Scale and price parity remain front of mind for companies across the alt-protein sector, but 2023 holds exciting prospects following the first US approval of cultivated chicken, as well as new brand partnerships and continued investor interest.
As Future Food-Tech San Francisco grows ever closer, key industry players share insights on tackling capacity roadblocks for precision fermentation, evolving the cell-based ecosystem with breakthrough growth media and scaffolding technologies, and addressing nutrition, taste and texture in plant-based products.
Challenges paving the way for alt-protein solutions
Times of volatility stimulate demand for new solutions, and Tiffany Suekama, VP of Research & Development, CURRENT FOODS thinks this has enabled “a prime occasion for innovating“.
She goes on to say: “We have only recently witnessed real advancements with sustainable alternatives, particularly with meat, and can rely on results coming out of years of food science. With this in mind, we continue to pioneer the transition to a more sustainable food system with the hope that our progressive niche will overcome challenges that traditional products don’t have to suffer from as severely. As the technologies continue to scale, we look out for potential synergies within the space to realize our mutual goals.”
The global supply chain has been shaken by recent disruptions, creating opportunities for new production platforms to emerge. Julian Melchiorri, CEO & Founder, ARBOREA says: “Current systemic disruptions coupled with an ever-increasing environmental pressure are revealing the fragility of our supply-chain. One core requirement is to create new and efficient protein production systems, such as Arborea’s novel photosynthetic fermentation platform, that are based on sustainable and unlimited feedstocks.”
Avian influenza is the latest epidemic wreaking havoc across the poultry farming community. Maija Itkonen, Co-Founder & CEO, ONEGO BIO comments: “Avian flu is currently causing major supply chain issues with egg production and availability and egg prices skyrocketing. This underscores a critical need to provide an animal-free solution. Onego Bio has developed a way to produce bioidentical egg protein with cost parity, stable production and up to 90% lower environmental footprint.”
Difficulties in reaching scale
Whilst current challenges are opening the door for alternative proteins, scaling obstacles remain and need to be addressed in order for new innovations to scale, reach price parity and onto the consumer’s shelves.
As Shalom Daniel, Founder & CEO, MUSH FOODS puts it: “Sales of plant-based options have reached a kind of glass ceiling, serving a niche market and failing to achieve widespread penetration of the mainstream meat-eating population.”
“Highly promising long-term solutions like precision fermentation and cell-based production exist, but are not immediately available on a meaningful scale. To overcome 2023’s myriad challenges, new thinking and innovations that are immediately scaleable are required. To that end, Mush Foods’ 50CUT hybrid mission focuses on reducing meat consumption, as opposed to eliminating it, and employs technology that can be drastically scaled even within this year.”
Cost remains a defining factor in driving consumer shopping habits, meaning that price parity is a major issue when it comes to consumer acceptance of emerging novel food and ingredients.
Giuseppe Sionti, CEO & Founder, NOVAMEAT emphasizes: “Consumers are not going to pay a premium price for products with unclear nutritional values, and inferior taste and texture, compared to their animal-based counterparts. On top of that, there is an urgent need for new scalable technologies to allow the industry to move from plant-based unstructured meats towards the holy grail, the whole cuts, which represent about 80% of animal meat purchases in the US.”
Didier Toubia, Co-Founder & CEO, ALEPH FARMS believes that standing in the way of price parity and scale-up is: “the high cost of certain key elements in meat cultivation, as well as the capital-intensive nature of cultivating meat more generally. I believe that infrastructure, strategy and innovation are all key to overcoming these barriers.
Establishing strategic supply chain agreements can help overcome cost barriers in large-scale production. For instance, Aleph Farms’ non-exclusive agreement with WACKER, a major supplier of leading protein production technologies, enables any cultivated meat company to procure the same proteins we’ve co-developed together, accelerating economies of scale and matching growth media to the quantity, quality and cost that match food industry standards.
To address the capital-intensive nature of cultivating meat, demonstrating financial aptitude is vital. Companies need to mobilize resources in a way that lets them invest in capital expenditures (CapEx) so that later they can build infrastructure for large-scale production.”
Roadblocks for precision fermentation
What are the biggest roadblocks for precision fermentation, and what innovative technologies are being put into practice to overcome these?
Romy M. Dalton, COO, COCOON BIOSCIENCE: “Scaling up the production of ingredients for precision fermentation companies is currently the biggest obstacle. Although great advances have been made in ingredients, such as precision-fermentation production of casein and ovomucoid egg protein, the scale of production makes it difficult to compete on cost with commoditized ingredients.
Scale-up is hindered in part because many of the large fermenters in the world are owned by large food ingredient companies. If these companies operate with a competitive mindset over a cooperative mindset, there are no alternatives of that scale available. And there is a lack of intermediate production capabilities. No one wants to jump from a 100L trial to an investment of a 300,000L trial production.
A major hurdle is consumer acceptance, which is tied in part to regulatory approval. Once the authorities stamp precision fermentation-based foods as safe, consumers will have an avenue to try and adopt them into their diet, leading to an increase in demand and a justification in investment for scaling up production.”
Inja Radman, CSO, NEW CULTURE: “Fermentation capacity required to manufacture the food ingredients at industry-relevant volumes and cost structures is still not there. This is a critical driver to scale up successfully long term across the entire precision fermentation industry. Building a network of well-outfitted and skilfully-staffed manufacturing facilities offers the greatest opportunity for us to scale and bring our animal-free cheese to the most people as quickly as possible.”
Albrecht Wolfmeyer, International & National Head, PROVEG INCUBATOR: “Precision fermentation at scale depends on the availability of costly infrastructure and complex extraction processes. These are the main technical hurdles, while regulatory questions and consumer acceptance also come into play. While companies like Perfect Day and the Every Company are making huge progress and bringing their products to some markets, it is still unclear how consumers will react to such novel products on a larger scale. Using carbon dioxide, hydrogen and other gases to feed microbes to generate proteins could prove to be a booster for precision fermentation. It needs less space, energy and water. Instead of adding to deforestation and climate change it has the potential to recycle climate-wrecking gases. This approach, if scalable, is definitely much more efficient and sustainable than conventional protein production, which needs to be overcome.”
Despite all of this, many are hopeful, and although precision fermentation has been around for decades, NEW CULTURE’s Inja Radman shares that “the field has attracted significant investments in recent years – $1.7 billion in 2021 alone – for alternative protein production. The recent market volatility will challenge the sector, yet we remain confident that it’s a temporary obstacle on our steady path to success. 2023 will be a defining year for the company as we introduce our product to the public, a critical step in pioneering a more sustainable, delicious path forward for cheese.”
Alex Davisson, Ventures Associate, PLUG AND PLAY seconds the growing support from investors: “I believe investors have realized the potential of precision fermentation, but are struggling with the capital requirements required to scale. I am encouraged by President Biden’s executive order to invest $2 billion in biotechnology infrastructure as well as various international grant programs that encourage investment in biotechnology. There are several exciting entrepreneurs starting ventures in the picks and shovels of precision fermentation and cellular agriculture like Multus Media, Extracellular, and Liberation Labs to name a few. I am looking forward to see the development of a robust co-manufacturing landscape within the food-focused biotech industry.”
There have been exciting strides made around regulation, with the FDA submitting ‘no questions’ to Upside Foods cell-based chicken, but what impact will this have for other cell-based products, and the wider alt-protein sector?
Anne Marie Butler, Global Director of Strategy and Innovation, EDLONG FLAVOR SOLUTIONS: “Upside Foods have really paved the way for other companies to enter the market but it also sets the tone with manufacturers and developer and eventually consumers.
Seeing the FDA submit a “no questions” letter to Upside is a clear indication that they feel cultivated chicken is safe. For other cell based product manufacturers this is the green light that their endeavours are viable and opens up the market door. For the alt protein sector in general I think the overall impact will be a positive one. Non animal dairy products are starting to filter into the market and even the use of alternative proteins from traditional plant proteins to precision fermented proteins is growing.”
Guy Nevo Michrowski, CEO, PROFUSE TECHNOLGY also believes this to be a major development: “It is a key milestone achieved towards bringing cultivated meat products to market, reducing one of the big uncertainties relating to the cultivated meat industry. We have also seen other regulatory entities confirming cultivated meat validity, in Israel the Chief Rabbi of Israel has affirmed the first product as Kosher by Aleph Farms. I expect more companies will receive FDA approval during 2023.
Another interesting point regarding this approval: the FDA also approved the use of a GMO cell line which is central to few cultivated meat companies’ technology strategy. I believe we will see more products that are based on GMO cell-lines.”
The news is bound to impact the cultivated meat sector positively, Didier Toubia, Co-Founder & CEO, ALEPH FARMS sharing that even in other key markets, many look to these FDA decisions as predictors: “Regulators in different countries and regions are still learning about cell-based proteins, so their review processes will demonstrate the utmost vigilance. In parallel with this learning, each successive milestone builds on all the others that come before it, propelling the entire sector forward.”
PLUG AND PLAY’s Alex Davisson emphasizes the impact that this will have on the consumer: “Widespread consumer acceptance will hinge upon decisions regulatory agencies make regarding labeling cell-based products. The initial market traction and continued venture support of cell-based products relies on consumer support. The labeling of these products as dictated by regulatory agencies will play a significant role in determining that consumer acceptance.”
Outlook for 2023
Despite some coverage of the market, this year holds exciting prospects for the alternative protein space, with continued investor interest and exciting brand partnerships on the horizon.
Anne Marie Butler, Global Director of Strategy and Innovation, EDLONG FLAVOR SOLUTIONS: “While it has been a difficult year for the plant based industry I think several important steps forward have occurred, one of these being key players in the market entering the plant based space – Kraft launching a plant based Philadelphia and Baby Bel launching a plant based version to name but a few. Named brands which have strong consumer loyalty entering the plant based space reinforces the plant based footing but also draws new customers in with the familiarity and trust consumers place in these brands.
The key innovations we are seeing are improvements to the ingredients, changes in processing and of course collaboration between manufacturers and suppliers to offer even better tasting and improved texture solutions. A great example of this is the Kraft and Notco collaboration – taking the best of two companies to make even further strides in the quality of plant based products on the market.”
Albrecht Wolfmeyer, International & National Head, PROVEG INCUBATOR: “For plant-based, functional and healthy, clean-label solutions will be able to stay more competitive while simple me-too products and brands will have a hard time. Companies leveraging different types of fermentation at scale to enhance nutritional profiles and bring down the number of ingredients will be the winners. The standards of nutritional and sensory profiles of plant-based products have to be pushed to take this space to a new level. We will see new players emerging but also established ones – think Eat Just or Impossible Foods – stepping up their activities and entering new markets.”