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    30 min read

    [S2:Ep #4] More is more in next gen proteins

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    Hosted by Tommaso Di Bartolo, founding partner of Awesm Ventures, experts and influencers of global reach, Einav Gefen, Corporate Executive Chef at Unilever Food Solutions, North America, Jinesh Shah, serial entrepreneur, YCombinator-Alum, advisor and mentor to several Alt-Protein startups, and Denis Chereau, CEO of Improve, Europe’s first research and development platform dedicated to next gen proteins, elevate the discussion to new levels.

    Virtual Coffee: A Curated panel of industry fellows to discuss how to future-proof traditional markets



    In Season 2, recognized world-class Researchers, Scientists, Faculty Members, Senior Executives, Experts, Chefs, Investors and Entrepreneurs from around the globe, engage in strategic exchange of views and share startling intel on viable transformative innovation in Agriculture, Food and Beverage, zooming in the next gen proteins space. 


    With Special participation of



    [Industry Fellows] Virtual Coffee: S2:E4 

    Einav Gefen 

    Jinesh Shah 

    Denis Chereau 

    Einav Gefen
    Jinesh Shah
    Denis Chereau
    Corporate Executive Chef at Unilever Food Solutions, North America
    Food | Tech | Alt Protein | YC Alum | Founder @ eazyChef, MylkGuys | Solving some of the biggest problems our planet faces



    Serial entrepreneur w/ 2 exits, author, advisor, faculty, investor.
    Tommaso Di Bartolo



    Key points: 

    • Adding up taste and texture
    • Talking innovation and new technologies
    • Startups in the next gen protein scenario



    I prefer 📹 watching the episode's video


    I want to listen 🎧 to the episode's podcast


    Episode's 🔖 Transcription

    Tommaso: Hello, everybody. Thank you very much for joining our Virtual Coffee. I’m very excited to have you all here, and I should really say good morning from my side but also good evening, or good afternoon, depending where you guys are dialing in from. This is our Virtual Coffee. It's a curated panel of industry fellows that discuss how to future proof traditional markets and we are in our episode number four of our season that has an amazing title and amazing focus, which is alternative protein, also known as next gen protein, and I’d like to introduce you today to our panelists.  


    Taste and texture

    Tommaso: I'll start with Einav. Einav, as an accomplished executive chef, can you say that the alternative proteins have already evolved as a replacement to what we know today's meat, dairy products and really seriously approaching the taste, the texture, and aroma. What are your thoughts on this?


    Einav: I absolutely think if you look back five years ago the strides that this market has made is by lip service. So, up till probably five six years ago it was my Newton was very geared to a certain amount or certain type of consumer with dietary restriction or dietary preference. What happens in this booming market is really appealing to the gen pop, where you don't have to be lactose intolerance, you do not have to be vegan or vegetarian. It is just another addition to your repertoire to be more responsible to the planet, and to your health, and we can see that we've got going(growing?) hand in hand demand and development. The quality of the products are really itching in to mimic an experience that will be familiar to people that don't want to enjoy milk or meat but just want to consume less of it and not necessarily by necessity of eating less. So, absolutely. It's just amazing to see the amount of startups and the amount of VCs invested or money being funneled into that and and you just see the wheel, gaining more and more momentum. 

    Tommaso: How about the texture that gets into the real products and flavors?


    Einav: So I think it really depends on the format. Obviously, what we call them all supplied meat things like sausages, nuggets, you see a little bit closer because just by nature as the chef I won't walk you through all the mumbo jumbo of the cooking but it allows you a little bit more closeness. We'll see also in ground beef, like Lucien Burgers and ground beef product closeness to the browning the aroma, the texture and the flavor is not quite there yet, but a lot of things are being eaten with a sauce or with a topping or with a condiment and then that brings it significantly forward to the experience where still advancements are to be made is in the whole muscle type of the production. So, I think this is where we're gonna be next in the next few years.


    Innovation the next gen industry

    Tommaso: Dennis, you're an experienced executive and experienced leader in an advanced research lab. So what does the future hold in terms of innovation benefits in alternative proteins? In other words, what are the key aspects that you see that we cannot serve as data?


    Denis: Yeah. In fact, Improve is in the r&d Center and we are working with a lot of customers. We have more than 400 customers worldwide. Some are members of the b2b market, the ingredient producers, and some b2b players, the one we're formulating and selling to the final consumer of the product. The challenges are different depending on which area you are. For the b2b players, in fact, what they want is to innovate around the raw material to try to diversify the raw material. Because today, protein ingredients are almost only based on soy and wheat, and if you want something else, it's really difficult to get something. Pea is right now raising nicely, but except that, almost nothing. So there is a major challenge, because the birds are family, there are so many good potential candidates, like for example fava bean, mung bean, chickpea, all these beans can be processed, but there are also some microorganism IGs roots. 


    Sometimes insects are not plant based but it's sort of genetic proteins. The challenge there is for you to have a cheap access to raw material which is viable, and which is also the right working, because there are a lot of dreams around these raw materials so we need to be realistic, and we need to be cost effective, and we need to make sure that people will not be negatively impacted, or want to go to this area. The second area of attention is around processes, and there are basically two major ways to produce ingredients. So, either the dry fractionation or the wet fractionation. The wet fractionation is eating you isolate, so I need to refine the product around 85 to 90% protein on dry matter. It's good in terms of purity in demo functionality, but it's an expensive process. So, you have to wait to see plus or minus, and you have to make your choice. The concentrate, they are processed using the right processing, they are much cheaper because the technology is much cheaper and more accessible and in addition to that, the quality of the product is a little bit different. The purity will be lower between 55 to 65% protein on dry matter. But there are plenty of things to do. I am sure that enough can formulate and nicely isolate also concentrate. So it's in fact enlarging the options and then for me, that's a great future. 


    New technologies

    Tommaso: Jinesh, I looked again at your background in science, math, tag, so you have really a very deep knowledge in a variety of areas. How would you see that based on your knowledge in this range of new technologies that we are discussing here, how do you see that it is possible in the future to fuse the physical part with the digital, the biological in order for significantly change how we eat, maybe five to 10 years. What are your thoughts on this? 

    : Yeah, I think what we're going through right now is a fantastic phase in biological innovation. I think that's one of the big innovations going on right now, and that's the one that we see being talked about a lot in the news, like the likes of Beyond Meat, the likes of Impossible. Like most other companies in that space, we will talk about things  like hemoglobin, things like fermentation based proteins produced that are milk proteins or egg proteins. So there's a lot of obviously deep science and tech going on in that space. 


    “But the thing that isn't as big, typically talked about an alternative protein arena is also suffragists going on in this food tech arena overall, things like the role of robotics that is emerging now in terms of tech robotics, sort of meeting with production and manufacturing at scale. You know that's one of the key unlocking areas around software and tech that is helping you design personalized meals, helping you design DNA based meal choices. So I think there's a lot of innovation in that space.”


    In addition, I think there is a lot to be done with, you know, distribution, logistics, sourcing. There's a lot of good technology that goes through that. And then if you go further down, back to agriculture, lots of science going into circular regenerative economies. I mean to touch upon one of the points that Dennis mentioned, I mean the soybeans are some of the biggest sources right now as humankind. We've only sourced like four to five different crops as everything that we make out of most probably. Wheat, rice, soy and maize I believe are the top four. And there is just like a whole ton of other crops to be explored, and the science behind them and regenerative agriculture in India alone. For example, now I've met entrepreneurs working on things like for scrap which is like something I had not heard of until earlier this year being an Indian and the whole variety of peas, legumes, pulses that can be sourced to do some of this stuff. 


    So, I think in my view of the alternative protein arena as innovation, this is probably I would say the second wave earlier we had the likes of mock beats being developed in Taiwan, those have been going on for decades. And now we have the likes of Impossible and Beyond and so many other companies that could do that in India. 


    During this next wave, and then I think after this, we'll have even a lot more sort of local innovation, different ingredients, different technologies including cell based meats in the future. 

    “There are companies that are doing homegrown cell based meat kits. So, I think this is just the beginning for me, of all of those areas of innovation, coming together, including eventually added space has become multiplanetary.’ 


    And grow cell based meat out there, because we definitely don't want to do what we've done to our planet, to the other ones too. 


    Tomasso:Thanks for allowing us to pick your brain on this despite all the challenges and only the negative news that we hear. It's really a nice message to say it's early days, there is a lot of opportunity, still a lot of things to uncover regardless it's from a corporation perspective or it's from a startup perspective, and even the the views of many aspects which is that maybe the data aspect of it, what we learn out of it and how this can evolve into maybe new services, new business model, etc. So thank you so much. 


    You're never too small

    Tommaso: Einav, I brought a question for you this time. So, I was just mentioning innovation in cooperation and you work for a global corporation. What would you know... I imagine that it's a huge challenge, not just to mention that you get innovation to be deployed in a big corporation, how can you as an individual or within a team influence change within this corporation always type always to the perspective of alternative approaching? What are your thoughts on this?


    Einav: First of all, it's a philosophy. Yes, it's a big corporation and many moving bodies and you always feel like you're a small component, but our fearless global leader on the UFFF Arm said: “if you think you're too small to make an impact, think COVID-19”. You're never too small to make an impact. I think it's all about identifying a need for cooperation on any innovation there are two approaches. Either you have an idea and you create something and then you create the need for it, or you identify a need and you create a solution. We as a big corporation come from all the letters, identifying the need and then seeing if the solution is within our wheelhouse, within our brands, within our technologies, within our expertise, and this is where I play a role. 


    You're never too small because we're all out there seeing, hearing, taking part of the outer world, and coming back to the organization and say “hey, you know, going forward and 14 alternatives are not only a trend or something that will stay and we should take place in that as a food company”. This is how you start having the conversation needless to say that being bigger we're moving slower. 


    “And I don't think I'm breaking any news to any big companies executive guests on this call, but I always say we're like a train, we may be moving slower, we may be taking a turn slower, but we are moving masses and our reach is extremely big.”


    So, I don't think it needs to be one format or another, but really the essence of my job is to connect the outer world in evaluate what is relevant to us within our framework, and then suggest with my colleagues, what are the ways that we can innovate around that need and bring tangible solutions for consumers and our customers. Not always do I get what I want, sometimes I need to pitch the same thing in different formats, sometimes I need to talk to different people, things that have merit will end up at the end.

    Tommaso: Einav, double down on this because while you were talking I was just really illustrating in my mind a check within a corporation in this next gen protein experimentation must be fundamental for whatever you do, maybe you want to share one of your latest experiments, or one of the experiments where you had before you went into the experiment one assumption, and then why you experiment and based on the result of the experiment  it totally change to really your learnings and what you expected out of it. Is there anything that you would say: “Tommaso, this is what I did and then this is what came out of it.” ?


    Einav: Yeah, we all are humans. We all come with our pre consumption into any situation and our biases. When alternative protein just started to gain momentum, I wanted to say that I'm a flexitarian because I eat everything but, you know, it's the first assessment for me just to understand how to try everything under the sun, in the moon that is out there. Hours and hours in the kitchen or tasting every competitor, every company, every format or product out there just to understand the gamut of the market from the vegetable based ones up to the meat alternative and cook them, cook them straight up, cook them in application. 


    So I can get the full experience and I came into it saying this is a highly processed item. I know there is a lot of heat in the market saying “okay, this is not necessarily better because it is highly processed” and what will be the repercussions of that at the end of the day, we are offering an alternative to an unsustainable way of eating and unsustainable industry, period. 


    You can choose or not choose to participate in any format that you want, but I needed to take that term personally to believe in it, and then because it's very hard for me to pick something I don't believe in and taste everything out there, experience everything out there, read the labels, understand what it means, what is the difference between excluded to other formats, and understand that at the end of the day offer the process to a degree it's our perception of what process is. Dry pasta and dry rice are processed, it's just a psychological thing, and it's not something that you have to conceal five times a day every day, but it is there to offer the same experience with different benefits and being a little bit more responsible to yourself in the client.


    The startup scenario

    Tommaso: Denis, we see on one hand the universities coming with great scientific and next gen products on the other hand we have VCs pouring in money and betting on this next gen food and also drinks alternative strike. But, creating a startup, regardless of next gen protein or not, is a big challenge, but what are specific the challenges that startups and an entrepreneur startup team has when it embarks on the journey of “I would like to change the world with alternative protein”. What are your thoughts on this? What can you share with the audience?

    : Again, I always answer the question in two parts, the ingredient and the application part. The ingredient it’s a real challenge because when you want to develop a new process, it's millions of dollars or euros to be invested if you want to really invest in the plants. We heard that recently some projects in Canada, 400 million euros to create the plant, producing isolates. So, it's a real challenge in starter because we started very recently, we patented a very innovative and amazing process able to reduce isolate from Percy's hobby whatever taste neutral, almost white cheaper to produce and more functional. Now the challenge for us, because we are small, is to convince big players investors or producers do first year believe and then trial the product and maybe modify some part of their production facilities, it is a real challenge. 


    So one of the challenges for the b2c is being small and convincing the big players. In the b2c it’s a little bit different, because you can be small, you can innovate, you can formulate something totally new if you are creative, if you are smart, you can develop something, then the challenge will be how can we resist against the competition, because if I am small enabling humans to develop something, a lot of people can do the same, and we have access to make people Roma you're making application. So I think the real challenge is around how can be competitive in terms of cost versus quality, because it's not because my teacher and I can do something good, it's safe. Maybe it is not safe because my raw material was not properly treated. Maybe the way they store the process was not perfectly adapted. So, it is food science and there are some rules you can follow. 


    Startups need to pay attention to that. And then you also need to understand the market, and the needs of the customers. There is not one customer, even one single individual can be multiple customers. You are not the same when you are eating your breakfast on Monday morning or when you're eating your lunch on Wednesday and you are doing party on Saturday night, because you're totally different customers.You need also to get answers to these different customers, and understanding the diversity of customers needs is a very complex story. So that's where also the challenge of the startup is to define the market in this very diversified range of demand. 

    Tommaso: One is really on the production side and you mentioned also the go to market access. I believe really getting somebody to hear what you have to say is a big challenge and I assume that this is going into the next question that I have. I’d like to ask Jinesh. Jinesh, this topic is so hot right now that there are some big players, not mentioning the names, for instance in alternative meat that really are kind of a monopoly already, but you see a lot of startups, also in this space, for instance again alternative meat coming in. So how can you compete with the big ones in there with all those challenges that are just mentioned? What makes them unique, the smaller ones? What are your thoughts on this? 


    Jinesh: So, a few different things actually, another to begin with the theme that's probably becoming most important right now with the COVID situation. Food production lines around the world, meat production lines specifically have been affected very much. So, a lot of the themes focus right now is on local production of food, essentially, and so what you're seeing right now for example is not going to chill. Raising money for a future farm, doing well in a certain region in the world from Brazil coming from New Zealand, some spent meats doing really well and supplying it in New Zealand, in Australia. Good dot, which didn't exist in the market say about four years ago has become really big in India, for example, and this is all, I'm just giving you a few names right now, which are all just didn't exist on the map a few years ago. 


    When we consider the bigger names, if I made just Possible and Beyond as sort of monopolies in the space, only four kind of emerged only in the last five years in China, for example. So, I think in part both from a public and the demand perception piece people want to support more local food, locally sourced food, locally manufactured food that supports local economies, and in addition to that, I think it's also around cost, it's also around developing meats that suit a certain type of application, certain price points. So there's definitely tons of opportunity to be done. 


    How do small startups otherwise sort of innovate and engage? I was for example speaking just yesterday to an 89 year old entrepreneur in India who started making alternative meats and supplying them to local restaurants, how did they possibly scale up the good part is now in this new wave coming up, you have already a lot of know how, what has happened in this space before, so you don't have to reinvent the wheel and start from the zero, you kind of have a sense of what's happened before, take it forward and how that can be aided is that a lot of ingredients supply companies, a lot of innovation labs, just like Improve, for example, in France, and in a lot of even the bigger names have Innovation Lab setup where they work with the smaller startups in order to help them with their formulations and come to market. 


    So I think there's a lot more work to be done in that space there is still work to be done in making products shelf stable versus frozen or refrigerated, what are the cost, the environmental impact, all that stuff is and I think, again, we're just beginning like no one made 3d printed meat, that is just one example I read just recently about one company called Singularity Sushi that is going to make a very personalized type of 3d printed sushi that will be specific to your type of DNA and saliva, so that the date that it delivers to you is very specifically, I mean, the concepts are endless if you think of it, and to me, the first few have become these will last, but they are just inspiring other entrepreneurs, sort of coming into a lot more session. 


    Tommaso: I love it. At the end of the day, never be intimidated by the big ones. It just shows that there is a market and then be segmented, thinking maybe on the delivery models customization, individualization. You mentioned 3d printing, so there is still a big opportunity path ahead of us for a lot of good players that really focus on the product and customer centric approach. Thank you so much, Denis, for sharing this. 


    Questions from the audience


    Einav, Jinash, Denis, we are already here through our second round of questions. It's not about having one format but really succinct and informative and I would like to open up here. One says from an anonymous attendee: Which are the advantages and disadvantages between wet and dry temperatures? Which one is better? Who would like to take this?


    Einav: The one who knows fractionation.


    Denis: I can take it. The pluses and minuses, so the right fractionation basically is cheap, less energy, less transformation, no water, no sediment, is just milling and seeding. You can achieve a pretty decent level of protein as I said before around 55 to 65%. The negative is you have difficulty to fight against composition, if you have, for example, xxxx external factors in the product, it's difficult to remove because you don't have that extraction and refining, you have ways to increase, to improve the taste by doing some demo treatment, but it's sometimes tricky. So it's a very good product, basic product, cheap, easy to be sold and formulated, but it's not extremely pure, and usually formulators prefer to work on the pre flight product like isolate pluses and minuses cause it's both very fine, you can better control the functional properties, but it's quite expensive, that's the most disadvantage, and if people consider the processing, we can say that the isolates are more in the high processing side than the than the flowers for use on the right process.


    Tommaso: Krista, given the difference of animal and plant proteins, will we ever be able to recreate the taste and texture on plant based products? Probably directed to Einav or Denis. 


    Einav, would you like to take this one?


    Einav: Sure, I think a lot of work is already happening in that area, and it's all going to be a combination of technology and ingredients. So, now that as Jinesh said that first knowledge or know how has happened that I think the advancement to that economy significantly faster so even if it's a 3d printing or whole muscle production, it's first going to be the format that technology of creating the format, and then the flavor will be secondary to that, but everybody's working in the methods to get to that goal.


    Denis: I would like to add the fact that working on the breeding of the raw material to working on seeds for example from one seed bar up to another, you can have an extremely different organic profile. We don't speak about pea or fava bean we speak about varieties, and it's extremely important icing right now we are in the Battle of the technology, but in the coming years, we will be in the battle of the breeding because the breeding will make the difference again, you will diversify your product based on the breeding.


    Einav: I think it links directly to what Jinesh said before, as we are looking more and more into a circular food system, and more to improve the supply chain that will offer aggregating farming and biodiversity.


    Jinesh: Small piece to add there. Just to the audience here, you guys might already know the mockup company like the 3d printed steaks that they're doing right, you can customize what marbling of the state that you want there. And this is just, they're not even like at this point right away ready to go to markets, but they've already advanced so much just in the last two years, soon you'll be able to have like a steak marble the way you want with the amount of fat in the right areas,  printed it exactly the way you want and of course cell based meats will take that to another level where the 3d scaffolding around which you put the different sort of cells on there the fat cells and the proteins as companies doing both back cells and cooking cells. 


    Now earlier, just protein, sort of chase proteins, it's not just going to taste exactly like animal products, you'll be able to make it taste like you want, that's going to be fascinating. I mean, people who have never tasted see marsupial meats, people like you've been vegetarian all my life will probably think of, you know, to the dismay of a lot of family and friends of mine be able to taste like mammoth meat or marsupial meat of the future, which I think is fascinating to observe. 


    Tommaso: Absolutely. Well thank you so much. And we have time for one more question. This one is from Jennifer/Santa Barbara asks: How much of interaction there is between computational biologists and scientists of cellular agriculture, including Unilever test kitchen?

    Einav: In my immediate kitchen, not so much. However, in our discovery centers in badminton in the Netherlands, very much. So, Unilever has a unit that works very closely with the badminton university. We work with different entities, obviously, to see what is happening, how it can be translated and we already and we don't need to do this journey from the beginning. So I'm more informed, I'm not on the front line of that, but Unilever does have it.


    Source of inspiration


    Tommaso: Jinesh, Einav and Denis, but before we wrap up things, I actually want to end up on our last question, which is around innovation and inspiration of innovation. 


    Everybody talks about innovation. Innovation is an experiment on itself, there is no blueprint. What is maybe the source of inspiration for every single one of you?  Might be a book, might be a podcast, might be a person. The question of innovation and inspiration I’d like to start with Jinesh, what inspires you? What's the source of inspiration for you in this industry?

    Jinesh: I think the very first one for me comes from a math and computer science, math finance background. Very different world, industry. A few things for me were Steve Jobs, big inspiration. Find your passion, right? I mean, it doesn't matter what background you come from, you got to find your passion, and once you find it, it's very satisfying to go to bed every night when you're working on something that you love. Elon Musk, I mean this must be an inspiration for a lot of people he started from making video games and now he is making reusable rockets, trying to take humans to Mars. So it doesn't matter where you come from, you can really achieve whatever you want if you really deeply cooperate, if you have the fire and the motivation. 


    Last but not least, just like our biodiversity on this planet map, like just living in San Francisco for some time I could see whales, reach, while walking on the street in the city you could see whales, reaching from the water in certain seasons. I don't want the future generations to miss that and I actually want more of our biodiversity to come back. And a big part of that is accelerating towards the future of food that is animal free and animal agriculture free so that in itself is a big inspiration. 


    Tommaso: Einav, what inspires you? 


    Einav: I think it's exposure, that's the way I create dishes, I created when I worked in restaurants for many years, it's connecting dots. So the more you expose to a more diverse forums, people, ingredients, technologies. The thought starts to fall in some sort of a pattern and a place in my head and it comes together it's something. It is also for me trying to see the world through the eyes of somebody else, it can be my kids, it can be my consumer, it can be the operators that I serve, because then you can get a different perspective, and you can identify different needs, and all that comes together in the end. So it's always not to be stuck with the mundane, just put yourself out there constantly. 


    Tommaso: Last but not least, Denis. What’s your source of inspiration for innovation?

    Denis: Okay, so I will be simply more basic. In fact, reading information everywhere it's something very inspiring and this is why we published for example in Improve protein newsletter, gathering information from scientific documents, patents markets, review, m&a information so we can give these review to all the customers on our network. So if people are interested, please let me know, we can perfectly connect you to this database. It's very inspiring, I can tell you there are so many information, and you can go back to the database and see how the things are moving, because you know, we are speaking today about a project but what was the case four years ago, so it's very instructive to see how the things are moving in the time. So inspiration can also be coming from reading. 

    Tommaso: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I appreciate very much to join us, invest this time, and share the knowledge because we believe reading and sharing knowledge in this delicate time with others makes us grow together as a community and that's exactly the intent that we have here. I would like to wrap up things with my quote that I learned over the last years, within which goes like this:


    Tommaso: “Never forget where you come from, it keeps you humble. But where you come from, cannot limit you where you want to go.”


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