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Interviews- Expert Speak

“Smart protein sector is poised to create 4 lakh jobs in India by 2030”

While the alternative protein sector drew $5 billion invested capital across all categories in 2021 globally, with only $10.35 million flowing into India, 2022 witnessed a difficult economic and market environment, on the whole. Alternative protein companies raised a total of $2.2 billion of investment capital, amounting to a modest reduction from the high pace of investment growth seen in 2021. However, the sector moved into a critical stage of market activity, with many companies announcing new product launches and brand partnerships under the umbrella of Good Food Institute India (GFI India) in 2022. This central expert organisation, thought leader, and convening body in the Indian ‘alternative protein’ or ‘smart protein’ sector has recently announced new initiatives to popularise this space in India. In conversation with nuFFooDS Spectrum, Astha Gaur (R), Policy Specialist-Regulatory and Akshay Vishnu Bhat (L), Sci-Tech Specialist at GFI India reveal their plans for 2023.

What are your views on the current funding scenario for smart protein startups in India? What are the bottlenecks and ways forward to strengthen this space? What support is required from the government?

Akshay: The Government of India recognises the potential of smart protein and has extended public funding support to several entrepreneurs and research institutions in the past. The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) and the National Research Centre on Meat (NRC Meat) secured a Rs 4.6 crore grant from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in 2019, based on a joint research proposal co-written by GFI India. Similarly, the Sanjay Gandhi Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences (SGPGI), Lucknow received a Rs 50 lakh grant from the Department of Science & Technology (DST) to conduct research on cultivated meat in 2019. Furthermore, researchers at the Central Institute of Fisheries Education (CIFE), Mumbai received a Rs 66 lakh grant in 2021 to conduct research in cultivated seafood.

To support training and facilitate knowledge partnerships, the Chief Minister’s Office of the Government of Maharashtra sanctioned a partnership between GFI India and the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Mumbai, to set up a Centre of Excellence in cellular agriculture, which will also incubate entrepreneurs, for which work is underway. Even bodies like the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) and the DBT have been funding several smart protein startups through their existing Biotechnology Ignition Grant (BIG) programme, where grantees are awarded Rs 50 lakh each.

Astha: Alternative proteins remain a highly underinvested category, globally. In order to scale smart protein solutions, we’re going to need capital infusion from diverse players across the risk, social, and public landscape, from VCs to development finance institutions, along with favourable industrial policy to support the growth of the industry. The lack of established manufacturing processes, sustainable value chains, and a clear path to market are the primary bottlenecks faced by the industry in India. When it comes to manufacturing capacity, off-take capability already exists among hundreds of startups and large companies, however, facilities for small-scale experimentation and pilot- and industrial-scale production continue to be non-existent. The market demand for highly innovative and more sustainably produced smart protein products is, therefore, not something entrepreneurs and companies are currently in a position to meet.

We also need patient and smart capital, particularly on the deep-tech side, to support the use of specific technologies to establish an end-to-end vertical value chain proof of concept, which subsequently shows promise to self-sustain or absorb larger funding and ability to scale in the future. Finally, an enabling regulatory environment is, and will continue to be, critical to build investor confidence in the sector to enable capital infusion.

Akshay: Bio-based transformative foods such as fermentation-derived proteins and cultivated meat can provide affordable, sustainable, and delicious protein products across the socioeconomic pyramid. This could prove to be pivotal to the global fight against malnutrition and climate change, while vastly reducing the public health risks that current models of meat production pose. For the Indian smart protein sector to become globally competitive with markets like China, Canada, or Israel, the sector requires critical support from policymakers and regulatory bodies.

How many smart protein startups are currently present in India and what are the unique innovations being offered to the Indian market?

Astha: There are currently 56+ brands and 300+ SKUs across 30+ formats in retail and e-commerce channels, across all 3 technology areas (plant-based, fermentation-derived, and cultivated), active in the Indian market. Given the current regulatory status of smart protein products, only plant-based meat, seafood, egg, and dairy products are available for purchase by the consumer at this point in time.

Over the last 18 months, as market activity has garnered momentum in the plant-based category, awareness and interest in these products has also improved, across consumer cohorts. Currently, the primary consumer of these products belongs to an “early adopter” cohort looking to replace their meat consumption on certain occasions. These consumers are typically motivated by health, lifestyle, and environmental concerns or belong to the group of ‘guilty non-vegetarians’, that are unique to the Indian subcontinent, eating non-vegetarian food only on certain days, or outside the house.

In order to address the true mass market, the new crop of founders and those looking to enter the sector need to plug in gaps that exist in product formats, packaging, nutrition, price, and accessibility. All of this can be possible through localising end-to-end value chains, capital infusion, increased manufacturing capabilities and processing infrastructure, and finally, sustained government support.

Akshay: In the last five years, the plant-based segment has seen unprecedented growth, with more than 56 companies launching and testing their plant-based foods in India. Increasingly, we are also seeing entrepreneurs leveraging India’s agricultural biodiversity and abundant coastline, experimenting with novel protein sources including indigenous crops like millets and pulses as well as microalgae and seaweed. Moreover, there are now at least ten companies in India working on deep-tech innovations such as precision fermentation and cultivated meat technologies. It looks like a fair-playing round across sub-segments of the smart protein sector, but which segments will capture the mass market, only time will tell.

Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) is preparing a roadmap for export promotion of smart protein products. How is GFI India supporting in this regard and what is the progress so far?

Astha: India is not only predicted to be an important market for smart protein, but also has the potential to be a major exporter of plant-based products and ingredients. Based on a study by GFI India and Deloitte India, the export potential for plant-based meat in 2030 ranges from Rs 2,194 crore to Rs 6,824 crore. Similarly, for plant-based dairy, it ranges from Rs 459 crore to Rs 1,889 crore. And for plant-based eggs, the export potential in 2030 ranges from Rs 266 crore to Rs 631 crore.

APEDA has shown great foresight and visionary leadership in understanding the export potential of smart protein products. We, at GFI India, in working towards a ‘National Mission for Smart Protein’, have provided inputs on the roadmap that APEDA has created and have been supporting APEDA in advancing the agenda for the export promotion of smart proteins, ever since. Varun Deshpande, President, Asia at the Good Food Institute and I, are also a part of the committee that has been set by APEDA to develop export standards and guidelines for plant-based exports from India and for the promotion of plant-based exports. The Vegan Committee on Export Standards, Guidelines and Promotion for Vegan Food Products, which falls under the National Programme on Vegan Products, meets regularly to discuss the development of the standards and is already working on a draft for the same.

As the key facilitator of the smart protein industry, GFI India has been able to open multiple communication channels between industry stakeholders and APEDA, helping both sides identify, understand, and address the export challenges faced by companies.

Additionally, as a knowledge partner to APEDA, GFI India also works to increase the overall understanding of this sunrise sector. With the larger aim of addressing farmer welfare, we are currently discussing localising production and end-to-end value chain creation of smart protein products. This includes cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution of value-added products (ingredients, isolates, texturised protein, etc.) using indigenous crops along with creating market linkages to the industry or for exports. Leveraging India’s tremendous crop biodiversity and localised value chains, crops such as pulses, legumes, millets, hemp, etc. will become viable raw materials for smart protein foods, thereby diversifying the global inputs for the sector and boosting India’s economy.

GFI India has recently partnered with the ICAR-CIFE to promote development of cultivated seafood. Please elaborate more on this. 

Akshay: The ICAR-CIFE has proved to be a key partner organisation, especially in promoting cultivated seafood research and development (R&D) and education. Dr Mukunda Goswami, a principal Scientist at CIFE, has dedicated his entire career to cultivated seafood R&D with full support from the current Director, Dr C N Ravishankar. We are currently in the process of formalising our partnership with ICAR-CIFE, a key outcome of which will be naming the institute the first ever ‘Smart Protein Innovation Hub on Cultivated Seafood’ in India (SPIH-CS).

Dr Goswami is also working on introducing cultivated seafood coursework to universities across the globe in collaboration with Dr Reza Ovissipour from Virginia Tech University in the US. The biggest challenge for us today is replicating this model of engagement with other top universities in India. We aim to achieve this milestone by finding similar champions at other academic institutions and strongly advocating for placing smart proteins as a priority focus area of R&D and education.

GFI India is supporting FICCI in setting up a Centre of Excellence for Smart Proteins. Please share more details about this. How would the industry benefit from this?

Astha: GFI India and FICCI are setting up a Centre of Excellence for Smart Proteins to serve as a resource centre that can provide strategic direction to the development of the smart protein sector in India. It aims to create knowledge and valuable partnerships by providing a forum for various stakeholders to discuss opportunities for policy intervention, market development, and collaboration. This partnership is a critical step forward towards the goals of our ‘National Mission for Smart Protein’ and we are currently in the process of finalising the Centre of Excellence. We will be happy to share more details with you as they develop. For now, broadly, the Centre of Excellence aims to:

1. Provide advisory services to policymaking and regulatory bodies on policy and regulatory pathways to advance the smart protein industry

2. Set up and chair a Smart Protein Working Group (aimed at promoting new and emerging categories) composed of key industry, scientific, and policy stakeholders

3. Facilitate ecosystem development through knowledge-building activities

4. Facilitate market development and access through promotional activities

The Centre of Excellence will greatly benefit the industry by providing a focused platform to advance the smart protein ecosystem from a policy-regulatory, capacity and  knowledge building, as well as a consumer and marketing perspective.

How is GFI India working towards developing better job opportunities in the smart protein space? Is there an agenda chalked out for the coming years? 

Astha: GFI India worked with Deloitte on a rigorous market study and modelling to investigate what smart protein could mean for India’s economic future in terms of market size, export potential, job creation, and more. This Economic Analysis showed that with the right interventions, the smart protein sector is poised to create up to 4 lakh jobs by 2030 for India. These include both direct high-value jobs created in the processing of raw materials and manufacturing of innovative new products as well as jobs created indirectly across the value chain in services supporting the smart protein industry. We estimate that each job in the smart protein sector could create up to 10 jobs in allied sectors.

Akshay: There is, therefore, an immediate need to start building a dedicated and robust talent pool for the sector, as job creation and talent development are interconnected and cannot grow in silos. Our flagship initiative – the India Smart Protein Innovation Challenge (ISPIC) – aims to address this talent bottleneck by training hundreds of new innovators every year, stimulating research in multiple scientific whitespaces, and accelerating go-to-market for dozens of early-stage entrepreneurs. ISPIC cohorts form direct pipelines for the GFI India Talent Community –  a network of early stage professionals, researchers, and students wanting to get involved in the smart protein sector.

Astha: An important element of meeting our National Mission goals is creating the next generation of talent and skilled workforce in smart protein. This is possible by introducing smart protein curricula and training programmes at key Indian universities, colleges, and vocational training institutes across food science, agri/crop sciences, biotechnology, engineering, manufacturing, computation, etc. Recently, GFI India partnered with the Food Industry Capacity & Skill Initiative (FICSI)—widely known as Food Processing Sector Skill Council to develop a job role and the eligibility criteria for a ‘Plant-Based Food Technologist’, a job now recognised by the National Council for Vocational Education and Training. The job role can be found on the government’s public record under the National Qualifications Register. We’re also working with our partner university, the University of Trans-Disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology (TDU) in Bengaluru to create hands-on training opportunities for those interested to enter the plant-based industry.

Akshay: The technical talent pool for specialised job roles in the smart protein sector needs a significant facelift. One way to facilitate this could be to encourage PhD scholars and postgraduate students from Food Science and Technology programmes to pursue research projects related to alternative proteins. An effective academia-industry collaboration is needed to nurture young talents in the alternative protein sector. Engaging relevant industry stakeholders as resource persons and mentors in skill development initiatives and for student projects could critically enhance the industry-readiness of the student community. Startups, key food industry players in the smart protein sector, and equipment manufacturers must come together and come forward to support training initiatives at their production facilities, to serve as inspiration for young talent seeking to pursue their careers in this field. In this way, lack of access to practical knowledge, research infrastructure, and manufacturing facilities will no longer be a bottleneck for students and for young professionals looking to pursue cutting-edge, innovative research in smart protein.

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