We’re Compound, we’re using biotech to brew delicious, sustainable, beanless coffee
By: Maricel Saenz
Compound Foods grew out of my deep concern as a Costa Rican about the future of coffee. I love coffee, I love how it smells, how it tastes, the memories it brings up. And because I love it, I am worried about its future and impact on the planet. Compound is the place where I marry my love for coffee and sustainability. And coffee is just the start.
I love coffee. Not just because I rely on it every morning. I’m from Costa Rica — where coffee is part of our national identity. For decades, my family has been getting together for a ritual cup of coffee every Friday afternoon.
For many of us, coffee is a ritual, a moment with ourselves, the start of the day, or the break between meetings. I’m pretty sure even astronauts take it to space! Coffee is connection and for me, it’s a reminder of my home.
On a trip home a few years ago, a topic of discussion was how rising temperatures, increasing pests, and erratic rain was depressing coffee yields and quality. Coffee production, once our most important export, was now shrinking. Coffee farmers were looking for alternatives, some of them sold their land, and others looked for more arable land.
This isn’t unique to Costa Rica, this is happening across all countries in the “coffee belt”- the narrow band around the equator where the environmental parameters had once been perfectly suited for this sensitive crop - and ultimately pins coffee as the fifth most polluting crop in our value chain.
Now studies suggest that 50% of the land where we grow coffee today may no longer be suitable for the coffea plant in the future, forcing coffee farmers to look for opportunities elsewhere. This also directly affects the price; recently in Brazil, freezing temperatures destroyed their coffee crops, which led to a 30% surge in price and threatened 40% of the world’s coffee production.
Coffee without coffee
Over the last few years, I have been working in biotechnology, understanding the latest advances and exploring applying these technologies to impact the world positively. Biotech companies are already working to address the causes 1- 4 of deforestation (beef, soy, palm oil, and wood), and I thought: “What about coffee?”
At a basic level, coffee is the fruit of a plant that is processed, fermented, roasted, and ultimately brewed — an extraction of chemical compounds that makes that quintessential taste and smell. At Compound, we simply recreate what happens at the coffee farm in the lab — through food science and fermentation technology, we use sustainably grown microbes to produce a coffee with sweeter tones, brighter acidity, and more nuanced aromas than anything on store shelves today.
Fermentation already has a key role in coffee processing; farms use fermentation practices to produce multiple flavor profiles from the same bean. We source and optimize these microbes to create flavors and aromas and grow them efficiently and scalable.
What we pour in your cup is as premium as what you’ll find at your 3rd, 4th and 5th wave coffee bars, and I’ve been to most of them! It’s early, but our preliminary carbon life cycle analyses suggest our grounds have 1/10th the emissions and water use compared to traditional coffee. Plus, we have a secret weapon: we can dial caffeine up or down so that you’ll get the perfect dosage, whether you’re reaching for a mug as you’re rolling out of bed or sitting down for an espresso after dinner.
We came up with this great scientific approach to help the environment, but that isn’t enough. How do we simultaneously try to help the planet, and the livelihoods of so many people, in many cases, my people? With or without us, their livelihoods are being impacted by climate change. We will support small artisanal coffee farmers transitioning to more sustainable agricultural and land-use practices. We are establishing partnerships with NGOs in the field to support their work and help small coffee farmers transition from a crop that is no longer sustaining them into a climate-resilient future.
Come reinvent coffee
Today we announced our seed round. We are grateful to have deeply supportive investors who get it, including Lowercarbon Capital, SVLC, Humboldt Fund, Collaborative Fund, Maple VC, Petri Bio, One Way Ventures and key angel investors.
Compound Foods was founded to answer the question of how we could recreate coffee — what we crave first thing in the morning with less environmental impact. Basically, everything we love about coffee without coffee. It has grown into so much more as the personal backgrounds and inspiring accomplishments of our team have enriched my understanding of what’s at stake and what’s possible. Coffee is just the start.
Doing this is hard. Our incredibly experienced and creative team is up for it, but eight of us isn’t enough what we need more of is you!
If you are excited about fermentation, food science, synthetic biology, or the future of coffee, check the link to our jobs here. Or, if what we had to say resonates but our openings aren’t a perfect fit, email us at email@example.com and tell us what you have to bring to the (coffee) table.
Join our waitlist to be the first to try Compound and to stay up to date.
We’re doing this for you, for the planet, and the love of coffee!