Deep Branch is ready for the big step

Why we write about this topic:

There is a CO2 crisis and we are looking for replacements for animal proteins. This company kills two birds with one stone.

The Anglo-Dutch startup Deep Branch on Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Sittard-Geleen seems to be becoming a true game changer. In short: it is capable of capturing CO2 gas from factories, for example, and converting it into proteins. Briton Pete Rowe is the CEO. A man on a mission? Short silence, then: ‘Let’s say: a company with a mission.’

Rowe is on his way to an executive finance course in Paris by car. While he is making his way through the banlieus, we speak to him on the eve of a major breakthrough for Deep Branch: the opening of a factory on campus where the exclusive protein Proton will be produced for the first time.

Actually, Rowe wanted to be a professional rugby player. ‘That’s possible in England, but along the way I discovered that I just wasn’t good enough.’ He fell back on another love: that of biology. That soon became biotechnology. ‘At the university in Manchester where biotechnology was linked to entrepreneurship, I became interested in technical and industrial applications. I learned all the principles of process technology, especially in microbiology and how to start a small business in it. That gave me a very good foundation. Then I was especially interested in the possibility of sustainable production.’


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Sustainable solutions

Pete Rowe received his Ph.D. in molecular microbiology from the University of Nottingham’s Synthetic Biology Research Center for a company developing sustainable solutions in biotechnology. For example, for industrial gas as a by-product. “That got me on my way to what I’m doing now.”

In 2018, Rowe laid the foundation for Deep Branch. The company started in Nottingham, then initially operated from Leiden and now from Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen. With CO2, water, hydrogen and micro-organisms proteins are made, which can be used as an ingredient for chicken feed and fish feed. Rowe is delighted not only because a seemingly simple process like fermentation allows him to convert gas, which is a by-product of other industries, into protein, but also because the positive impact on the environment is considerable. Just think: chickens and farmed fish in Europe are mainly fed with fishmeal and soya from Brazil and Argentina. Leaving aside the effects on the seas that are being fished out and the rainforests that are being cleared for soy cultivation, the transport of unprecedented amounts of fish and soy meal is extremely harmful to the environment. Rowe claims that their method can reduce the carbon footprint of ingredients by 90%, compared to the current overseas procedure.

30 Under 30

In 2017 he went to the Netherlands for the first time to work for a year for an organic technology company in the agri-food sector. ‘That’s where I came across technology to make proteins from chemical by-products.’ He shuttled up and down between the Netherlands and Nottingham and actually still does. Thinking in solutions has always appealed to him. During his time at the Research Center in Nottingham, for example, he designed a toolkit for CRISPR, part of the bacterial defense mechanism against viruses. This was useful in biotechnology and in healthcare. That did not go unnoticed. Pete Rowe was included on the Forbes list ’30 Under 30 for Manufacturing and Industry’ in 2019. He worked on solutions for, for example, sustainable fuel for aircraft and the prevention of gasification of chicks in factory farming. Three years later, Deep Branch presents the slogan Clean ingredients for climate-friendly food.

‘I’m a real foodie, so I really want us to continue to enjoy food. But please in a responsible way’


Can we conclude from this that Rowe is a man on a mission? He pauses for a moment – ​​he’s still looking in Paris. Repeats the question. “Let me say our company is partly mission-driven. We definitely want to contribute to making this world a better place. And we think the food chain is a good way to do that. On the one hand because food will always have an impact on the environment, on the other hand because we cannot do without it. Look, we can also talk about fewer flights, electric cars or technology that will help us get rid of fossil fuels, but that does not alter the fact that people always need food. In a way, it’s a double benefit: we need more food to feed the world’s population and if we can do that in a way that is less polluting per capita, we can achieve huge savings on CO2, water consumption, deforestation and so on. Listen, I’m a real foodie, so I really want us to continue to enjoy food. But please in a responsible way.’

Pilot installation

Pete Rowe, Deep Branch, Photo © Marcel van Hoorn

Rowe does not want to say much about possible applications other than fish and poultry feed. The pilot plant on Brightlands Chemelot Campus will soon open to produce Proton. According to Rowe, there is demand from all over the world for various applications of the single-cell protein. ‘Also from the food industry. They are very interested in a sustainable high-protein ingredient that also contains no animal components. With the new pilot plant we hope to roll out the technology in the future to be able to produce on a commercial scale and to discover how we can develop the volumes.’ To achieve this, Rowe thinks that about ten tons per year should be enough to roll out the process on a large scale.

“We are dealing with a global climate crisis. It must therefore also be tackled on that scale’

Nitrogen Debate

Of course, Pete Rowe also follows the nitrogen debate in the Netherlands. Can Deep Branch contribute to that? ‘We are dealing with a global climate crisis here. It must therefore also be tackled on that scale. Exporting problems doesn’t help anyone. I think we need to make food production more sustainable on all fronts. And that mainly means: producing locally. The war in the Ukraine shows how vulnerable our food system is.’ So back to the chicken and fish meal we use in Europe? Pete Rowe: “No, other than transportation, I think it’s dangerous that we’re so dependent on a few countries in South America.”

According to Pete Rowe, the developments at Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen are extremely interesting and promising for the future in many areas. ‘The entire transformation of DSM has ultimately resulted in a lot of activity, knowledge, entrepreneurial spirit and facilities on the campus. We take full advantage of that.’

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