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The Next Economy
Alt-Protein Industry Ramping Up to Be ‘All Sizzle and No Steak’ — in the Best Way

Future Food Tech’s recent Alternative Proteins event, which convened over 600 industry players, showcased the myriad innovations that will enable us to continue to bring home the bacon (and chicken, beef, fish …) without further endangering the health of the planet.

Despite some recent industry challenges, thanks in part to a flooded market, optimism reigned at Future Food Tech’s recent Alternative Proteins event — which brought more than 600 industry players together in New York City to discuss pathways to scale, price parity, consumer sentiment and more.

In all, the mood was optimistic about alt-protein’s role as a key ingredient in the much-needed transformation of our global food systems — and the planet — for the better. Representatives of 36 countries participated, including employees from 109 alt-protein startups and 87 food brands. While the industry still faces growing pains, many companies are already overcoming such challenges as scaling up production and overcoming consumers’ hesitancy to try new products.

Opening keynote speaker Amy Chen, COO of Upside Foods, set the tone by recounting the startup’s recent feat in earning the first-ever USDA approval of a cultivated-meat product, for its cell-culture chicken — followed closely by industry peer Good Meat, a division of the successful plant-based egg company Eat Just, Inc — which lays the groundwork for the cellular agriculture industry to achieve the scale needed to begin to meaningfully disrupt conventional animal ag’s global monopoly on the protein market.

Over the two-day conference, attendees sampled some of the world’s newest foods — everything from cell-cultured meat and seafood to protein derived from algae and air, plant-based innovations and mycelium-based whole-cut meats and steaks, and the holy grail of the alt-cheese industry: a plant-based casein that replicates the mouthfeel of dairy cheese; listened to 96 speakers — ranging from inventors to investors — and discussed regulatory frameworks for the burgeoning industry. Discussions strategized about bringing new products to market, and reiterated alternative proteins’ potential to create widespread positive impacts on climate and nature.

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On day one, representatives from the Singapore Economic Development Board hosted a breakfast talk, complete with samples, to demonstrate how the country is already a global leader in cultivated-meat production — in 2020, Singapore became the first country to greenlight cultivated meat and has since become a global hotspot for alt-protein innovation. To support the industry at scale, the island nation is now developing advanced cell media and bioreactors that will help companies meet growing demand, and is seeking partnerships to bring more products to market.

Among other highlights: Tim Geistlinger, Chief Science Officer at Perfect Day, told the audience he doesn’t see any slowdown on acceptance and enthusiasm for the company’s animal-free (yet genetically identical) dairy products. And Michael Leonard, CEO of Motif Foodworks, explained that his company has been building the very building blocks of food that consumers crave — with breakthrough ingredients including Hemami, which provides umami flavor to plant-based meats; and Appetex, a plant-based texture ingredient that replicates the mouth-feel and chewiness of meat.

NotCo founder and CEO Matias Muchnick suggested alt protein would eventually go beyond simply mimicking animal products and begin to deliver “exceptional experiences” with entirely new food options that “expand the palate.”

That’s something Micael Simonsson, Tetra Pak’s director of processing development and biotech, is looking for as his company seeks to partner with startups to help scale. Currently developing partnerships with a number of alt-protein developers, Simonsson said the packaging giant hopes to play the role of enabler with its deep expertise in building and scaling food-plant operations for new food companies, alongside its traditional expertise in sustainable packaging.

One company that seems poised to make headlines in the industry is BlueNalu. Its cell-cultured bluefin tuna product could meaningfully offset demand for the endangered fish and give “the ocean time to rest” — the company is part of a booming cultivated-seafood industry that could offer a solution to overfishing and supply chain volatility, as well as consumer health concerns about mercury and microplastics in their seafood.

With a similar ray of hope for steak lovers, Berkeley, Calif.-based startup Ohayo Valley held an exclusive Taste Lab where delegates could taste its highly anticipated WagyuMe burger — a blend of plant-based proteins and fat mixed with cultivated wagyu cells. Another potentially game-changing innovator — Air Protein CEO Lisa Dyson, whose company literally makes protein from air and the yeasts and other elements it contains — said her goal is to not only have a product that consumers love; but to create inputs that help large companies solve questions of sustainable, healthy food at an industrial scale.

As ever-increasing consumer awareness of the environmental pitfalls of many conventional proteins continues to feed demand for sustainable alternatives — and innovators continue to innovate, and investors continue to invest — the future looks bright for the alt-protein industry.

As Julian Melchiorri, founder and CEO of Arborea, summed it up: “Sustainability, cost and quality are the three main pillars that allow scalability to have a powerful impact. And once those pillars are in place, there’s little doubt that a more sustainable dinner — and lunch, and breakfast, and snack — will be served.”