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3d illustration of proteins or enzymes, from iStock

FoodShot Global is shifting the protein conversation from animal vs plant towards precision

April 21, 2020

The importance of protein in our diets is hardly breaking news; demand for high-protein diets is increasing globally.

When you combine the developing world’s desire to replace staple grains — that have dominated their diets for centuries — with increasing amounts of animal-based protein, with the growing eminence of protein-heavy diets such as keto and paleo in the Western world where consumers in general already consume more protein than required, alongside a growing desire in multiple corners of the world to eat fewer animal-based products, there’s clear pressure on the globe’s protein supply. There’s an imbalance that comes with protein consumption too; not only do stunting and malnutrition remain widespread in the poor countries that lack high-quality proteins but many of those countries are facing the worst effects of climate change and environmental damage, contributed in large part by industries supporting protein production.

But much of the debate around how the world’s food system will increase its supply of protein to meet this demand is overly simplified, according to Victor Friedberg, founder of FoodShot Global and food systems thought-leader and investment veteran. FoodShot is a multi-stakeholder investment platform aimed at accelerating innovation in food and agriculture through a blended capital strategy of equity, debt and prize dollars. It launched in 2018 with its first FoodShot — Innovating Soil Health 3.0 — and today is launching its second FoodShot: Precision Protein.

Precision Protein FoodShot

“We always knew protein would be the second FoodShot for us to take on but we wanted to bring a new and positive framework to the discussion, one rooted in science that avoids the polemic around plant proteins versus animal proteins, which has dominated the conversation to this point,” says Friedberg, speaking to the divisive and sometimes militaristic debate between animal product alternative startups and the incumbents. “We can’t oversimplify this into good vs evil; I don’t believe in silver bullets. The problems and opportunities are systemic. We want to get companies and investors thinking about protein in new ways with the potential for a long-term global impact. The democratization of nutrition is the next frontier of food. Proteins – which are necessary for all key human biological functions, including the musculo-skeletal system, the circulatory system, the pituitary system, and our overall health – will play a critical role in this democratization.”

“To exclude animal-based meat, which is still the center of the plate for most of the world and will be for the foreseeable future, would not be thinking realistically or systemically,” he adds. “We also recognize that no one protein segment — from plant-based to mycoprotein to cellular meat and real meat — is exempt from the need for innovation and the potential for impact. So, our focus instead is on increasing the nutritional efficacy and efficiency of protein – for both human and planetary health — and scaling its accessibility.”

The Precision Protein FoodShot looks at proteins systemically and with innovative science and heightened rigor in production and processing in order to build a protein system that is more precisely attuned to human and planetary health, better aligns global and regional supply and demand, increases accessibility, and decreases waste and environmental damage.

“At the end of the day, it’s not that complicated: we need to deliver nutrition to the global population with better health outcomes while protecting the planet,” says Friedberg. “How you do that becomes incredibly complicated but there’s opportunity to build a better system. Covid-19 has illuminated the systemic stresses on the food system with seven billion people; we need to be better prepared for 10 billion.”

Apply and nominate now

FoodShot is, therefore, looking for innovators, academics and entrepreneurs that can contribute to solving this problem, more specifically to help achieve improvements in:

  • Producing high-quality proteins for human and animal food
  • Providing equitable access to a nutritionally-sufficient amount of high-quality proteins for 10 billion people by 2050
  • Reducing input resources (land use, water, energy)
  • Substantially reducing environmental impacts from production and waste (GHG emissions, soil deterioration, algal blooms) in order to achieve global targets
  • Closing the loop on protein production to drive conversion of waste into nutritious food
  • Improving personalization and efficacy to harness the power of proteins to serve as protective foods

It has four key areas under which startups can apply: Science, Production, Processing, and Personalization.

Precision Protein Science

Without delving too far into protein science in this post, at a high level, not all proteins are created equal. “Proteins are a complement of up-to 20 amino acids, which each have specific functionality in terms of human health beyond the best-known impact on muscularity. We’re only in the first innings of understanding and discovering how different protein sources impact the digestibility and bioavailability of key nutrients, and how that, in turn, affects their function in the body,” says Sara Eckhouse, executive director of FoodShot.

“We need a better understanding of how amino acids and peptides – which have almost infinite structural variations whose impact on protein bioavailability and functionality is still emerging – are being delivered to and function within the human body, so that we can develop and commercialize new protein sources with enhanced or even essential functionality in the future,” she says. “To achieve that, Precision Protein Science requires a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the role of proteins, peptides, and amino acids in human health.”

Precision Protein Production

FoodShot wants to see research and innovations in this category that enable the production of more protein worldwide more efficiently while ensuring protein quality and limited use of natural resources such as water, energy, chemicals, seed and feed and the reduction of the negative environmental impact associated with it. 

“There will be a critical role for all protein-producing sectors, including livestock, fisheries, aquaculture, plants, and emerging sectors like algae, mycoprotein, cellular agriculture, insects, and more,” says Eckhouse. “We need new methodologies and technologies across sectors to secure sufficient and democratized protein production for human health, while also protecting planetary health.”

Precision Protein Processing

Once precision proteins have been produced to maximize quality and yield while meaningfully reducing resource requirements and environmental impacts, there is a need to protect their integrity and longevity for use as food ingredients. This segment focuses on improving the systems or technologies used in the production of protein food products. For example, in food processing, particularly in the creation of agriculture protein isolates, the application of water, chemicals and heat can denature proteins and change their nutritional value and functionality, says Eckhouse. “We need innovation in protein extraction to protect the integrity of proteins. Another area for innovation will be reducing supply chain costs as they relate to sourcing, production, processing, storage, and distribution. In addition, closed-loop processing systems will play an increasingly important role in reducing waste and maximizing resource use efficiency,” she says.

Precision Protein Personalization

As humans go through life, their nutritional needs change as they age. Males and females also have differing requirements. there are also known differences in how people from different parts of the globe react to different types of foods. As the science improves on which proteins are relevant for which functions, innovators could then help people to get exactly the proteins they need.

“Nutritional needs are not universal – they change depending on age, activity level, lifestyle, and individual health conditions,” says Eckhouse. “As the world faces an alarming rise in diet-related death and disease, there is a clear need for nutrition to become more regionalized and personalized. While this type of personalization may not immediately be available to people at all income levels, we need to start understanding how better protein science can democratize access to personalized nutrition in a way that supports FoodShot’s mission of a more equitable food system.”

How and why to apply

As with its first FoodShot — Soil 3.0 — the platform will provide selected innovators with equity, debt, or grant funding from the consortium that includes Rabobank F&A Innovation Fund, Generation Investment Management, agtech VC Activant, the Rockefeller Foundation, Chima VC Bits x Bites, UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health (IIFH), leading agriculture university Wageningen,  Granthan Foundation, and the entrepreneurial segment of the food giant MARS (MARS Edge).

Commercial businesses can apply for the up-to $10 million GroundBreaker Equity Award, which will remain at the discretion of the partnering venture groups such as Acre VP and Armonia, aided by a detailed evaluation of the applicant companies and presentation to the consortium of the most promising entrants, according to specific criteria, by FoodShot. Criteria include inevitability and scalability, as well as alignment with FoodShot’s mission, for a healthier, sustainable and more equitable food system, how unique and novel the innovation is, and global relevance. The funding will be stage agnostic since the consortium is able to invest at varying stages

The grant portion will be awarded as the Groundbreaker Prize — a cash prize of $500,000+ to rising stars working in research, early-stage entrepreneurship, or advocacy – which is based on nominations.

And new to the Precision Protein FoodShot is a blended finance instrument for very early-stage businesses or concepts that provides grant funding to get a project off the ground but also guarantees a later equity investment if key milestones are met. A key challenge for both entrepreneurs and investors comes at the very early stages when an innovator might have an excellent idea or world-class research with which to create something but the risk is too high for most venture firms to take. With this new instrument, FoodShot wants to de-risk those earlier stages for VCs with grant funding but also by requiring startups to reach certain milestones. On the other side, interested VCs are committed to investing in a later equity round.

“This new instrument is innovative. VCs get reduced risk and less dilution with grant dollars being deployed to fund early milestones,” says Friedberg, who co-founded agri-foodtech’s leading venture firm S2G Ventures. “They get to form a very early stage relationship with the entrepreneur, get visibility into the company and be assured of the transaction once the milestones are complete. The foundations that are seeking impact from their grant funding know it is not a one-time capital injection and that their investment is going towards creating a functional, commercial entity. Entrepreneurs get non-dilutive capital in early to catalyze the company; they might give up some upside on the other side of their milestones, but they have a clear pathway of work to do to gain the funding and also that VC support early on. It’s a win-win-win!”

Examples of investable innovations

You can learn more about the types of innovations FoodShot is looking for by heading to the website here, but here’s a few examples:

• Better discovery, construction, and optimization of protein at a molecular level to democratize access to protein as a macronutrient.

• Technologies (machine learning, synthetic & molecular biology, chemistry, etc.) to unlock previously unknown biological activity in proteins to improve human health.

• Protein and peptide engineering – including modifying plant and animal protein sources and leveraging recombinant proteins – to better understand how delivery pathways impact amino acid bioavailability.

• Exploring the link between protein intake and the human, soil, plant, and animal microbiome.

• Discovery of the health implications of micronutrients and phytochemicals found in plant and animal protein sources, and how those are impacted by processing.

• Innovations that advance diversified sources of proteins that align to local, regional, national and global cultural traditions as well as delivering on sensory attributes and nutrition.

• Scalable and innovative solutions for more productive, efficient, and/or regenerative livestock and aquaculture systems that reduce harmful environmental impacts (including disease) and/or increase provision of non-food ecosystem services.

Read about the winners of Innovating Soil 3.0 here.

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