Technical University of Denmark: DTU start-up introduces mycelium-based foods

It is half past eleven when DTU Skylab Café opens for sale of today’s lunch. Hungry DTU students and staff flock to the café, which is located in the innovation hub at Lyngby Campus.

The café, which is known for serving green dishes based on organic ingredients, has a new and special item on the menu today.

Little by little, the café fills with happy customers who patiently take their place in the growing queue. When they reach the counter, they spot a dish that brings to mind a ‘make-your-own-sandwich’ buffet with whole grain bread, salad, french fries, and various vegetable dips. Next to the bread tray is a platter of ‘Tempty’, which can best be described as a light brown plant steak similar to a falafel.

“It’s delicious,” says a woman in a chef’s uniform after having tried Tempty. She’s at the table with two colleagues from Skylab Café, who elaborate: “It smells delicious” and “it tastes like roasted quinoa. Sweet and spicy.”

In the far corner of the café, we find the young entrepreneurs Martina Lokajova, Cecilie Engvang Lund, and Ana Pejic, all dressed in pink T-shirts with a logo that says ‘Tempty Foods’. The entrepreneurs closely observe the behaviour of the customers and ask them to take a minute to fill out the survey questionnaire they have placed on the tables. We’ll come back to that later.

The residence hall kitchen
To understand the story behind Tempty Foods, we turn back the clock to 2021. Martina Lokajova, Cecilie Engvang Lund, and Ana Pejic meet each other at an online course about the innovative foods of the future. During the course, they quickly discover that they have different competences that complement each other well. They also have the same strong entrepreneurial drive.

They decide to form a start-up and work on Zoom for a few months with the aim of developing climate-friendly and healthy plant-based diets—without meeting physically. Merely five days after having established their start-up, they sign up for the accelerator programme DTU Skylab Ignite to mature their entrepreneurial idea and develop a solid business plan.

The trio gets in the accelerator programme, and even though the experimental kitchen at the innovation hub DTU Skylab is closed due to corona restrictions, they succeed in developing the first prototypes based on mycelium in Ana Pejic’s residence hall kitchen.

Mycelium are fungal roots that can be made edible through fermentation. Fermentation is used to produce a wide range of well-known foods, e.g. bread, yogurt, cheese, sausages, beer, and wine.

The start-up’s vision is to produce a plant-based alternative to meat and other protein sources—not for the purpose of mimicking meat, but to make a new, sustainable product with amazing taste and texture. Tempty Foods is passionate about pushing the development of plant-based foods to make a real difference for people and the planet.

The carbon footprint of their product is 40 times less than in the production of beef mince and three times less than the production of tofu.

Winning project
In May 2021, Tempty Foods wins first prize for best start-up project and DKK 25,000 in the above-mentioned accelerator programme.

Martina Lokajova, Cecilie Engvang Lund, and Ana Pejic present their prototype and their business plan to a panel of judges consisting of experienced entrepreneurs in true ‘Lion’s Den’ style. ‘Lion’s Den’ is a TV show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas in the hope that the ‘lions’ will invest in their idea.

After many attempts in the kitchen, the group has succeeded in producing their plant-based product, which they serve to the judges. The tastings are described by the judges as ‘delicious’ and ‘a crispy, tasty snack’.

In addition, the judges say Tempty Foods are worthy winners “because they have created a product which is not already on the market, has the right timing, and benefits the climate and society.”

The following month, Tempty Foods also wins first prize in the European food innovation competition Ecotrophelia.

Just a year later, in April 2022, Martina Lokajova, Cecilie Engvang Lund, and Ana Pejic find themselves back on the podium to receive an award. This time, they win DTU’s Student Start-up of the Year prize that is presented to them by Executive Vice President for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Marianne Thellersen.

“When we select this year’s student start-up, it has to be someone who has accelerated a lot in one year. The requirement is that the start-up must not be more than a year old, so you must be super dedicated and you have to spend a lot of your free time to become start-up of the year,” Marianne Thellersen praises the award recipients.

The ceremony takes place during DTU’s Commemoration Day, which among others is attended by Crown Prince Frederik.

Full-time work
When the three entrepreneurs started collaborating on developing a new sustainable and healthy plant-based product, they were all doing a full Master’s degree programme. The trio spend all their waking hours developing and getting their product ready to go to market.

Now they have all finished their studies and are working full-time in their start-up. Using donations from a successful crowdfunding campaign, Tempty Foods has rented a professional kitchen from where they prepare and develop their product. The next goal is to open a webshop where they can start selling to their growing circle of customers.

“In the long term, we would like to get the product out in the supermarkets and present more product types,” says Cecilie Engvang Lund, who is a recent Food Technology graduate from DTU in March 2022.

Ana Pejic, responsible for further developing taste and texture, and an recent Food Innovation and Health graduate from UCPH in January 2022, adds:

“We are creating a summer version of Tempty, where we use seasonal vegetables. The vision is to create an entire taste universe with different shapes and flavors. That work is an never-ending process.”

For Martina Lokajova—a recent graduate Technology Entrepreneurship graduate from DTU in March 2022—Tempty Foods is like a process coming full circle.

“My first start-up project failed because it would take too long to make the product viable. With Tempty Foods, we have hit a gap in the market because studies show that Danes would like to eat more plant-based products to promote the green transition of their food consumption, says Martina Lokajova.

The journey continues
Back at DTU Skylab Café, 140 servings of Tempty have been sold in just 90 minutes. At the exit, the three entrepreneurs collect the completed questionnaires in a ballot box.

The responses turn out to be mostly positive, and Tempty Foods can conclude that customers are generally satisfied with the product and would like to eat it again.

On the ballot box, you can also read about the group’s start-up journey. A journey that began in February 2021 and is far from over.

“It’s great that you can create your own business while you’re a student. Of course, it’s tough because you put a lot of hours into it, but we’ve always maintained focus on achieving our goals. Along the way, we have joined forces with many advisors from DTU and mentors who have helped and supported us all the way,” says Cecilie Engvang Lund and adds:

“If you have a great idea and are passionate about it, go for it. It sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s really true.”

Most recently, Innovation Fund Denmark has awarded Tempty Foods ‘Innofounder’ funding which is earmarked for early-stage entrepreneurial ideas. In addition, the trio has been accepted in the GreenUP programme in the acceleration and incubation house Futurebox in DTU Science Park. This ensures Martina Lokajova, Cecilie Engvang Lund and Ana Pejic full financial and strategic support to further develop their start-up at least one year ahead.