“We need a lot of publicly-funded open-access research to advance this field as quickly as possible.”
Seren Kell, science and technology manager at the Good Food Institute Europe and cofounder of Cellular Agriculture UK which is a community of cellular ag advocates, is speaking to AFN following a £20 million ($22 million) pledge from UK’s Biotechnical and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Innovate UK to jointly invest in the alternative protein industry.
The BBSRC, which happens to be the UK’s biggest public funder of non-medical bioscience, made the commitment in its 2022-2025 strategic delivery plan to invest in “capacity building, research, innovation and business-led commercialisation to help develop alternative, more sustainable protein sources.”
“It’s great to see one of Britain’s biggest funding bodies investing in research that will help make sustainable proteins more appealing and affordable, and help to establish the UK as a world leader in this growing industry,” said Kell.
A push for open-access research in alternative protein
Kell is an advocate for open-access research, which has not been common in the space.
“Companies do really great work. And a lot of the innovation we’ve seen in the industry has been dominated by companies, which means that very little of the research that has been done has been open access,” Kell tells AFN.
Not sharing findings between companies can slow down the industry’s overall progress, since companies are more likely to duplicate work that has already been produced, costing not just time but money. Another issue with private research is that in the event a company shuts down, its findings go down with it.
“If any particular company doesn’t succeed, or it goes bust, all of the results of their research to date are just completely gone whereas with open access, we can at least ensure that the research is made available for everyone no matter what happens to the individual researcher or company,” she says.
Win for seafood lovers
Speaking more generally about how the alt protein industry is developing, Kell notes that there has been growing interest in seafood innovation and she believes this will translate into more activity. Cultivated seafood has been making some headlines, but overall it’s been a largely neglected segment compared to the significant focus on beef replacements.
“I think we’ll see a lot more innovation in the alternative seafood sector, and that’s something we really love to see,” she says. “And there’s a lot of research there that would be needed.”
Just this year, Algae2Fish a Portugal-based cultured seafood startup received funding, along with 20 other teams, from the GFI Competitive Research Grant Programme. The startup is a spin-off from the University of Lisbon’s Bioscience department. It wants to produce a boneless seabass fillet, from algae and plants.
Development of hybrid products
Kell also referenced the growing trend for alternative protein producers to combine technologies and approaches to bring products to market. For instance, a combination of fermentation and plant-based protein or plant-based with cultivated meat technology.
“I think it’s gonna be very blurry where different companies might, for example, use protein from a plant like soy or wheat, but then use certain ingredients produced from microbial fermentation, and then it might use fat derived from cultivated fats, or animal fat,” Kell says.
Not only will this advance innovation in the alternative protein industry, but manufacturers will also get more input options to integrate into their products. Of more importance is the fact that manufacturers get to use cost-competitive inputs.
“There are different trade-offs between plant based, fermentation and cultivated meat, but cultivated meat is always going to give you that taste and function because it is the same kind of proteins and fats. But right now cultivated meat is operating at a lower scale, because costs are not as low as they need to be,” Kell says.
“We can produce a cultivated product in a way which is cost competitive. If you can use say 3% of cultivated fat in your product, so you really get that delicious taste in what you are eating, and derive the rest of your product such as fiber from various plant ingredients; it gives more options to produce cost competitive products which still taste really good.”
While costs, flavors and textures have been the most talked about challenges faced by the alternative protein industry, companies are also facing significant branding failures, according to AgFunder advisor and brand strategist Adam Hanft. Read his op-ed here.