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Elevator Pitch: Leaft, the company getting protein from crops

We gave Leaft Foods co-founder and director Maury Leyland Penno a little longer than an elevator ride to pitch how the company is combining existing and new technology to create high-value leaf protein concentrate ingredients for leading food companies around the world.

Using New Zealand’s natural strengths, Leaft Foods wants to produce new plant-based proteins that have a lighter environmental footprint than alternatives.

Founded by John and Maury Leyland Penno, it was in 2016 that the pair began to test out several ideas. After coming across the concept of producing plant-based protein made from leaves, Maury Leyland Penno began experimenting at home in their kitchen in Canterbury.

This led to the decision that they would have a go at creating a business that would have the potential to create a “significant new industry that would benefit both our economy and our environment,” she says.

 “Last year was all about early stage feasibility, and this year has really marked the beginning of us charging headlong at the opportunity.”

With Leaft launching in August, Leyland Penno says the company is tapping into big global challenges rather than consumer trends.

“We see the challenges faced globally when it comes to food consumption and the environmental impact this could have.”

The background of those who work at Leaft is impressive and helpful towards the cause. John Leyland Penno is an agricultural scientist who co-founded and led the Synlait Milk and continues to contribute as a director.

He also chairs The Pure Food Company and the Fresh Water Leaders Group for the Ministers of the Environment and Primary Industries.

Maury and John Leyland Penno, co-founders of Leaft

Maury is an engineer who has worked with The Boston Consulting Group and then as a senior executive at Fonterra.

She is on the board of Genesis Energy, chairs Wangapeka River Hops, The Education Hub and is on the board of Leaft Foods, The Pure Food Company, Trust Codes and Matrex. 

Ross Milne joined as the general manager at the beginning of this year, with Jessica Garrett as business manager. 

“Ross is really the guy in charge,” explains Maury Leyland Penno.

“He is a chemical and process engineer and has spent the last ten years building world leading food processing factories around the world until he made the big decision to come back to New Zealand to lead Leaft Foods. We also have a great team of people supporting us from a wide range of science organisations across New Zealand.”

She says that Leaft’s founding was based on both “science and global shifts in diet trends which have created a unique opportunity for New Zealand to produce high quality leaf protein for the world.”

“One of the critical factors behind New Zealand’s strength in dairy and meat production has been the ability to grow green leafy crops, with world-leading capability in the growing and breeding of high-quality forage crops supporting animal based production systems. This is supported by excellent research into nitrogen and carbon cycling in our agricultural systems,” she says.

The team at Leaft Foods are effectively driving ‘new science’ via a dedicated research and development program with the purpose of taking pilot scale successes to a commercial scale.

The company is in the process of developing our own proprietary technology to extract protein from leafy crops with the purpose of taking these processes to commercial scale, says Leyland Penno.

“We’re confident in our successes so far and we’re about to employ more people to tackle these challenges.”

Our aim is to be a leader in innovative extraction and processing technology for plant proteins. But to be successful in this, we plan to be a partner of choice as an ingredient company, both for New Zealand and international food producers.

To Leyland Penno, Leaft’s point of difference is undoubtedly the circular economy model of the business.

“Our paddock to product business will integrate with existing farming systems by partnering with farmers to grow leafy crops that remove nitrogen from soils as the raw material for protein manufacture.

“The process will also produce a reduced protein high-quality ensiled feed that has the potential to increase animal performance and reduce nitrogen losses from dairy and beef farming systems.”

She says Leaft Foods has been privately funded to date, and it has recently been successful for a Callaghan Innovation Research and Development Project Grant which will support accelerating its research even further.

“The main challenges to date have been seen in the technical space, but ones which we are overcoming through our research and development program,” says Leyland Penno.

“This is a new field of science and we’re having to develop the technology ourselves as we progress. As we are looking to revolutionise this space within New Zealand, and to some extent on a global scale, we’re keeping our technical achievements under wraps to protect our IP.”

The next phase for the company is to grow its internal capabilities and expand its processing eventually to commercial scale.

While there are no stores or sites currently stocking the product just yet, Leyland Penno says it’ll keep the market updated as the products become commercially available.

By 2024, Leaft Foods intends to be playing a leading role in agricultural sector transformation in the reduction of on-farm net emissions – specifically, methane and nitrogen.

“Our aim is to be a leader in innovative extraction and processing technology for plant proteins. But to be successful in this, we plan to be a partner of choice as an ingredient company, both for New Zealand and international food producers.

“We want to partner with other innovative companies, farmers and consumers that share our values. We can all do our bit to shift the needle towards living in a future where all life on earth is better off.”

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