protein alternative companies and has seen an increase in demand for mushrooms in adaptogenic beverages that help the body cope with stressors.

“The pandemic has really accelerated the trend for food safety. For brands, keeping food safe is much more than just preventing spoilage. It has evolved into protecting flavour, texture and colour, and maintaining the overall quality of the final product over its shelf life.”

Riding on the surge of interest in functional foods, one can only imagine how much Chinova sales will mushroom.

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