Would honey by any other means still taste as sweet?
That’s the premise that MeliBio—a food technology startup based in Oakland—is testing through its vegan honey produced without the buzzing assistance of bees.
It’s more than a heavy lift to change a multibillion dollar industry that has spanned thousands of years of human history, but it’s one that the company argues is environmentally and morally necessary.
MeliBio’s first commercially available product—slated to launch in the U.S. at a natural food expo later this month—is a plant-based honey drawn from the same plant compounds bees use to create honey. The company will first roll out its product to restaurants and manufacturers before pursuing direct retail sales.
The Oakland-based company has piloted its plant-based honey at restaurants like Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York and plant-based Italian restaurant Baia in San Francisco, where the product was used in a bruschetta appetizer and a honeycomb panna cotta dessert.
MeliBio co-founder and CEO Darko Mandich spent nearly a decade of his career in Europe working in what he calls the “dark side” of the honey industry. It was that experience that showed him the impact of commercialized honey production firsthand.
“I started steering away from the industry narrative, trying to expose myself more to like the latest research on bee biodiversity and understanding the connection between managed bees and wild bees,” Mandich said. “I started to realize that industry itself was the problem.”
MeliBio has published a "State of the Bees” report that echoes much of his reasoning. In short, Mandich says that an unnaturally high population of the European honeybee has unbalanced the natural ecosystem and led to the decline of native bee species, many of which are better pollinators of local plants.
There are also Africanized honeybees—better known as “killer bees”—that have proliferated across much of the western United States and are known for aggressively attacking other bee species. What’s more, the modern honey and commercial beekeeping trade leaves the insects more susceptible to pathogens and other health concerns.
In recognition of these factors, a number of companies are aiming to change pollination and honey production, including BeeHero, which has developed an automated platform for what it calls “precision pollination” and Beewise, which manufactures a robotic solar-powered hive.
MeliBio has raised $9.4 million in seed funding from investors including Collaborative Fund, Astanor Ventures and Big Idea Ventures.
Last year, the company partnered with organic food producers Narayan Foods to launch its plant-based honey product across 75,000 European stores.
MeliBio bills its product as more sustainable and free from the seasonal volatility that comes with honey production, and says it’s working on scaling up its product through new technology.
The next generation of the company’s product takes a page from cell-cultured protein companies like Eat Just and uses a fermentation process meant to re-create the flavor complexity that comes from how bees process nectar into honey.
Mandich said the startup’s plant-based honey is currently cost-competitive with ultra-premium honey from Western Europe or Hawaii. The next generation will hopefully compete on cost with honey from Argentina or Mexico, but also comes with new regulatory and technology challenges.
“We want to not just serve the upscale premium market, but also replace honey in any channel where they exist today,” Mandich said. “We have in mind that when the General Mills of the world want to make bee-less Honey Nut Cheerios, we’re ready to supply them.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected]