At GFI India’s Smart Protein Summit 2020, we announced plans to build the Smart Protein Industry Forum – a collaborative platform for industry players of all shapes and sizes to come together, identify bottlenecks in the development of an entirely new sunrise sector, and collaborate to advance this development in ways that no single entity can accomplish on its own. Through the course of 2021, we’ve been busy putting together multi-stakeholder partnerships and discussions to build the Smart Protein Industry Forum, culminating in seven closed-door, invite-only roundtable discussions that took place during the Smart Protein Summit 2021.
The Summit was designed to move beyond conversation and into action, which made it the perfect venue to house these roundtables. Centred around key whitespace areas within the sector and bringing together major players from across the industry, each roundtable was hugely constructive in its own way. We focused on seeking areas for collaboration and strategic coordination, and on facilitating new ways for people across the ecosystem to work together towards shared goals.
And now, we’re taking you behind the scenes to learn what emerged. Our expert participants were requested to follow Chatham House Rules, which asks that observers of the rule, “share the information you receive, but do not reveal the identity of who said it.” While we will not attribute specific insights and points of view to individuals to maintain anonymity, we agreed to share participants’ names and backgrounds to showcase the diverse people and organizations across the sector comprising the Smart Protein Industry Forum!
Our first roundtable discussion at the Smart Protein Summit 2021 on November 10, 2021 was centered around infrastructure challenges within the smart protein ecosystem. The conversation focused on action steps and partnership building hinged around one key question: What broad gaps currently exist within infrastructure across the plant-based foods value chain?
Speakers: Yashwanth Kollu (Continental Coffee), Dr. Gurmeet Singh (TDU Bangalore), Purnachand Upadrashta (BVeg Foods, ICL), Christoph Vogel (Buhler), Bhupinder Singh (Vista Foods, OSI), Rethesh Kumar (Symega), Balkumar Marthi (Gandhi Institute of Technology and Management)
The smart protein ecosystem in India is rapidly evolving, but it’s set against the backdrop of broader issues in agriculture and ease of doing business. Indian entrepreneurs are still largely dependent on imported equipment and ingredients to make products of global quality – but importing ingredients such as protein isolates, flours, and extrudates attracts very high customs duties – making the end product unaffordable at scale. Producers also see heavy questioning and a lack of clarity from food inspectors and customs officers, products getting stuck in customs, and other basic issues that point to the industry still being very much in its infancy in the country.
Despite being the largest producer of crops which are important to the smart protein sector such as pulses, lack of investment in value-addition across the value chain has meant that India is still dependent on countries like Canada when it comes to sourcing raw materials generally and high-value ingredients for the plant-based foods sector specifically. And with those countries (Canada in particular) showing major ambition in plant-based foods, we risk falling further behind without visionary investment and policy interventions.
This is why GFI India works overtime to build a value chain for plant-based foods and other smart protein categories in India. Through our work with Indian and multinational ingredients manufacturers and flagship projects such as our Indigenous Crops Initiative and Manufacturing Futures Initiative under the Mission for Smart Protein, we’re working to make India a major global player in the smart protein supply chain. The positive implications for job creation, local entrepreneurship, and product quality and diversity are immense.
Of course, infrastructure needs to exist at various levels including lab, pilot, and large manufacturing scale, and innovation successfully translates to the market only when it draws a line from experimental to large scale. Gaps in infrastructure availability and co-manufacturing capacity mean that entrepreneurs have to spend significant sums setting up their own facilities and that talent to operate these facilities is also in short supply. When it comes to building these centers of excellence or innovation centers, whether at the university or industry level, there are numerous challenges – including technology and knowledge transfer.
Given these challenges, most of the knowledge we have exists from secondary research and we have limited hands-on experience – a point that often leads to questions about capability amongst investors looking at the space as well. Our industry is reliant on the internet, supplier expertise, and global expertise at the moment, and investment in education should go hand-in-hand with infrastructure. For instance, the availability of equipment like twin-screw extruders – the texturization equipment for the current gold-standard method of producing chewy, tasty, plant-based meat chunks, high-moisture extrusion – at the lab level is a critical step towards entrepreneurs’ creating prototypes of their products, as well as towards training the next generation of innovators.
We’ve experienced some early successes in plugging infrastructure gaps, with university courses and labs launching soon in 2022 under our Smart Protein Innovation Hubs initiative with key institutes ranging from the National Institute of Food Technology, Entrepreneurship, & Management to Trans-Disciplinary University, and emerging extrusion co-manufacturers like BVeg Foods being set up with GFI India support. But there’s plenty of work to do yet at various levels of scale. Our global analysis of infrastructure needed to fulfill demand by 2030 shows that we will need 810(!) total production facilities for plant-based meat in this time-frame, and that’s not even counting cultivated meat and fermentation-derived proteins! India should be competing for these global supply chains – with the Smart Protein Industry Forum and our Mission for Smart Protein, we’re working on it.
At this early stage of the industry, our collective ability to share resources and bear risk is of paramount importance. Organizations across the spectrum of protein and fats experts, equipment manufacturers, and food manufacturers need to come together to optimally plug these gaps. Using the example of Givaudan and Buhler in Singapore, if a company were to set up an extrusion innovation centre in India, there are enough players looking for this kind of partnership who can provide them with space to operate. Then, food manufacturing and other equipment suppliers could be contacted in an effort to form a consortium and guarantee that these facilities would be utilized and innovations developed would be taken to market.
Taking the concept of multi-stakeholder partnerships further, what we really need is the triangulation of government, business, and academia. The establishment of a new industry from scratch does not afford room for silos; innovation does not happen in isolation or by reinventing the wheel.
Over the next decade, the protein landscape is set to change more than it has over the last 10,000 years. Issues unlike any other we’ve ever had to deal with will come up. And no one company can solve issues like these. Strong collaboration is needed, with an essential component being government and industry support.
We need pre-competitive collaboration among partners at all stages, who work on trust, backed by the support of academia, and government. That’s why the Smart Protein Industry Forum is an essential piece of our story over the next decade. Watch this space!