Development and Scale Up challenges in Alternative Proteins: Key Takeaways from our Roundtable

Sagentia Innovation hosted a roundtable discussion as part of the 2021 Future Food Tech Alternative Proteins summit, featuring key decision makers from global food brands, innovative start-up challengers and engineering suppliers. Focused on the liminal space between R&D and commercialisation, Simon Norman (Sagentia Innovation’s Head of Product Development - Food and Beverage) reflects on the key takeaways from the discussion.

Nascency of the supply chain

For many in the alternative protein space, accessing high quality raw materials is a chief concern. We heard reports of significant batch-to-batch variations in soy and pea proteins, and a challenge sourcing the same proteins across the globe – even when purchasing from the same supplier. This impacts the ability to scale rapidly. Affordability is still top of the agenda for product developers, and is limiting exploration of non-soy, non-pea proteins – even if there is consumer demand for new product options. For those in the cultured meat or precision fermentation space, the costs of culture media are hampering ability to scale rapidly.

Preparing for upscaling

For small product teams, the shift from development to commercialisation can be a difficult one to navigate and can require new skill sets or new hires. At the roundtable, we spoke about the challenges of choosing the right size of a pilot facility – understanding the costs/benefit analysis and where it would pay off to make a bigger investment at the right time. Attendees were frustrated with the immaturity or lack of availability within the co-manufacturing community, especially where there are particularly novel needs from a processing perspective, leading to a feeling that the only way forward is to build manufacturing capabilities in-house.

On top of the capital investment, it can also be a challenge to maintain product quality through scaling. Alternative protein products are highly complex and what works well on the bench may not translate successfully to large scale manufacture. For cell-based products, getting the microbial strains and cell lines fully optimised for scale production is a challenge which may lead to a fresh iteration through the product development cycle.

Facing up to challenge of by-products

Waste and by-products which can be easily managed and disposed of during bench scale product development have a nasty habit of becoming a real issue during pilot plant specification, according to the participants. The sheer cost of downstream processing of wastewater (to meet with local ordinances), and the size of the equipment required to treat waste can be a shock.

For many product developers, the waste streams could also present an opportunity, and participants were keen to explore options for waste upcycling. However, this requires further investment, especially in quality procedures as if parameters are changed upstream to optimise the core product, the “upcycled” product can be affected or become less economically attractive.

Building sustainable processing into the product development

For some product developers at our roundtable, the questions of waste processing and water use were central to the true sustainability of the alternative protein products. To head off any later scandals, they are actively making positive choices during product development to minimise any issues that may pop up during scale up.

Relatedly, it’s clear that for many product developers, the discussion around genetic technologies is not settled – should we be working with GMO enzymes, cell lines or input plants? You could argue that for sustainability, the use of GM technologies is a positive, but the regulatory and consumer impacts may make the end product less attractive.

Where do we look for positivity?

For participants, the key to the future success of the alternative protein industry, and the ability of new product developers to scale up effectively is the huge momentum in the market. With high venture capital interest (and rising interest from corporate venture arms), there are options for alternative protein brands to invest in new technologies and processes to succeed.

Further, we see an increasing trend for product developers to hire outside of the core base and bring in new skillsets to develop and scale more quickly – for instance using data scientists and bioinformatics experts to optimise process conditions, cell lines or raw materials use more effectively.

In short, moving from product development to commercialisation is a huge challenge for small teams, especially when they are working with cutting edge technologies and continuing to develop the core product iteratively. The supply chain needs to step up to support small challenger brands, and more needs to be done to anticipate the side-challenges of scaling. However, we anticipate that the level of ingenuity and excitement that has driven alternative proteins to date will continue; these challenges can and will be overcome.

We were pleased to be able to share one of our most recent papers with delegates – R&D Acceleration – which you can read here.

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