Scaling alt-protein production: What to know about moving from lab to commercial scale

By Ryan Daily

- Last updated on GMT

Image Credit: Getty Image - 	visualspace
Image Credit: Getty Image - visualspace

Related tags alternative proteins Manufacturing precision fermentation Future Food-Tech

Alt-protein companies scaling their fermentation processes beyond the lab face numerous challenges that require them to think through production processes, raw ingredients, and the design of a manufacturing facility to create a commercially viable product.

“There is a very different mindset required between discovery and production. ... Moving a company from discovery, ideation, and all the absolute ups and downs of an early-stage startup, even to ... a mid-stage startup, it is a [big] differences in maturity of the company and the breadth of knowledge,” Brian Jacobson, associate director of strategic operations at the University of Illinois, told FoodNavigator-USA.  

‘A really steep learning curve’ between moving beyond the lab

Many alt-protein companies start in a lab setting, where they create a small amount of a protein using benchtop bioreactors, which is different than equipment used in commercial production, Jacobson explained. 

“There is a really steep learning curve between running in a glass reactor on a benchtop and buying quantities of materials at scale with the type of equipment that looks and feels like industrial equipment that may not be that familiar to somebody from a lab setting.” 

The University of Illinois opened the Integrative Bioprocessing Research Lab (IBRL)​ in 2018, a pilot-scale facility where alt-protein startups can learn how to scale production up to a 1,500-milliliter fermentation tank, Jacobson shared. 

IBRL helps "companies go from ... two PhDs in a lab" to creating the processes and technical know-how to create alt proteins at a larger scale. Other institutions, like the University of California, Davis Integrative Center for Alternative Meat and Protein ​offer similar support to alt-protein startups.

“You need to get that scale to a minimum that kilogram scale, where you have enough product, you can hold it, you can turn it into a burger, [and] ... , you can make your final product.”

Additionally, the IBRL helps startups understand the best raw materials — sugars, amino acids, etc. — to use in their fermentation process, Jacobson said. Many alt-protein startups mistakenly purchase American Chemical Society (ACS) reagent-grade ingredients, considered the highest standard in terms of ingredient quality, when cheaper options are available to them, he added. 

“You can call any of the major corn processors and get food-grade dextrose for $50 to $100 a bag, instead of $250 per 100 grams [for ACS reagent grade ingredients]. So, you have to think through those.”

He added, “Think of all the micronutrients that you need, the salts, and those that you need to have the organism work off of, a lot of that stuff in its simplest form is like fertilizer. You can work with grades that are very acceptable for food, [and] it will get you through GRAS certification.” 

[Editor's note: To learn more about overcoming the challenges of scaling alt protein production, attend the upcoming Future Food-Tech Alternative Protein event, June 17-18, 2024, in Chicago. Learn more about the event by visiting the event website​ and register here​. 

During the “Accelerating Scale in Precision Fermentation: Advancing Protein & Lipid Production & Yield” session, Jacobson and Elizabeth Teigland, head of new food fermentation at Tetra Pak U.S. and Canada; and Nicki Heverling Briggs, founding member and chair of the Precision Fermentation Alliance, will discuss overcoming these challenges.]

Future Food-Tech Alternative Proteins - Social Graphic

 

Next step: Commercial production

Alt-protein companies that have successfully scaled to IBRL’s current capacity will then need to find a commercial production facility, which often requires them to build a new facility, Jacobson said. 

“What we are working on now is ... how do we get companies to actually scale all the way through to production. And that is needed because without getting to production scale, we are not going to hit the price points that we need.” 

Alt-protein plant design 101: Do not forget the drain

Ultimately, alt-protein startups will need to build their own facility to produce enough of their ingredient to meet demand, Jamie Valenti-Jordan, CEO of Catapult Commercialization Services, told FoodNavigator-USA. Building a facility from scratch often requires careful planning from both a design and capital perspective, he explained. 

“Building a food-processing facility is what it comes down to. There are not a ton of extra ones out there for [people to] just move into. So, there is a lot of additional expenditure around the infrastructure of walls and floors and ceilings that a lot of people do not build into their own systems or their own financial models.” 

Many alt-protein startups “are so focused on the primary equipment that they do not know or understand or know how to spec out or operate that accessory equipment,” like boilers for cleaning purposes, Valenti-Jordan explained. 

The process equipment — including fermentation tanks — “in many cases is only 40% of the cost of the facility,” he elaborated. Startups can incur needless expenses by not considering the build-out of the facility’s drainage system or other crucial manufacturing infrastructure, he added.   

“There is a whole host of design criteria around drains. ... I know places that have put in drains and then had to rip them all out and put in entirely new drains, or they put in all their equipment, and then had to uninstall all their equipment to cut their floors to be able to slope them to drain because it was not built in that way to begin with.” 

Ultimately, alt-protein companies must have enough capital to cover any unexpected expenditures related to building a plant, Valenti-Jordan said.  

“If you have only raised $1 million to cover $800,000 worth of equipment, you are going to come up supremely short by $1 million,” said Valenti-Jordan. “You have seen this happen in recent memory in the industry when people will start building a facility, and sure enough, three months later [or] six months later, they have stopped building because they realized they did not have the cash to actually do everything they needed to do.” 

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