Advancing Solutions for Alternative Proteins
Advancing Solutions for Alternative Proteins
This is a critical moment in history. To meet the challenges we face, we urgently need action to build a robust, resilient, and globally successful alternative protein industry. We need strategic thinking to future-proof the industry against risks while addressing key knowledge gaps to alleviate market inefficiencies. Identifying and collaborating on longer-term research efforts and commercial innovations will empower industry actors to make bold decisions.
To identify existing and future bottlenecks as well as promising solutions to the industry’s most pressing challenges, The Good Food Institute conducted extensive research and interviewed more than 120 experts across the alternative protein field. The research included a market-shaping analysis to systematically identify challenges and solutions that will accelerate the industry’s growth. We also undertook white space ideation exercises to solicit research and commercial solutions. These efforts are collectively referred to as the Advancing Solutions for Alternative Proteins Initiative. The result is a dynamic roadmap for building a resilient and successful alternative protein industry.
The following resources will enable you to find concrete opportunities to get involved with – and accelerate – the vital transformation of our food system. As you’ll see, there are many ways to be a part of feeding our growing population in a healthy, just, and sustainable way.
As a nonprofit organization whose mission is to accelerate the growth of the alternative protein industry, GFI has a unique and vital role to play to identify and address these challenges. We can thus help transform each step of the value chain more quickly and on a larger scale than conventional market forces would dictate. GFI works to accelerate this transition toward a better food system by surfacing the most pressing problems and most important solutions in the alternative protein market. By offering a menu of recommendations for building a resilient and sustainable alternative protein industry, GFI helps businesses, investors, nonprofits, academic researchers, and governments prioritize efforts supporting the alternative protein industry and ensure that resources are channeled effectively.
All of this work is made possible by our generous community of donors. If you’d like to support GFI’s open-access research and efforts to catalyze the alternative protein industry, please contact email@example.com.
GFI’s Innovation Priorities and Solutions Database summarize the key findings and are updated regularly via contributions from the community and ongoing GFI research.Innovation Priorities
GFI’s methods, analytical frameworks, and findings are all available in an open-access manner. We make these available to catalyze activity and solicit engagement from a broad array of stakeholders. All these reports are intended to spur additional creative thinking and guide future iterations of this process. GFI will revisit these topics annually to solicit fresh input from thought leaders across the industry. We will also periodically host brainstorming exercises around specific technology sectors and value chain segments to deepen and refine the analysis.
If you plan to use these resources to conduct a similar analysis or exercise — for example, to explore unique considerations for a specific geographic region or product category — or if you want to participate in future exercises that GFI conducts, please let us know!
Want to work on some of these problems? Check out our Solutions Database to find partners, dig deeper into needed innovations, and get started!
Value Chain (visual)
Explore business whitespaces, research challenges, and market ecosystem-level needs. By making these challenges explicit, we can unleash the full creativity and resources of researchers, companies, governments, and organizations globally to accelerate alternative protein innovation.
Achieving success in the alternative protein field requires bold innovation across the entire value chain. This landscape overview is intended to solicit novel solutions in an open-ended manner by listing the highest-priority areas for innovation across each segment of the value chain. This includes challenges that are actively being addressed by alternative protein industry stakeholders, as well as challenges for which the appropriate solution still requires further exploration and ideation. The complementary Solutions Database contains suggestions for specific activities within these broader innovation areas, and outlines GFI’s efforts to address these innovation areas.
Finished Products and Attributes includes characteristics that are important to consumers, including organoleptic properties, price, formulation, nutrition, sustainability, and familiarity. The organoleptic properties — or sensory attributes — include taste, texture or mouthfeel, appearance, and smell.
The success of the alternative protein industry rests upon the ability to create tasty, craveable products that are organoleptically identical or superior to conventional meat, egg, and dairy products. Right now, few alternative protein products stand up organoleptically to their conventional animal product counterparts. Ensuring that a wide variety of alternative protein products meet consumer needs and expectations is critical to driving demand growth and avoiding bad product experiences that generate negative perceptions of the entire category.
Some key areas that currently hamper the development of tasty, competitive products include:
Some plant-based products exhibit a lack of versatility: consumers will often use animal proteins such as chicken in dozens of different ways, while plant-based products are often formulated for highly-specific applications, such as nuggets. Plant-based products that are convenient to purchase, transport, store, prepare, cook, and seamlessly integrate into common recipes and cuisines are needed.
The cost of producing cultivated meat is a foremost challenge in the field. Vast reductions in unit price will require both technologic advances and economies of scale, which we enumerate in detail throughout this webpage.
Achieving and demonstrating nutritional equivalence to animal products will also be a key milestone for cultivated meat. Replicating the precise levels of nutrient accumulation that occur within animal tissue is not trivial, but there is greater opportunity to exquisitely fine-tune the resulting product’s nutritional profile using customized media than by modulating an animal’s feed.
It will also be incumbent to demonstrate the environmental and sustainability benefits of cultivated meat before production is at commercial scale. Conducting rigorous life cycle assessments will be critical, and these analyses should be sure to note the potential for increased efficiencies across all stages of the plant, fermentation, and cellular agriculture life cycles, as well as the opportunities for increased efficiency that come with scaling up production.
Check out some proposed Finished Products and Attributes solutions, including efforts underway by GFI to implement these solutions, in our Solutions Database.
Research and Development includes prioritizing among unanswered research questions, enacting government and private-sector funding for research, and conducting public- and private-sector R&D. Please visit GFI’s Research Grant Program webpage for additional information on key areas for innovation in the R&D of alternative proteins and a list of projects GFI is funding to address critical scientific challenges. If you are working on an R&D challenge in alternative proteins and haven’t already engaged GFI, let us know.
For alternative proteins to succeed as quickly as possible, a long-term vision is essential, particularly with respect to funding research. Because the public sector has a higher tolerance for the long time horizons inherent in fundamental technological and scientific R&D, it can support foundational research that may spawn novel technology rather than merely incremental advances. Nonetheless, alternative protein R&D has been woefully underfunded through the public sector. Increasing public sector investment in R&D creates a “rising tide” for the industry, addressing pre-competitive research challenges while empowering the industry to focus its efforts primarily upon questions of scale.
There is also an industry-wide gap in the prevalence of industry-academic collaborative partnerships for research. Despite challenges navigating ownership of the intellectual property generated through such partnerships, these collaborations are extremely effective, particularly when the private-sector partner contributes significant funding. In return, the private-sector industry collaborator becomes the default commercialization partner, enabling accelerated translation from technological breakthrough to widespread commercial impact.
While plant-based protein is the most commercially mature of the three alternative protein production platforms, it is arguably much less developed in terms of basic R&D. This is in part because there are fewer cross-applicable projects in plant-based meat than in cultivated meat and fermentation, both of which are very advanced in other contexts. Thus, a host of high-priority R&D areas for innovation remain:
Click here for further insights regarding R&D priorities in plant-based products.
The development and commercialization of cultivated meat at scale will require R&D innovations across multiple core technology areas, from cell line optimization and cost-effective media production to new scaffolding and bioreactor solutions:
Cultivated meat research can be accelerated across the board by the development of appropriate research tools and key data sets. A suite of assays, genomic data, contract research services, and commercially-available reagents exists for humans and commonly used laboratory species such as mice or fruit flies. However, the same species-specific research toolkit does not yet exist for most species used in cultivated meat, with an especially large gap — and, thus, opportunity — for seafood species.
While real-time, in-line monitoring techniques exist for cell culture processes, they have not been optimized for cultivated meat or fermentation-derived protein production processes. Broadly, there is a pressing need for the development of novel, scalable technologies that enable greater efficiency and effectiveness in the monitoring of end-to-end production processes.
Click here for a more comprehensive discussion of R&D priorities in cultivated meat.
Microbial fermentation is not a new technology. For decades, recombinant proteins have been produced at scale for pharmaceutical and industrial applications. The key question for the field of fermentation for alternative proteins is how best to improve the unit economics of production while expanding the menu of ingredients (e.g., Impossible Foods’ heme) to specifically address taste and texture requirements for meat, egg, and dairy products.
Check out some proposed Research and Development solutions, including efforts underway by GFI to implement these solutions, in our Solutions Database.
Production includes manufacturing capacity, infrastructure, equipment, methods of production, and downstream processing.
Given the enormous scale required to produce meat protein for billions of people, a key future area for innovation and investment in the alternative protein industry is production capacity. In order to transform supply chains, massive capital outlays will be required either to build huge amounts of infrastructure from the ground up or retrofit existing facilities designed for other purposes like animal meat processing, brewing, or texturized vegetable protein (TVP) manufacturing.
Furthermore, developing and commercializing production equipment and facilities that are optimized for alternative protein production at scale is expensive and technically challenging, but will be a major source of commercial opportunity for engineering and design firms and investors in the space.
Ingredient processing demands for plant-based meat will be enormous if demand for end products soars. To date, there has been a lack of much-needed innovation around production processes for plant-based meat.
There is a significant opportunity for industry stakeholders to develop novel bioprocessing techniques in order to efficiently create and isolate tissue, biomass, and target molecules at scale. There will increasingly be a pressing need to increase the amount of manufacturing capabilities and capacity not only for finished products, but also midstream and upstream in the supply chain.
Check out some proposed Production solutions, including efforts underway by GFI to implement these solutions, in our Solutions Database.
Investment refers to the amount of financing flowing throughout the supply chain as well as the types of investors active in the space.
As the alternative protein industry scales up, sufficient access to capital is required to make sweeping transformations of the global food and agricultural system.
It will become increasingly critical to generate investment from sources that have the ability to deploy massive amounts of capital midstream and upstream in the supply chain, or from sources willing to provide opportunities to utilize non-traditional financial instruments, such as venture debt.
Another area for further innovation is building more robust techno-economic models that accurately map out the path to commercialization. This analysis will be crucial to generate additional investment throughout the space broadly by addressing extant gaps in data and illuminating the business case for this nascent industry.
The recent explosion in R&D and commercial activity in cultivated meat and fermentation-derived products is leading to a vastly accelerating field. However, the rapid growth in the industry can lead to information gaps for investors. Investors beyond those who are intimately familiar with cultivated meat and fermentation approaches may find it time-consuming to know where to invest due to the dense competitive landscape, limited public information about the technological state of the art, and deep scientific knowledge required to conduct due diligence on startups. For a list of recommended technical questions for cultivated meat due diligence, click here.
Check out some proposed Investment solutions, including efforts underway by GFI to implement these solutions, in our Solutions Database.
Raw Materials, Ingredients, and Inputs includes the development or optimization of novel and existing raw materials, ingredients, inputs, and functional additives as well as their processing. This section also covers ingredient costs as well as procurement and stakeholder coordination throughout the supply chain.
One major area for potential innovation for the alternative protein industry involves the need for high quality characterization and analytical tools for inputs. A related area of inquiry is understanding the relationship between protein structure and functionality. It is difficult to predict the functional properties of a protein (such as gelling, foaming, emulsification) by examining its sequence and structure. Current workflows require growing and extracting large quantities of novel proteins and empirically testing their properties, which is a resource-intensive and slow process where lab-scale results may not reflect commercial-scale reality.
There is a need for greater exploration of processing innovations, including cheaper methods of protein extraction that can be done efficiently at smaller scales.
Another key area for innovation is sidestream valorization, which will play an important role in de-risking the alternative protein industry at scale.
Ingredients and inputs are often sold through high-touch, contractual relationships. It is often challenging for product developers, procurement teams, and ingredients suppliers to efficiently find each other, and it can be difficult to understand the landscape of ingredient suppliers and product offerings.
Finally, a lack of granular, segmented demand forecasts, particularly second-order forecasts for upstream inputs, results in uncertainty for ingredient suppliers and farmers. Market reports often group products or geographies, so critical nuances are missed, making it challenging for suppliers and producers to accurately plan production. Thus, the development of robust demand forecasts by an independent expert or respected third-party organization would substantially address production volume uncertainty amongst stakeholders across the supply chain.
Plant-based meat manufacturers seek plant-protein sources that are low-cost and available in robust supplies. This is why many companies use crops such as soy or wheat as primary ingredients since they are widely produced via industrial agriculture. Diversified plant protein sources are also needed, with manufacturers typically seeking out the following attributes: colorless, tasteless, high protein content, shelf stable, minimal processing requirements, clean label, and functionality that can replace less-desirable ingredients.
Crops have not historically been optimized for the protein content and functionality required by many plant-based foods. For instance, some protein isolates lack a neutral flavor, containing saponins and lipoxygenase, which can cause bitterness and beany off-flavors. To use these inputs, it is necessary to add costly flavors and additives as masking agents. Unfortunately, many flavors are absorbed and sequestered by components within the protein isolate, necessitating high levels of these additives. Crops should be specifically bred with lower levels of metabolites and enzymes that negatively impact taste.
Once novel crops with promising potential as alternative protein inputs are identified, it can be challenging to establish the agricultural infrastructure — from seeds and farm equipment to storage and transportation — that is necessary to enable efficient and scaled cultivation. It will be important to build the upstream supply chain infrastructure quickly enough to match growing demand. Traditional crop cycles make it hard to transition land quickly, and farmers may lack the expertise or risk tolerance to switch to crops that are more suitable for plant-based meat. To motivate farmers to switch to novel species or cultivars and de-risk their first few seasons, robust market data, insurance or price guarantees, and tailored technical assistance programs could ensure that plant-based inputs can be a profitable and competitive option for growers.
As ingredient suppliers specialize and add more value to their ingredients upstream, the superficial volume of ingredients available cannot be used one-for-one in plant-based products. As a result, the supply to achieve sufficient volumes is fragmented, making it challenging to maintain standardized quality downstreamin large-scale production. Ingredients from different suppliers exhibit a range of sensory and functional characteristics, leading to undesired variability in the end product formulation. Increased coordination throughout the supply chain will be important, as plant-based meat manufacturers benefit from raw materials processors and farmers working in concert to develop high-quality, homogenous ingredients.
The development of a steady, reliable media supply that is sufficiently cheap is a mission-critical hurdle that must be overcome in order for cultivated meat to be successful.
Due to the sheer volume of raw materials required, feedstock is a key input cost in the fermentation process, regardless of the carbon source, microbe, or downstream processing techniques.
Check out some proposed Raw Materials, Ingredients, and Inputs solutions, including efforts underway by GFI to implement these solutions, in our Solutions Database.
Distribution Channels encompass manufacturer sales within one of more of the following channels: foodservice, retail, distributors, direct to consumer (DTC), and business-to-business (B2B).
Distribution is a critical part of ensuring that alternative proteins are widely available and that all consumers have access. Currently, distribution is relevant to the plant-based meat sector and for ingredients and finished products derived from fermentation, although this landscape will shift to include cultivated meat as novel products begin to reach the market.
Distribution can often be a complex space for young brands to navigate, with a lack of publicly available knowledge about how to approach distribution strategy. Having more informational resources and matching mechanisms to connect alternative protein companies with the brokers, consultants, distributors, import/export service providers, and other intermediaries would help companies more quickly and profitably bring products to market and expand consumer accessibility.
Low initial sales volumes are a big driver of the challenges alternative protein companies face when trying to set up their initial distribution. Distributors are often focused on high-volume products that turn over quickly and will be purchased in large quantities. Many foodservice and retail customers are only interested in purchasing alternative protein products if those products are available from their preferred distributors, and distributors likewise only want to carry alternative protein products if there are anchor retail or foodservice accounts with some guaranteed sales volume. Consequently, alternative protein companies need resources and services that can help them find keystone early customers who serve as anchor accounts for expanding distributor relationships, such as sales brokers who can work simultaneously with distributors and anchor accounts to build up needed sales volumes. After getting products on shelves and on menus, alternative protein products need to demonstrate strong enough sales, demand growth, and profitability to maintain or increase distribution, which requires being strategic about the number of SKU’s brands focus on and their marketing efforts. Alternative protein companies would benefit from services, partnerships, salesforce training resources, channel marketing to buyers, and consumer marketing solutions that make it easier to coordinate the multiple disparate efforts required in each targeted market to maintain and drive growth.
While foodservice has traditionally been a common go-to-market strategy for alternative protein companies, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a significant decline in foodservice volumes and caused many consumers to shift their food purchasing to other channels. Increasingly, alternative protein brands need access to alternate channels such as online direct-to-consumer or third party e-commerce channels to establish crucial early sales traction. The rise of online purchasing in retail, foodservice, and direct to consumer (DTC) has made it imperative for alternative protein companies to build loyal consumer followings and make their products stand out via discovery and searching on digital purchasing platforms. DTC also creates an imperative for brands to optimize their cold-chain logistics.
D2C sales entail high-shipping volumes and small average order sizes, which increases the per-unit cost of shipping and thus the overall complexity of cold-chain logistics. Brands should engineer packouts that last two or more days and experience a 1% or lower product spoilage.
Lastly, the market is increasingly demanding that brands utilize environmentally-friendly packaging.
Check out some proposed Distribution Channels solutions, including efforts underway by GFI to implement these solutions, in our Solutions Database.
Workforce refers to attracting and retaining qualified talent throughout the alternative protein industry.
A lack of university programs focused on alternative proteins limits the new talent pipeline, so it is necessary to compete with other industries for existing and upcoming talent, who may find it risky to switch careers into a less proven industry that may offer lower salaries than, say, the biopharmaceutical industry. There are efforts underway, including those by GFI, to establish alternative protein research centers and courses specific to alternative protein R&D, which will need to be further developed to ensure a robust academic ecosystem.
There is high demand for people with a combination of the right scientific or technical background as well as an entrepreneurial, business-minded spirit. Sourcing engineers with a bioprocess or regulatory process skillset is one notable bottleneck, as well as attracting scientists from adjacent fields, including but not limited to: stem cell biology, materials science, protein chemistry, food science, and plant science.
Check out some proposed Workforce solutions, including efforts underway by GFI to implement these solutions, in our Solutions Database.
Business Services includes intellectual property, insurance, operations, human capital, and other advisory services.
The supporting activities necessary to sustain business operations cannot be ignored. Fulfilling these business services puts many demands on alternative protein companies who would benefit from being able to focus more on core activities such as building sales volume, product development, and raising capital. Alternative protein brands would benefit from open-access knowledge resources, backend services, consultants, directories of vetted service providers, and other tools that make it easier to implement or outsource non-core operations.
Check out some proposed Business Services solutions, including efforts underway by GFI to implement these solutions, in our Solutions Database.
Demand Generation includes a broad array of subjects related to consumer awareness, perception, and adoption of alternative proteins. Note: “Demand Generation” is not included in the value chain graphic (above), which focuses exclusively on supply-side considerations.
While the focus of GFI’s work – and consequently the majority of actionable recommendations – are on the supply chain, it will be increasingly important to encourage and sustain consumer shifts towards alternative protein. For instance, it will be important to gain insights on revealed consumer preference and to develop best practices around product positioning and cultural contextualization.
GFI’s Solutions Database is a continuously updated repository of solutions with the potential to accelerate the growth of the alternative protein industry. You can use the database to discover ideas for new commercial ventures and products, find ideas for research projects, and explore ecosystem-level interventions to support the industry as a whole.
Some of these ideas reflect true white space, where no significant activity is yet underway to develop a solution to the identified challenge. Efforts are underway to address the challenge, but there is a need to expand upon those efforts. Database entries link to relevant efforts when illustrative, but the linked efforts do not comprehensively capture all work related to a given idea. We encourage you to reach out if you are working on a similar solution or if you’re interested in helping to expand the solution we are building.
When a solution has been fully operationalized, we keep the entry in the database to mark that milestone along the alternative protein industry’s roadmap and to channel users toward the resulting solution or resource. As more of these ideas mature into solutions, we will update the database to capture these success stories and focus efforts toward unresolved challenges.
Please contact us if you’re interested in contributing to any of these solutions or if you have new ideas that you wish to contribute. If you are a philanthropist and you’d like to discuss building out a portfolio of complementary projects, we are happy to consult with you. Please use our Engagement Form or reach out directly to our Development team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out our Short Video Tutorial for a rundown on how to use the Solutions Database.
Each of the entries in the database contains a series of tags that allow you to filter for the most relevant opportunities. You can filter or sort using the buttons in the top left corner of the database embedded above.
Solution Category refers to whether the idea describes a research project, a commercial opportunity, or an ecosystem-level intervention. In some cases, a solution could take shape across multiple of these categories: for example, a new technology could be developed via academic research or within industry.
Production Platform refers to the primary alternative protein production method for which this idea is most relevant — plant-based, fermentation-derived, or cultivated. Many ideas will be relevant to multiple alternative protein production platforms. Others, such as specific research questions, may be unique to one or two production methods.
Value Chain Segment describes the relevant location within the alternative protein value chain where this idea provides a solution to a current challenge or market shortcoming. Solutions may reside at the interface of multiple value chain segments, which are shown in the graphic below.
Technology Sector refers to specific categories of technology development associated with each production method, outlined in the graphic below.
Relevant Actor refers to the type of stakeholder that is most likely to transform the solution from idea to reality. Multiple stakeholders may play a role in developing and launching a given solution.
Stage of Maturity refers to the extent to which a solution has been manifested. Some of the solutions in this database are ideas or concepts that have not yet been acted upon. Others represent projects that are underway, by GFI or by others, but that can still benefit from expansion or increased effort. Once fully operationalized, solutions remain in the database to help users navigate toward the resulting resources and to provide broader industry context.
When you click on a solution to expand the entry, you’ll see all of the associated tags as well as additional details about the idea. At the bottom of each entry, you will see a downloadable attachment that corresponds to one of the following:
All of the ideas within the Solutions Database are intended to progress through the pipeline from high-level idea (encapsulated in the Opportunity Brief) to a more detailed vision (articulated in the Concept Note) to a concrete proposal (which may take the form of a business plan, a feasibility study, or a scientific research proposal). Ultimately, the goal is to build a real-world solution that advances the industry.
Whether you’re a researcher, an innovator, a funder, a policymaker or policy influencer, or a corporate leader, we hope this database serves as a launchpad for connecting you to the right partners and translating these ideas into real-world solutions. Fill out the Engagement Form to indicate your interest in contributing to these ideas.