On a typical trip to the grocery store, you probably buy at least one product made with palm oil, which is found in everything from shampoo and detergent to pizza dough, ice cream, and instant ramen. It’s the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, with 75.7 million metric tons of production expected globally each year. And despite commitments from food companies to improve sourcing, it’s still a major driver of deforestation as palm oil plantations continue to cut and burn down tropical forests to make more room to grow oil palms.
In New York City, a startup called C16 Biosciences is using bioreactors to grow an oil that’s chemically almost identical to palm oil and functions in the same way. This week, the company announced a $20 million Series A round of investment led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the fund that Bill Gates established along with other investors to support innovations that fight climate change.
Each year, deforestation caused by the palm oil industry emits around half a billion tons of CO2. While palm oil production today requires a lot of land, growing big trees, and hacking down fruits to squeeze out oil and then refine it into a usable ingredient, the startup uses a fermentation process similar to brewing beer—or producing other biotech products such as cultured meat. The yeast grows in steel tanks, and the new oil grows in the cells of the yeast.
C16’s aim is to replace all of the palm oil that’s currently linked to deforestation, which is actually a small percentage of total production, perhaps around 3 million metric tons. It will take major scaling up to make this happen, but at least the startup is getting the funds it needs to make it happen.