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Israel earmarks over $1 million for academic research into new food technologies

Ministries of agriculture, and innovation, science and technology and GFI Israel put together budget to support over a dozen studies on new alternative protein tech

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Tech Israel editor and reporter.

A cultivated beef burger made by Israeli company Future Meat. (Future Meat)
A cultivated beef burger made by Israeli company Future Meat. (Future Meat)

Israel’s ministries of agriculture, and innovation, science and technology, have put together a budget of 4 million shekels, a little over $1 million, for a new academic grant program that will support researchers in their pursuit of new food technologies, specifically in the alternative protein sector.

The ministries put out a call for proposals last Thursday, together with the Good Food Institute (GFI) Israel, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote research and innovation in food tech.

The overall food tech industry is a broad field that includes nutrition, packaging, food safety, processing systems, novel ingredients, and alternative proteins. The latter includes plant-based substitutes for meat, dairy, and egg; cultured dairy, meat and seafood; and fermentation products and processes.

Many of the technologies being used in the field are firmly based on academic research. The technologies behind two leading Israeli cultivated meat companies, Aleph Farms and Future Meat, are founded on bioengineering research developed by their respective co-founders, Prof. Shulamit Levenberg of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and Prof. Yaakov Nahmias of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Both are prominent academics in the tissue engineering sector.

The ministry funding will support about a dozen academic studies that offer scientific and technological solutions in the fields of cultured meat, fermentation processes, and plant-based substitutes. The studies can be aimed at improving the final product or improving the production process itself, the ministries said.

Studies with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and animal welfare will be given priority, according to the announcement.

Alla Voldman-Rantzer, the director of strategic alliances at GFI Israel, told The Times of Israel via email that submissions are open until August 1 and that any breakthroughs will be available to the general public.

SavorEat’s plant-based beef burger (right) and a pork breakfast sausage patty (left), served at the company’s office kitchen in Rehovot, November 2021. (Times of Israel staff)

“Most public and state-funded grants aim to apply the principles of open science and open access in practice, so that all research products produced as a result of the grant will be available to the general public. This has a double impact, both on the individual research group and the entire scientific and industry community working in this space, and could benefit from the research findings,” explained Voldman-Rantzer.

“The grant is intended to fund early-stage projects and doesn’t require a preliminary proof of concept. It is an opportunity for new and existing scientists to explore new approaches to address challenges and bottlenecks in the alternative protein R&D and industry space,” she said.

One of the bottlenecks is the lack of enough scientists and engineers working to develop food technologies that would take the industry forward. Other challenges include taste, texture, scaling and pricing.

Voldman-Rantzer said GFI was “constantly working to identify existing and future bottlenecks as well as promising solutions to the industry’s most imperative challenges.”

“Alternative proteins are technologies that aim to recapitulate the organoleptic properties of animal-based food products using plants, microorganisms, or animal cells,” she explained, adding that, in the selection process, GFI is likely to prioritize “some of the most significant white spaces” including “fat biomimicry, crop optimization, seafood alternatives, and improvements to texture formation processes.”

Chicken nuggets made by Israeli cultured meat developer Future Meat. (Future Meat)

Earlier this year, GFI Israel published a report that urged the government to put together a national strategy to support the country’s growing food tech industry if it hopes to maintain a key role in the sector over the coming years.

Part of this strategy would include building an infrastructure to support the local industry in the form of multidisciplinary research centers, technology transfer programs (from university labs to industry), research grants and training, and specific innovation hubs for cultivated meat, plant-based proteins, and fermentation tech startups.

“We need more researchers. This is super important because the field is built around academic research, which needs government funding,” Nir Goldstein, managing director of GFI Israel, told The Times of Israel in January.

The GFI report suggested that about NIS 1.4 billion ($450 million) will be required over the next 10 years to set out on this path, with the Israeli government supplying about 56 percent of this funding, or almost NIS 900 million ($291 million), with the rest drawn from private investors.

A strong local food tech industry can establish food security and become a strategic national asset for Israel, Goldstein said.

Future Meat launched a new production facility in Rehovot, Israel in June 2021. (Future Meat)

Israel’s alternative protein sector grew by about 450% in 2021 from the previous year, with Israeli startups in the field raising some $623 million in investments, according to a separate report in March by GFI.

About 70% of all investments in Israeli food tech companies in 2021 went to alternative proteins startups in 2021, the report noted. In addition, 11 new alternative protein companies were founded in Israel over the course of last year — six cultivated meat and seafood companies, four plant-based protein companies, and one fermentation process company.

The report said that the significant growth in the Israeli alternative protein sector was attributed to large investment rounds in companies coming close to the commercialization stage, expanding their operations, and targeting global markets.

According to the Barclays Group’s forecast, by 2030, the global market value of meat substitutes alone is expected to reach $140 billion and make up 10% of the total meat market.

Israeli startup Remilk uses a yeast-based fermentation process to produce animal-free milk proteins that, the company says, are indistinguishable in taste and function from cow milk proteins, but free of lactose, cholesterol, and growth hormones. (Remilk)

Voldman-Rantzer said state-funded research can be seen “as a government declaration, for prioritizing the field at a national level and creating a national and international ‘rising tide’ in a field that Israel is already taking the lead in with its highly progressive academic, entrepreneurial and industry alternative protein landscape.”

Goldstein said in a statement that while Israel is considered “a world leader in meat substitutes, from vegetable protein or cultured meat, thanks to the commercialization of academic research…it is very important to support academic research, which craves funding sources.”

“In the next decade, the global food crisis will intensify, along with the climate crisis and other challenges. Israel should and can lead the food technologies of the future,” he added.

Separately, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) together with the Israeli Ministry of Health are set to host a roundtable meeting titled “Cell-based food and the future of food security and food safety” in Tel Aviv in September. The organization put out a call to researchers and developers in the industry and academia to apply to present their products and research at the upcoming meeting.

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