Berkeley researchers seek ‘actionable solutions’ at alternative protein lab

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The University of California, Berkeley, is establishing a new programme focusing on the alternative protein space as it seeks to deliver “actionable solutions” to address the “real problems” facing the sector.

The Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology at UC Berkeley is launching an Alternative Meats Lab with the aim of creating “better” plant-based meat alternative products.

The lab will use the “latest” technology, tools and techniques to engineer plant-based meat alternatives, with meat-eaters as the target market.

“There is evidence that meat-lovers would buy plant-based meat alternatives if the taste is right,” said professor Ricardo San Martin, co-chair for the new lab. “One of our goals for the lab will be to develop delicious food that is similar to meat from a nutritional and functional perspective, but may not necessarily mimic meat exactly.”

The research will encompass all alternative protein sources, ranging from plants to insects and in-vitro meat. “We will consider all technological alternatives and these will be guided by examining the complex behavioural and consumer perception issues around eating meat. We are convinced this is a major hurdle we must tackle simultaneously with the technical challenges,” professor San Martin told FoodNavigator.

Open innovation

While there are a growing number of venture-capital and industry backed startups developing plant-based products aiming to compete with traditional meat, their approaches and techniques have been “industry secrets”, Berkeley said. One of the goals of the alternative meat lab will be to develop research to “open up” the industry by “freely distributing findings” in order to enable more entrepreneurs around the world in the meat alternatives space, the university noted.

“Through our network of alumni, investors, and founders, we determined that meat alternatives represent one of the biggest opportunities for creating a startup right now,” said Ikhlaq Sidhu, faculty director and founder of the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology at UC Berkeley and professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering & Operations Research. “The market is huge, and we believe the technology is ready for entrepreneurs to compete with traditional meat in the near future.”

Business partnerships

The launch is being conducted in partnership with Swiss ingredients group Givaudan.

“We are excited to work with some of the brightest young minds in the world to help find solutions that address the taste and texture challenges of non-animal proteins,” Flavio Garofalo, Givaudan’s global business development manager, protein, commented.

He stressed the need for a collaborative approach to innovation as the food sector tackles the sustainability issues associated with protein production.

“The societal and environmental implications are enormous, and no one can solve this individually. We must collaborate to truly move forward, and we feel that the multi-disciplinary approach being utilized at Berkeley will yield optimal results,” Garofalo noted.

Professor Ricardo San Martin added that the programme will invite “key business partners to be part of the board”, with the likes of meat-free burger group Impossible Foods already signed-up.

This kind of collaboration between business and academia is “crucial” to further research in emerging fields like alternative proteins, professor San Martin suggested.

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