These food industry titans want to help scale startups

Are you a startup founder with a project, product or solution that utilises plant-based proteins? Several leading food-industry giants have joined forces to help you accelerate – while preserving your equity and IP.

The Scale It Up! Innovation Challenge is a competition to help startups that are developing plant-based protein solutions to scale their products for market introduction. The ProVeg Incubator is a supporting partner of the initiative. It’s a great next step for companies graduating from our accelerator programme!

Having run this competition successfully in the US last year, the organisers are now taking Scale It Up to Europe and the Middle East. The competition is supported globally by four big players in the food industry: Cargill, PURIS, Bühler, and Givaudan.

This leg of the challenge will include the expertise of DIL, the German Institute for Food Science, whose world-class facilities will be available to finalists to bring their innovative solutions to maturity.

We spoke to Eleanor McSweeney, who leads Business Development in Alternative Proteins at the Bühler Group – one of the partners of the Scale It Up Innovation Challenge.

Eleanor, what kinds of startups are you looking for?

We are looking for startups with solutions in the plant-based proteins space in the right geographical region. For this edition, it’s Europe and the Middle East. The solutions can be related to any area within the topic. This ranges from novel ingredients and formulations to processes and finished products. Ideally, the startups should already have a concept that is at the stage where we can offer support with scaling. If you are not sure whether you fit the criteria, we would still strongly encourage you to apply!

DIL facilities to scale startups
Pilot plant facilities of DIL, which the finalists can use to scale startups

Why are programmes like this one important?

By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion people on Earth. Simply put, given our current animal-based protein supply, there isn’t enough land and there aren’t enough resources on the planet to sustain the livestock needed to feed that population. We need innovative solutions to help tackle this major challenge and we need more collaboration between big corporations and startups.

The challenge helps startups clear the last hurdle. Bringing a product to market is the point where many startups fail. This is because they lack the resources to scale their product up for full market introduction. Whether putting the finishing touches on product development, or finalising production technologies and processes, many startups need the help of established but innovative companies. Scale It Up was designed to provide that help. 

Scale It Up helps to accelerate product development. Can you tell us more?

A panel of experts will select the top five startups during a pitching round. All of these companies will gain access to partner application centres for the maturation of their concepts. The finals for the Europe and Middle East challenge will be held in June 2022. The winner gets six months of mentorship and acceleration at the partner facilities, a prize worth around €100,000.

Are there particular categories of food-tech companies that you would be excited to see applications from?

We are excited to see applications from all categories of food-tech companies in the plant-based protein space. The most important thing is that applicants have an innovative solution and are passionate about what they do. We would particularly like to see solutions that address market gaps, for example, by creating products with better taste or texture, or with a lower CO2 footprint, compared to products currently available on the market.

Precision fermentation-dervied cheese from Formo
Animal-free, precision fermentation-dervied cheese from Formo

Give us an outline of the key dates that applicants should keep in mind.

Applications opened on 10 February and will remain open until 9 March 2022, so make sure you get your applications in soon! We will be selecting the top 15 startups on 16 March. These startups will be informed that they have been shortlisted. After which the panel will select the top five applications through a live virtual pitching session on 5 April. The maturation phase will take place during May and June, with the finals planned for the end of June.

In your opinion, what do you see as being the biggest food-tech and alt-protein trends for 2022?

We will see some big changes as life starts to get back to normal (or at least “the new normal”). As global travel opens up more, we will see alt-protein trends continue to catch on globally. Especially with an increased awareness of the effects that intensive animal agriculture has on our planet.

I expect to see new ingredients that could be used to improve the characteristics and nutritional profile of plant-based protein products becoming more commercially viable. Innovation in this space also seems to be moving away from the typical plant-based chicken and burgers that now dominate the market towards more diverse and culturally specific food categories.

I could keep talking about food trends for a while – cultured meat, fermentation, side-stream valorisation, plant-based cheese improvements – but the bottom line is that we will see more changes in our food production system this decade than we have in the last 10 thousand years. I am certain that 2022 will reflect this and I hope that Scale It Up will have a significant role to play.

Passionate about contributing to a more sustainable food system and closing the global protein gap, Eleanor leads Business Development in Alternative Proteins at the Bühler Group. She is responsible for growing Bühler’s global business in sustainable plant-based proteins. This involves analysing the market, building partnerships, working with startups, and driving education programs (especially related to extrusion). Eleanor has a background in Mechanical Engineering, with experience in Project Management, and is based in Switzerland.

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