Global food insecurity, climate change and resource inefficiency are big problems, but investors are betting on small businesses now more than ever to overcome them. Among an array of promising solutions, alternative proteins, waste upcycling, carbon-capture and artificial intelligence (AI) are demanding attention from accelerator programs.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), EU-funded EIT Food entrepreneurship initiative, technology company Bühler Group and specialty minerals company ICL tell us why they see innovative start-ups as crucial to the development of sustainable food systems and how their programs can help bring local solutions to the global market.
The FAO and Seed – a global partnership for the green economy – launched the SDG Agrifood Accelerator Programme last month to help agrifood system start-ups develop their businesses while contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In Europe, EIT Food recently announced the launch of its 2023 Entrepreneurship Programmes, with successful applicants in line to receive funding of up to €500,000 (US$532,000) from EIT Food and external funding from its investor community.
Meanwhile, ICL’s agrifood innovation and investment platform ICL Planet Startup Hub most recently invested €2.75 million (US$2.93 million) in Arkeon and its fermentation bioprocess, which creates customizable protein ingredients by capturing CO2.
Also, Bühler’s Cubic Innovation Campus recently held the “Accelerating Sustainability Food Systems Summit” in partnership with climate technology venture capital fund Icos Capital, which brought start-ups in areas like decarbonization, precision fermentation and side stream valorization into the view of top food corporations.
Local solutions, global benefits
The vulnerabilities of global food systems have been exposed by climate change, COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war but start-ups can help equip corporations with the methods, tools and risk-taking mindset to accelerate the transition to more sustainable agrifood systems.
According to Hadar Sutovsky, VP for External Innovation at ICL and general manager of ICL Planet, the vast majority of larger companies now view interactions with start-ups as important or mission-critical for innovation. These partnerships take a range of forms, including investment, incubation, acceleration and pilots.
“By conducting a pilot with a start-up, corporations can mitigate risk through a small controlled test of existing technology applied to their customers and evidence the exciting opportunities possible to the food value chain through disruptive solutions,” she says.
Meanwhile, start-ups can gain access to the resources, mentoring and investment required to quickly scale their solutions, potentially globally.
Carbon Clean – a Bühler-backed start-up that offers cost-effective, carbon-capture utilization and storage technologies – is one such example. “Its technology integrates seamlessly to medium-scale, industrial plants, which means you can copy-paste it all over the world,” says Ian Roberts, CTO at Bühler.
In the agrifood space, the FAO has long recognized the value of SMEs for poverty reduction and rural and agricultural development. Agrifood Accelerator Programme-backed organizations are often deeply rooted in their local economic, social and cultural contexts and dependent on natural ecosystems.
“The local embeddedness of these enterprises drives them to invest in grassroots initiatives, providing socio-economic and environmental benefits to local communities, including enhancing food security and nutrition, adapting to climate change and creating inclusive employment,” explains Stefanos Fotiou, director at the FAO Office of SDGs.
“With global development goals in mind, they promote local economies, encourage healthy diet and lifestyle and contribute to fostering consumer consciousness about responsible production and consumption,” adds Hajnalka Petrics, programme officer at the FAO Office of SDGs.
The FAO-Seed program helps start-ups develop business instruments related to agrifood system transformations and the acceleration of SDGs under three areas: enhancing financial readiness, increasing innovation potential and scaling market reach.
Innovation priorities for investors
With the 2023 Entrepreneurship Programmes now open, EIT Food tells that it will be looking to support entrepreneurs working toward a more sustainable, healthy and equitable food system in key areas like protein diversification, regenerative agriculture, targeted nutrition, sustainable agriculture and aquaculture technologies.
“Within these areas, we would be excited to see applicants innovating in cellular agriculture novel plant-based ingredient sources or ‘food as medicine’, including nutraceuticals and food bioactives,” says Narjis Chakir, EIT RisingFoodStars programme manager.
“We also expect to see increased innovation in robotics and autonomous agriculture technologies in 2023, and we look forward to working with more start-ups driving forward the development of these solutions.”
In 2022, EIT Food supported more than 120 impactful start-ups working to solve global food system challenges. Similarly, Bühler’s investment program will continue to target alternative proteins from agricultural side streams, precision fermentation and cellular agriculture, as well as circular economy solutions and regenerative agriculture.
“Can we grow crops in a way that relies less on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and restores biodiversity? These areas are very important, particularly if we want to feed very large, growing populations,” says Roberts.
“Our next fund will be focused on the next level of sustainable food and feed ingredients – the big technologies with the potential to reduce land footprint by more than 90% for each kilo and, if clean energy is available, massively reduce the CO2 footprint of protein production.”
In this space, Bühler and Icos’ collaborative venture program – which also includes its strategic partners Royal Cosun and Nouryon (relaunched from AkzoNobel) – has invested in InnovoPro, a chickpea protein platform, and NapiFeryn BioTech, a start-up that produces rapeseed protein from the sunflower oil side stream.
Meanwhile, ICL Planet sees huge potential to replace chemical food additives in alternative functional proteins, leading it to invest in AI-driven start-up Protera Bio and Lemna-based protein innovator Plantible Foods.
“We need to focus our attention on the scale, speed and impact of the new food evolution,” says Sutovsky. “Huge opportunities will emerge in the integration of AI in agricultural and food technology.” She highlights Lavie Bio, an agricultural biologicals company developing microbiome-based products based on an advanced AI engine.
Meanwhile, Fotiou indicates that the FAO-Seed program will continue to invest in sustainable food production that is economically viable and socially beneficial to local communities, including nutritious indigenous grains like fonio grains, hydroponically grown quality hop cones, nutritious raw honey production and vertical farming systems.
Scalability and success
ICL’s investment in Arkeon will support its one-step fermentation bioprocess, which creates customizable protein ingredients by capturing CO2 and converting it into the 20 proteinogenic amino acids necessary for human nutrition. The resulting alternative proteins are carbon-negative and clean-label functional ingredients.
“Upscaling the gas fermentation and production of proteinogenic amino acids at large quantities is a challenge, but scale is a challenge that almost all new fermentation-based protein start-ups are facing,” notes Sutovsky.
“The planned strategic collaboration with ICL’s Food Specialties business will allow the creation of new food applications and extensive market access. Its support will be instrumental in helping Arkeon scale its archaea-derived protein production capabilities.”
Meanwhile, Roberts at Bühler highlights plant-based “chicken” innovator Planted Foods as an example of how far start-ups can scale with corporate support. Bühler helped propel the enterprise from a student project at ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to industrial production.
“Now they are a successful small company and have raised in excess of 100 million euros – it’s positive to see how they’ve evolved and, of course, the technical support we have given it has been critical to its journey,” he says.
Likewise, Chakir at EIT RisingFoodStars spotlights Kaffe Bueno, a Danish start-up upcycling coffee waste into active and functional food ingredients and ingredients for cosmetics and personal care products, which the EIT Food Accelerator Programme has supported since 2017.
“By scaling its solution, Kaffe Bueno has made a significant contribution to the shift toward a circular food system. Its broad range of products is transforming consumer perceptions of this everyday ‘waste’ product,” she says.
In 2020, the start-up joined forces with EIT’s corporate partner Givaudan to develop Koffee’Up Grade, a sustainable beauty oil crafted from upcycled Arabica coffee grounds.
Chakir also highlights the success of EIT-backed Redefine Meat, a start-up producing 3D-printed, plant-based products which mimic beef, lamb and pork. The enterprise achieved a 90% acceptance rate in a blind tasting and has since commercialized its products in Israel, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.
“There is a clear need to develop and scale a diverse range of alternative proteins to help tackle a range of environmental and health challenges while meeting consumer demand for products that accurately replicate the appearance, taste and texture of meat,” says Chakir.
“With its products saving up to 96% in water usage and 98% in land use compared with consuming animal meat, the global launch of Redefine Meat has exciting implications for the future of sustainable protein consumption.”