Cosmic Eats – Developing Foods for Space and the Human Race
Cary startup Cosmic Eats wants to develop foods that are out of this world – literally.
A trio of North Carolina scientists conceived of the company more than a year and a half ago when they entered and won $25,000 in Phase 1 of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Deep Space Food Challenge. Their initial success provided the impetus for the new business—Cosmic Eats, incorporated early in 2022 – and a promising new product.
The Deep Space Food Challenge is a global competition to find innovative ways to produce nutritious food for long-duration space missions. Entries must have more terrestrial applications as well.
Sheetal Shah, Ph.D., and Angel Turner – both of whom have decades of experience in agricultural and plant science technology and food systems – heard about the challenge and came up with a solution they could submit. They soon brought in a third partner – Marvin Moncada, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University.
Their entry was a machine that uses an integrated system to grow plants, algae and fungi aboard a spacecraft, with minimal resources. It’s also designed to guide conversion of these foodstuffs into healthy meals that meet nutritional targets set by NASA. The technology could provide a renewable food source for extended periods in space. NASA’s planned round trip to Mars will take three years, for example, so it’s not feasible to carry enough prepackaged foods to sustain astronauts’ food requirements.
The system is designed to measure and satisfy the nutritional needs of each astronaut with a variety of customized menus of flavorful, visually attractive meals – think cosmic chalupas and smoothies – that can be prepared from the three basic food sources. “We integrate a lot of both old and new technology,” said Turner, the company’s chief technology officer.
After lots of late nights and numerous Zoom calls, “we submitted our entry exactly one minute before the deadline,” Shah said. All their hard work paid off. Cosmic Eats was one of only 18 applications in the U.S. selected as winners of the first phase of the competition. More than 300 entries were submitted.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – a unit of the U.S. Department of Defense that invests in breakthrough technologies for national security – heard of Cosmic Eats’ concept and was interested in more-earthly applications. As a result, the company recently secured a DARPA award to develop a system prototype.
The potential benefits of Cosmic Eats’ technology stretch as far as Mars and hit as close to home as the next natural disaster, where supply-chain vulnerabilities could make it difficult to deliver a steady flow of food to devastated areas.
The technology also can target regions around the world where climate change has negatively impacted the food chain. “I’m passionate about this project because it can localize and, as a result, help democratize food supply and access,” Shah pointed out.
A feeding system for the military to grow most, if not all, the food needed in the field or on naval vessels is in the planning stages as well. It is designed with the flexibility to meet the nutritional needs of almost any sized group, large or small.
Shah said Cosmic Eats’ prototype is under development at the company’s Cary, N.C. facility. NC State also is involved in the project at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis. That facility, just north of Charlotte, concentrates on the discovery and translation of plant and food innovations into products that can help prevent disease and promote good health.
Cosmic Eats’ goal is to have a marketable product ready to go within the next five years.