As consumers look to the future, where will they turn for protein needs? Based on a recent contest among innovative startups, the sources might surprise you.
Radicle Growth, a company-building platform for early-stage ag and food technologies, teamed with Syngenta Group for the Radicle Protein Challenge. The results is the awarding of $1.25 million to two startups, out of four finalists. Erik Fyrwald, CEO, Syngenta Group, notes the company’s involvement in the contest was aimed at investing in innovation for protein sources that he says will “require novel solutions to support the future of protein.”
Fyrwald was one of four judges on a panel that reviewed, in depth, the work of four finalist companies chosen from more than 150 applicants to the program. The other three judges included Ann Veneman, former secretary of agriculture; Louise Fresco, president, Wageningen University & Research (in the Netherlands); Chen Lichtenstein, chief financial officer, Syngenta Group; and Alexander Tokarz, head of group strategy, Syngenta Group. They were joined by Kirk Haney, president of Radicle Growth.
Value of a protein contest
Haney explains that his firm is more than a venture capital company. It works to identify and nurture companies with approaches to problems that show promise. “Clearly, protein is booming,” he says. “[Entrepreneurs] are thinking about how the protein landscape is changing, and we see a lot of innovative companies out there.”
For the livestock-producing reader, these protein innovators are aiming to replace traditionally produced meat and seafood products with new approaches. They see consumer demand for “clean” meat, free from the animal, as a desirable product; and while most in the livestock industry disagree, the work continues.
“Consumer value-drivers are changing, and consumers are pulling this industry forward on price, taste, convenience, social impact, climate concerns, and health and wellness,” Haney says. “These things are coming together.”
He notes that the plant-based protein market alone will be worth $30 billion in five years and shows double-digit growth rates not seen in other industries.
The challenge applicants also provided Radicle and Syngenta a look at the trends. “The market intelligence we learned from 150 applications in a four- or five-week period, with most of the companies outside the United States,” he says.
Of the applicants for the prizes offered by Syngenta — $1 million for first place, $250,000 for second — two-thirds were plant-based, 13% were more traditional animal protein and 13% were cellular, essentially lab-grown protein. “This is a booming category,” Haney says.
The protein innovation finalists
The challenge judges, after thoroughly exploring the 150-plus applicants, settled on four finalists for the challenge. Recently, those finalists made their in-depth pitches to the judges and the winners selected. During a virtual public event, more than 300 sat in for rapid-fire rundowns by the finalists detailing their businesses. Then, those virtual attendees made a “people’s choice” vote on their favorite. More on that later. Here’s a look at the finalists in the order they shared their lightning-round pitches.
BlueNalu is a San Diego, Calif.-based cellular aquaculture company that is growing seafood from fish cells. Lou Cooperhouse, CEO, explains that the company is aiming to be a global leader in bringing cellular seafood to market. “We’re providing a global solution to the seafood supply,” Cooperhouse says.
Global demand for seafood is rising, but there are challenges with fish populations diminishing. BlueNalu is focusing its work on seafood based on fish that can’t be easily farmed. Working from fish cells including muscle, fat and connective tissue, they are developing fish filets for the food industry that have the “same sensory and nutritional and functional characteristics as the fish species.”
The initial focus will be mahimahi, with the first product on the market for the food service industry in 2021. Others in the pipeline include bluefin tuna, which is a very expensive fish; Chilean sea bass; and red snapper.
MycoTechnology offers a hint to its protein source in the name — “myco” for “fungus.” This Denver-based firm was founded in 2013 when Alan Hahn, CEO, wanted to find a way to reduce sugar consumption. A Type II diabetes patient, Hahn wanted to find ways to reduce bitterness, so less sugar could be used in food production. “The average consumer consumes 71 grams of sugar per day,” he says.
The company is making alternative proteins with a new platform that is based on shiitake mushrooms, and its PureTaste product uses a blend of rice and pea proteins. He notes that with his product, companies working to make a plant-based burger can avoid the taste and aroma issues involved.
“The average plant-based burger contains 26 ingredients,” Hahn says. “We can cut that ingredient list into the single digits.”
Cell Farm is Latin America's first cultured meat company. The Brazil-based startup is bringing innovation using stem-cell lines from cattle. Sofia Giampaoli, founder and CEO, shares that with her process, the company can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with cattle production. The stem-cell approach means they are able to take undifferentiated cells from animals and differentiate them into muscle and fat tissue, mimicking what happens in the animal.
While beef is a starting point, Giampaoli says, “We want to transfer this technology to other animal species. There are multiple choices on the market.” Cell Farm’s marketing model is to earn fees and royalties for its technology as the tech is applied by food companies.
Trophic, based in the San Francisco area, is aiming to bring seaweed farming to a more massive scale and provide a new source of protein. As Beth Zotter, CEO, notes, "The ocean is the world's largest, most efficient, bioreactor and requires no electricity, fertilizer.”
Zotter shares that seaweed can produce five times more protein per acre than a field of soybeans and says Trophic aims to be a source of sustainable, high-quality protein for human nutrition. The company is aiming to go to market with premium seaweed protein using the existing supply chain, develop high-protein seaweed cultivars and supply them to growers, and enable advanced farming technology to lower the cost and expand the scale of seaweed farming.
MycoTechnology got the $1 million prize from the Radicle Challenge, earning the top award. “Wow, what an exciting moment,” Hahn says. “We started this company seven-and-a-half years ago focused on sugar reduction. After attending a conference in France and seeing the challenge of protein production, we came back and said, we have to figure out a way to solve this problem, to participate in the solution.”
BlueNalu was awarded the $250,000 prize.
As for the people’s choice? Turns out cellular meat replacement was a hot button, with Cell Farm getting the most votes. The writer did choose MycoTechnology after hearing the speed pitches.