India needs to adopt smart protein to feed its growing population

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India needs to adopt smart protein to feed its growing population

Monday, 15 May 2023 | Poorvasha Kar

With smart protein being the key to feeding 10 billion people by 2050, India must catch up with the global smart protein landscape

It’s not every day that leaders from around the world sit together to share a meal. Yet, last year, at the United Nations COP27 conference, when senior officials from Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, and other countries gathered around the table to share some delicious chicken, it wasn’t the company that made the dinner special - it was the food. It was Good Meat’s cultivated chicken, grown directly from animal cells, that gave the officials their first taste of a future of food that underpins the climate goals that are at the very heart of the conference.

That clever piece of chicken is what we call smart protein – part of a category of pioneering foods made from plants, microorganisms, or cells that provide a viable alternative to animal-derived meat, eggs, and dairy. As of today, fermentation-derived and cultivated protein products (like the GoodMeat chicken) are not commercially available in India, the plant-based sector boasts 400+ products and 60 brands. While the sunrise sector is brimming with potential and optimism, there is a widening chasm in its startup ecosystem. On the one hand, a handful of entrepreneurs have been able to push through their challenges and bring a stellar product to the market - one that resonates with the mass market. On the other hand, some entrepreneurs continue to push forward in the industry one step at a time but are yet to build relevance and a loyal customer base.

While these entrepreneurs have different destinations, they encounter similar obstacles in terms of forming a strong founding team, accurately assessing market and technical viability, fundraising from investors, and developing a strategic business plan. For a first-time entrepreneur, it is daunting to unravel the legal, financial, and commercial processes of setting up a startup on its own. This complexity only increases in a nascent sector like smart protein where the underlying ecosystem is still being built from the ground up.

This often leads smart protein entrepreneurs to face unique industry challenges like unclear regulatory policies, shortage of skilled talent, and lack of market sizing data. Yet, the most critical bottleneck is the lack of R&D infrastructure required at the lab, pilot, and large manufacturing scale to convert experimental solutions into market-ready products. While the food processing sector in India is well established, there is limited availability of equipment required for conducting novel food R&D and running pilot trials.

Often, even the limited pieces of equipment are spread across universities and research parks and gated by levels of bureaucracy, complex partnership agreements, and high lab fees. Needless to say, as most startups at this stage are self-funded, they don’t have the capital or volumes required to set up their facilities or hire talent that can operate them.

While this may paint a grim picture, let’s not forget that the smart protein sector is already home to a rapidly growing cohort of resilient startups. To multiply this number and move towards a future of sustainable food, the need of the hour is to bridge the gap between the two kinds of entrepreneurs and create structures that can improve the ease of setting and scaling up smart protein startups.

Ask any early-stage smart protein startup what they need and you’ll get a similar laundry list: technical mentorship, infrastructure access, skill enhancement, capital from investors, and entrepreneurial support. Though this might feel like a big ask, several organizations and industry experts have stepped up to embrace the challenge and are committed to providing a significant leg-up to these startups. There are nearly 900+ accelerator programs active in India with little to no focus on this growing industry. Their mandate is often restricted to fintech, healthcare, climate tech, SaaS and logistics startups.

This leaves early-stage smart protein startups to compete for limited spots in sector-agnostic programs that aren’t able to support all their requirements of technical expertise and food innovation infrastructure. One niche program that aims to fill this gap is the India Smart Protein Innovation Challenge (ISPIC). While these initiatives are a good start, they are only that. With smart protein being the key to feeding 10 billion people by 2050, nearly a sixth of whom will be Indian, there’s much work to be done to support the right innovators and bring India up to speed with the global smart protein landscape.

To truly create an industry capable of transforming how the future of food is made, decision-makers in India too, need to gather around a table over a smart protein meal. They too, need to acknowledge food technology solutions to the ecological crisis and commit to turning ‘food for thought’ into actual food. After all, how exciting would it be to serve plant-based keema and biryani at COP28?

(The writer is Innovation Associate at Good Food Institute India)

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