The report's apocalyptic predictions “seemed outlandish,” when it first came out, said Ryan Bethencourt, co-founder of petfood brand Wild Earth, partner at Babel Ventures and co-founder at IndieBio, a biology accelerator and early stage seed fund.
But it’s becoming increasingly obvious – to investors; startups making products from plants, cultured animal cells, and microbes; and the world’s leading meat and dairy companies - that there are more efficient and sustainable ways to feed people, he told delegates at the two-day Alt Protein virtual event, which was hosted by Protein Directory and CellAgri.
“We’ll see more change in the next 10 years than we’ve seen in the last 10,000 years. Food is a technology. Let me repeat that… and we know that with technology, we often overestimate how much progress we can make in a year, but underestimate what we can do in a decade.”
(Click HERE to watch all of the presentations from the event.)
Products containing animal proteins (such as collagen and whey protein) made via microbes (yeast, bacteria, fungi, algae etc) are already on the market; plant-based meat, egg, and dairy products are rapidly gaining traction; and cell-cultured meat – a potentially hugely disruptive technology - is coming to market soon, said Bethencourt.
“Right now it’s [the alternative protein market] driven by plant-based products, but will see more recombinant and cell-based companies as they come online… and cellular agriculture is about so much more than meat. Now you can even grow cotton without the plant by culturing plant cells.”
The world’s largest meat companies – which tend to describe themselves as ‘protein’ companies these days – have all invested in plant-based and cell-based meat in recent years, noted fellow speaker Paul Shapiro, co-founder at Better Meat Co, a startup supplying plant proteins that blend into ground meat products at inclusion rates of up to 50% to create a new wave of ‘hybrid’ products.
While no one knows how significant a share of the conventional meat industry will be taken by alternative proteins, the meat giants “all want to be Canon, not Kodak,” which saw it market share collapse as the market replaced photographic film with digital – a technology Kodak had actually pioneered, but suppressed, noted Shapiro.
They also understand that while people love meat, “Most people do not eat meat because animals were slaughtered, they eat it in spite of that fact,” added Shapiro, who says hybrid products enable large meat firms to ease into the market, reduce their environmental footprint and improve their nutritional credentials.
Corporates invest to learn…
Tom Mastrobuoni, chief investment officer at Big Idea Ventures, and formerly CFO at Tyson Ventures (the venture arm of meat giant Tyson Foods), added that while VC funds are looking for the next unicorn in the space, with a “rockstar team,” massive addressable market and the ability to make a successful exit in 3-5 years, “corporates invest to learn.”
While some corporate venture units are set up to be M&A feeders for the company, he added, others are “interested in learning about new markets and adjacencies, and things they don’t have core competencies in.”
‘Food security is a key driver behind the interest in cellular agriculture’
Ahmed Khan, founder and editor of CellAgri - the co-organizer/co-host of the Alt Protein Conference - noted that COVID-19 had also thrown many of the challenges facing the global meat supply chain into further relief, and highlighted the appeal of proteins that can be manufactured from a distributed network of local production facilities using a fraction of the land, water, and inputs required to raise and feed animals.
They also have the added appeal of consistent quality, a lack of price volatility, and security of supply, he said.
“Food security is a key driver behind the interest in cellular agriculture, particularly in Asia.”
Before we all get carried away…
But before we all get carried away, it’s worth remembering that the infrastructure to deliver this brave new world isn’t – even remotely – there yet, said Matt Gibson, co-founder at New Culture, a startup developing lactose-free mozzarella (minus the cows) using engineered microbes that can produce casein, which is instrumental to the meltability, stretch, structure and texture of cheese.
“New Zealand [where Gibson grew up] produces 22bn liters of milk annually, or 600 million kilos of casein protein. To produce that much casein protein via fermentation, we’d essentially have to use all of the fermentation capacity globally… and the kicker is that's only 3% of the world’s milk production. So the real bottleneck here is scale.
"I don’t think this is going to happen overnight.”
‘We’re getting to the point now where it’s no longer enough so say, ‘Hey we’re making recombinant casein protein, please give us some money…’
While using synthetic biology to ‘program’ microbes to make animal proteins seems pretty new and exciting right now, the competition is already heating up, added Gibson.
“A large challenge is displaying what your unique point of difference is within synbio, which is not cheap. We’re getting to the point now where it’s no longer enough so say, ‘Hey we’re making recombinant casein protein, please give us some money.’ You have to display your different formulations or something that makes you stand out.”
Clara Foods CTO: ‘We’re working on the world’s most soluble protein…’
At Clara Foods, for example – which is producing egg proteins via microbial fermentation – the team is most excited about individual proteins in eggs with unique properties that had not previously been explored as it is too expensive to extract them from eggs, said CTO Dr Ranjan Patnaik.
“We’re able to produce specific proteins such as iron-carrying proteins, anti-microbial proteins, proteins with amazing nutritional properties and functionalities that will just wow you as a consumer.
“So for example, we’re working on the world’s most soluble protein. It’s amazing as proteins generally don’t dissolve… Our discovery pipeline has proteins that are amazing and we are unraveling new functionalities that can go into the entire culinary space in a very different way.”
A series C funding round is planned for early 2021 to accelerate mass market penetration, expand R&D capabilities, and broaden product application development, he said, noting that fermentation addresses multiple pain points in the egg industry from animal welfare, food safety and traceability issues to price volatility and supply chain challenges.
Plant-based meat and dairy: ‘We still have a long way to go’
Motif FoodWorks - which is developing ‘high impact’ ingredients that could be added to plant-based meat and dairy formulations in small quantities but make a significant difference to the eating experience – said plant-based meat and dairy products had improved exponentially over the past couple of years.
But they still need some work, argued CTO Dr Mike Leonard, who expects to launch commercial products “towards the back half of next year.
"There's still a gap between what consumers are getting and what they want” due to a “lack of deep understanding of the physics and chemistry that really dictate the performance of ingredients in plant-based foods.
“The technology has come a long way, but we can all agree that we still have a long way to go and in many cases we’re kind of stuck at a plateau,” added Leonard, who believes synthetic biology is “one of the key ways we can do more with less in the food industry.”
But in addition to synthetic biology, he said, “we’re investing in a variety of other areas including fat performance; rheology; texture; and proteins by partnering with a network of research partners and academics.”
'Are there effective alternatives to methyl cellulose that will do all of these things? Not really...'
As for progress on developing shorter, ‘cleaner’ ingredients lists in processed plant-based meat products such as burgers, Linda Bellekom Allen at UK-based Big Village Consulting said methyl cellulose remains a go-to ingredient for formulators for binding, succulence, bite, emulsification, and stability during cooking.
“Are there effective alternatives that will do all of these things? Not really. There are various things that will do part it [ie. deliver some of its functionality], but nothing will do the whole lot.”
Startups to watch…
Alternative protein and cellular ag startups presenting at the event included:
- MeliBio (San Francisco) – producing honey… minus the bees.
- Peace of Meat(Antwerp) – producing cell-cultured fat for plant-based meat companies that can replace existing fats, binders and flavoring agents, helping firms create a cleaner label, with prototype hybrid nuggets (made from cell-cultured animal fat and plant-based proteins) scoring higher on flavor, juiciness, texture and tenderness than 100% plant-based products.
- Gourmey (Paris) – producing cell-cultured fois gras
- Multus Media (London) – developing growth media for cell-cultured meat
- Orbillion Bio (Berkeley) - providing optimized cell lines to cell-cultured startups
- Spira (Los Angeles) - using CRISPR gene editing techniques to create more stable natural blue pigments from spirulina, and exploring the potential of spirulina protein isolate and other ingredients. (watch a video HERE)
- Better Nature (London) – producing tempeh products from soy and lupin
- GreenFood50 (The Netherlands) – producing next-gen quinoa ingredients
“We might be able to create a better food future that also has more novel and interesting culinary experiences ... maybe you’ll go to a local pub and instead of brewing their own IPA they are brewing their own meat, and maybe there’s a pig in the backyard of the restaurant from whom those cells were derived, and maybe you can order the pork chops and go back and tip your hat to the pig that donated the cells for the pork chops…”
Paul Shapiro, co-founder and CEO, The Better Meat Co; author: ‘Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World
“At New Culture Foods, we like to say we’re making cow cheese without the cow.
"Current plant-based cheese alternatives are simply not good enough for the mainstream consumer to buy based on price, taste and function… they lack the meltability, stretch, structure and texture of real cheese.
"Our mozzarella is animal-free and sustainable but also lactose-free and has all the functionality you’d expect because we’re producing real casein proteins in a micelle form – that’s the beauty of cellular agriculture.”
Matt Gibson, co-founder and CEO, New Culture