Food technology - the protein alternative for a better future

“In one stroke, this class of technologies can both help slow down climate change and ensure the nutritional security of future generations.”

Beef steak made from cultivated meat cultures via Aleph Farms (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beef steak made from cultivated meat cultures via Aleph Farms
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It has become vogue to talk of economic doom and gloom since coronavirus took center stage in early March and rocked financial markets shortly thereafter. With signs pointing to an impending worldwide recession, many industries have seen investors fleeing and available funding shrinking in recent months, leading to a general slowdown that may last many more months. Some industries, meanwhile, have in fact been booming more than ever before.
Few readers might have guessed that among these rising stars has been the burgeoning food tech industry – and at its vanguard – is the alternative proteins arena. In the July 10 issue of the Magazine, Maya Margit covered a recent breakthrough in the field led by Israeli start-up Redefine Meat, one of many over the past year to grab the attention of the global food tech ecosystem; but what is all the hype actually about?
Unlike more obvious and more immediate investment opportunities like video-conferencing technologies or e-commerce platforms, alternative proteins have seized the interest and imaginations of key stakeholders who see coronavirus as a wakeup call to address some of the more fundamental challenges that will impact the sustainability of human subsistence in the long run.
“The development of alternative proteins is turning out to be one of the most important missions of our generation,” says Prof. Yaacov Nahmias, head of the bioengineering department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “In one stroke, this class of technologies can both help slow down climate change and ensure the nutritional security of future generations.”
As a blanket term, the alternative proteins field encompasses all ongoing endeav ors to create alternatives to conventional animal-based food products, including meat, dairy and eggs. The overarching aspiration common to all of these development efforts is the establishment of a healthier, ecologically more sustainable and – no less importantly – more ethical selection of protein-rich foods for the benefit of mankind.
“Generally speaking, alternative protein technologies fall under one of three main categories,” explains Nir Goldstein, CEO of The Good Food Institute Israel. “The first is plant-based protein technologies, seeking to recreate food products similar to meat based on plant materials, using biomimicry methods.
“The second is cultivated meat, where real cell cultures taken from animals are grown in laboratory conditions to produce real meat. The third is fermentation, which uses live microbes similar to yeast to produce proteins for food products.” GFI Israel is the Israeli branch of a leading global organization promoting research and innovation in these alternative protein technologies.
FAR FROM an esoteric niche on the fringes of scientific research, private and public equity funding in companies developing innovative technologies in the field has spiked sharply over the last two years. A record $824 million was invested globally in alternative protein start-ups in 2019, and a whopping $930 million was already invested in the first quarter of 2020 alone.
This spike in investments has been driven by growing awareness and demand for alternative protein products, the result of a slow but steady paradigm shift in the way consumers in developed countries view animal-based products.
Already 79% of millennial and generation-Z Americans are reportedly consuming alternative-protein products regularly, and over a third are consuming them daily. Conservative estimates project the alternative protein market to grow to $140 billion in the coming decade, or 10% of global protein consumption.
Following the footsteps of private investors, academia and key industry players, governments around the world have also begun paying close attention to the race toward alternative protein. The Israeli government has recently joined the front-runners after the Israel Innovation Authority (formerly the Chief Scientist’s Office) has announced it will back leading Israeli start-ups in the field. Israel Innovation Authority CEO Aharon Aharon marked the alternative protein industry as an “extraordinary market opportunity for the Israeli economy” and a new potential growth engine in the coming decade.
In close collaboration with the Good Food Institute Israel, the Israel Innovation Authority has recently opened new funding tracks tailored specifically to local start-ups and mature companies developing innovative technologies in the alternative protein space. Beyond the financial backing offered to selected companies to fund their R&D efforts, these tracks include a wide array of resources and partnerships with leading researchers in academia, local and global food producers to help accelerate innovation.
The Israeli food tech industry has in fact been a powerhouse of new technologies in the alternative protein space, with standout companies like Aleph Farms, which is leading the global race toward achieving the “holy grail” of the field: a beef steak made up of cultivated meat and 3D-printed to its familiar shape. Aleph Farms had recently raised a private equity round of over $11 million to achieve this goal. Redefine Meat, a close competitor, has already secured the kashrut approval of some leading rabbis.
Meanwhile, Ashdod-founded Zero Egg is developing a plant-based egg to meet the standard of real eggs in both taste and experience, while creating a far healthier, more nutritious and ecologically sustainable solution. If successful, Zero Egg’s products can provide a long-term solution to incessant outbreaks of disease that have plagued the poultry sector for decades, allowing consumers to enjoy a much safer alternative without compromising on one of their favorite foodstuffs.
“Israel stands out with a relatively high concentration of researchers and entrepreneurs in the alternative protein arena, as well as high industry and consumer interest,” adds Goldstein. “In the realm of Food Tech, alternative protein is considered the hottest category and there is a real worldwide “arms race” in this space.
“Private and public investments in alternative protein can help Israel stay at the cutting edge of this field, continue leading it in research and development and eventually become a major producer and exporter of the food of the future.”