Padma Ishwarya, Radhika Ramesh, Devika Suresh• January 23 2023

Skilling ‘industry-ready’ talent for smart protein in India

Last year, in a landmark move toward building a dedicated smart protein workforce, GFI India and the Food Processing Sector Skill Council (FICSI) worked to develop a job role and the eligibility criteria for a ‘Plant-Based Food Technologist’, which is recognised by the National Council for Vocational Education and Training, and can be found on the government’s public record under the National Qualifications Register

As the smart protein industry develops, more job roles that are specialized must be created at various levels to widen the talent pool. India already has an extensive food processing infrastructure spanning academia, research, manufacturing, supply chain, entrepreneurial ventures, skill development, and capacity building. Similar infrastructure development needs to be formalized at different levels in the smart protein space. Support from the government continues to be the largest piece of the talent-building puzzle and can help create learning materials and training opportunities across various levels of educational systems, at scale.

GFI India and Deloitte India’s Economic Analysis shows that with the right interventions, the smart protein sector is poised to create up to 4 lakh jobs by 2030, only strengthening the case for a bold new vision that centers students and young Indians in the food systems conversation. Speaking to the potential of this sector, FICSI’s Deputy General Manager Pritha Tripathi said, “It is expected that there will be a triple growth of the sector: INR 33,000 crores (market size) by 2030, and hence, we need a skilled workforce ready for this growing industry.”

To make this a reality, we need more biologists studying and optimizing plants and microbes for protein production, more engineers improving ingredients and processing techniques, and more food scientists combining these ingredients in novel ways to produce foods that offer consumers alternatives to the animal-derived products they love. And, we need them nowas this is going to be key in feeding 10 billion people by 2050, one-sixth of whom will be Indians.  

For a sunrise sector like smart protein where we need multidisciplinary talent at various career stages to plug into the different sections of the emerging ecosystem, job opportunities and associated training curricula cannot be created in silos. In fact, Pritha adds, “The smart protein industry is a niche field at the moment, but it is coming up, and it is important to create training materials in different and accesible formats for the Indian ecosystem.”

Beyond just coursework and training materials, there are numerous other gaps in the talent pipeline that need to be filled for the industry readiness of the workforce, including practical hands-on skilling, industry-academia collaboration to inform programming for the courses and impactful hiring from these training initiatives, amongst others.

Take the ‘plant-based food technologist’ job title for instance. To help attain the necessary qualification for the job title, FICSI and GFI India are currently working with the University of Trans-Disciplinary Health Sciences (TDU), one of the only Institutions that is home to a rare piece of production equipment – a lab-scale high-moisture extruder which allows for practical application and hands-on training for those that will undergo FICSI’s upcoming online training programme on plant-based protein production. Similarly, TDU’s B.Voc course in Food Processing, designed in partnership with FICSI – Food SSC, an ‘earn-while-you-learn’ course is a dual certificate program (from both TDU and FICSI) that offers candidates much-needed industry apprenticeship opportunities. Among the electives is a course on plant protein texturization and homogenization with access to both a lab and pilot plant, designed specifically to make students employment-ready.

Indubitably, there is a need for a 360-degree, translational approach to skilling that includes encouraging the student community to understand the importance of smart protein through a well-rounded curriculum that touches upon business and policy themes along with core SciTech concepts, with a considerable practical component for which the access to lab, pilot and commercial-scale equipment facilities and product testing centers would become imperative. Not only that, we would also require an expansive prospectus to train the trainers that instruct these smart protein hopefuls.

Further, to enable PhD scholars and Postgraduate students of food science and technology programs to gain strong insights into the underlying science of smart protein, we need to encourage them to pursue research projects related to alternative proteins. We need to directly involve relevant industry stakeholders as mentors in the skill development initiatives and student projects. Entrepreneurs need to support training initiatives at their own production facilities to inspire young talent to pursue their careers in the alternative protein sector.

There is a long way to go when it comes to bridging the talent gap but there have been some significant advancements in the recent past.  

GFI India’s flagship initiative, the India Smart Protein Innovation Challenge (ISPIC) aims to address this talent bottleneck, stimulate research and solve for scientific whitespaces, and build the early-stage startup ecosystem by accelerating go-to-market for dozens of entrepreneurs in the smart protein sector. It has comprehensively trained over a thousand new innovators in the business and science of smart protein across its two iterations thereby, generating a dedicated pool of industry-ready smart protein talent. ISPIC 2020 was a first-of-its-kind alternative protein challenge in the world with cascading effects. We saw several similar hackathons, ideation challenges, and competitions inspired by ISPIC in multiple other parts of the world – for example, The Alt Protein Fellowship and the Alt Protein Projects at Brown University, The University of North Carolina, and Johns Hopkins University, and The Alternative Protein Fundamentals Programme hosted by the Cambridge University Alt. Protein Society.

ISPIC 2021 had an expanded focus to include solutions for plant-based, fermentation-derived and cultivated meat, eggs and dairy with the challenge being divided into 2 tracks focused on ideation and entrepreneurship, with different objectives for each. The Challenge also forms direct pipelines for the GFI India Talent Community –  a network of early-stage professionals, researchers, and students wanting to get involved in the sector through internships, employment or collaborative projects that has helped countless founders find relevant skilled talent in the past. 

Recently, a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed between GFI India and the Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR), Hyderabad to accelerate cutting-edge research on millets. Millets are the indigenous crops of India  that include  a wide range of nutrients, specifically proteins with a balanced amino acid content. Compared to other  crops, millets are more climate-resilient, sustainable, affordable, and profitable. To study the multifarious ways this single nutricereal can be included in smart protein products requires in-depth scientific research with contextual industry knowledge, and the collaboration between GFI India and India’s leading millet research institute seeks to establish institutional partnerships needed to achieve that. 

With  collaborative efforts from farmer-producer organizations, food technologists, ingredient processors and manufacturers, millets can emerge as a principal source of smart protein. Over the last few years, the government has also been ramping up ideas to support the increase in production and value addition of this superfood, while the world is heading to celebrate 2023 as the International Year of Millets. In fact, being the world’s largest producer of the crop, India has the potential to be the epicenter of millet protein-based meat, egg and dairy smart protein products.

BVeg Foods – one of the first Indian ventures in the plant-based protein space to house an industrial-scale high moisture extrusion (HME) facility powered by the Swiss technology leader Bühler, is also coming up with a Center of Excellence. With robust product development capabilities and a state-of-the-art extruder, the facility has an annual production capacity of 4000 MT. Not only that, the facility can create a diverse and customized product portfolio including center-filled products, formed products (burger, patties, nuggets), hand-folded products (spring roll, dim sums) and whole muscle products. 

‘Cultivating’ a future for India’s youth warrants a move towards newer technologies.

For nearly two years, Singapore has been the only country to allow the commercial sale of cultivated meat but last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its first regulatory clearance of a cultivated meat product, giving the green light to Upside Foods. With global meat consumption projected to rise significantly by 2050, cultivated meat offers a scalable solution that can address climate change, reduce pandemic and antibiotic-resistance risks, feed more people with fewer resources, and free up lands and water for restoration and recovery – which would all be significant for countries like India that would disproportionately face the devastating effects of climate change disasters.

Making sure India doesn’t miss this cultivated bus and laying the groundwork for similar milestones, GFI India has partnered with the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Mumbai to establish the world’s first government research center for the development of cultivated meat. This Centre of Excellence (CoE) would collate the expertise of GFI India in cultivated meat and the academic and infrastructure facilities of ICT. The vision is to expand this research center from a city-based lab to a more prominent greenfield project within the 203 acres of land owned by ICT in Jalna, Maharashtra. The CoE will foster open-access research with the focused objectives of advancing the knowledge base in the field of cultivated meat and encouraging startups to develop products based on the know-how generated.

For a true systems change, ecosystem building must take root at the school level. 

Developing a workforce that’s dedicated to food system transformation must take root in school and university ecosystems through various formats of learning materials across secondary and higher education, college and university levels, diploma and certification agencies, and at apprentice and vocational institutions. 

2022 saw the launch of the Delhi Smart Protein Project as part of the Good Food Institute’s Alt Protein Project – a global movement helping visionary student groups transform their universities into alternative protein hubs in India. The project’s 36 chapters across 17 countries lead initiatives spanning education, research, innovation, awareness and community building. Currently, the Delhi University student organizers are focusing on expanding to other priority universities in Delhi-NCR, developing curriculum for the World’s First Smart Protein Digital Lab – a curated Massive Open Online Course for smart protein, introducing smart protein in schools, piloting a global alternative seafood course by working with multiple global APPs, and organizing in-person events convening industry, academia, and government including dedicated smart protein events at college fests and a parliamentarian dinner to advance the pillars of the National Mission for Smart Protein

Forging ahead.

To help create lucrative job opportunities across the production value chain, it is imperative to work collaboratively with government bodies such as the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. Pritha notes that, “Efforts to institute smart protein education and training should not be limited to just developing and curating courses. It is also important that the courses are approved and mandated by the Government of India to help provide skilled talent to the industry at large.”

Moreover, in order to stay globally competitive and industrially relevant, it is important to ensure that training and education materials are similar to coursework offered in leading institutions across the globe. To expose Indian students to international research and industrial experience, the government can also support students and researchers to access exchange programs and scholarships in smart protein. Exchange programs with innovation-forward nations like Israel or Germany through programmes like the DST-DAAD fellowship would foster academic training and specialization of junior researchers. The government can also provide avenues to fund industrial training exchange programmes for skilled professions in areas such as bioprocess design, food science and engineering, and meat science. 

A wider availability of extruders and other texturization equipment at an affordable charge would enable start-ups to conduct trials to develop diverse and innovative plant-based meat products. GFI’s global infrastructure mapping indicates that 810 production facilities are needed to fulfill demand just in the plant-based meat sector by 2030. Operation of dedicated Centers of Excellence, Innovation Centers and Incubation facilities at the academia-industry interface would aid in promoting smart protein to the next phase of development. This way, the lab-to-land transformation of smart protein-based products would be timely and effective. 

While the sector is continually growing and the resources and infrastructure we need for its advancement will keep on evolving, what we do know is that we need highly motivated individuals with the right combination of scientific expertise and entrepreneurial spirit to lead the change.

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