An alternative protein leader’s take on the Horizons report data
CRB’s team of experts surveyed 150 professionals in the alternative protein industry to understand the critical trends driving this market. Product rollout timing, contractor partnerships, facility scale-up, and sustainability decisions are currently affecting companies in this space. This CRB Horizons Podcast episode provides another perspective on the data; an industry leader gives her take on our findings.
Brittany Sambol is the Vice President of Operations at Wildtype, an organization that grows sushi-grade salmon from the cultivated cells of healthy fish. Based on her operations experience in the food and beverage industry, and now the alternative proteins space, Brittany is uniquely positioned to contextualize our report data with personal experience. She shares her views on four of the topics captured in the Horizons report:
- When cultivated meat will be available to consumers
- Why companies are seeking contract manufacturer support in the cultivated meat sector
- Why the industry seems to be relying on lower-volume bioreactors
- How sustainability factors into companies’ decision-making
Brittany discusses this with Sebastian Bohn, CRB’s Sub-Market Leader of Alternative Proteins and a main contributor to this Horizons report.
Note: Since recording this episode, two alternative protein companies received full FDA/USDA approval.
Here’s a look at the episode:
02:10 – Respondents to our 2023 survey said they anticipate that cultivated meat will be available to consumers within the next two years; Brittany comments on the reality of this timeline based on the hurdles alternative protein companies face.
04:49 – Brittany explains the trend of alternative protein manufacturers enlisting contract manufacturing organizations, as well as the technical challenges contract manufacturers face and what alternative protein companies should consider in a CMO partnership.
10:59 – Sebastian and Brittany explore the reasons why many manufacturers plan to use a lower bioreactor volume than our experts anticipated.
18:22 – Brittany describes how Wildtype is creating a circular economy, how sustainability impacts companies’ facility development plans, and how sustainability factors into consumers’ purchasing decisions.
Links referenced in the episode:
Transcript of Episode 3: An alternative protein leader’s take on the Horizons report data
Ashley Martins: Welcome back to the CRB Horizons Podcast! We’re bringing you the trends and data collected from the hundreds of surveys with industry leaders from the life sciences and food and beverage industries. Join me, Ashley Martins, as we dive into the latest Horizons: Alternative Proteins report with one of the subject matter experts who wrote it and an alternative proteins industry leader from Wildtype.
Sebastian Bohn: I’m Sebastian Bohn with CRB. I’m the Alternative Protein Submarket Lead.
Brittany Sambol: I’m Brittany Sambol. I’m the VP of Operations at Wildtype.
Ashley Martins: The 2023 Horizons: Alternative Proteins report survey provides an inside look at how alternative protein manufacturers perceive the industry’s current state. And now, we want to take that data from the survey one step further by putting a voice from the industry behind it. In today’s episode, we’re thrilled to talk with Brittany about Wildtype’s position in this market and how its team interprets our report’s findings.
Wildtype says it’s reinventing seafood. This team of scientists, engineers, nutrition experts, and entrepreneurs based in San Francisco, California, is growing sushi-grade salmon from the cultivated cells of healthy fish. This approach ensures the final product is free from traces of mercury and other potential contaminants that could be found in wild or farmed salmon. Wildtype’s goal is to address food security challenges through cellular agriculture.
We asked Brittany for her thoughts on the data points that surprised CRB’s subject matter experts. These topics included:
- When cultivated meat will be available to consumers
- How companies are looking to increase contract manufacturer support in the cultivated meat sector;
- Why the industry seems to be relying on lower-volume bioreactors
- And lastly, how sustainability factors into companies’ decision-making
So what is Wildtype seeing in this ever-evolving world of alternative proteins? Sebastian and Brittany discuss where the industry is with providing high-quality cultivated meat to the public and what that timeline actually looks like.
Sebastian Bohn: One of the questions that even we get a lot is when will cultivated meat be available to consumers? Our Horizons report gives us some insights into that answer when we asked when they will have regulatory approval and when they anticipate having commercial product. Around half of the companies are anticipating that that will occur within the next two years. So dive in a little bit into that, do you think that this is a reasonable timeline based on what you’re seeing in the marketplace?
Brittany Sambol: Yeah, I think so. I mean, we already have seen two companies, Upside and JUST, receive no questions letters from FDA. So given that, I think it’s highly likely that we will see products coming to market in that timeline. I think the question that remains to be answered for companies that are regulated by both FDA and USDA is what that USDA process is going to look like. I think the agency has been not as transparent as far as what the process will look like for things like final approval or even first grant of inspection.
Sebastian Bohn: Yeah, I mean, especially with those two no objection letters that seem to have come pretty quick one after the other right, is that something where you think timing as a result is going to start accelerating and we’re going to see more and more of these companies receive those letters?
Brittany Sambol: Yeah, I certainly hope so. And at the same time, I think it’s great that companies have at least two templates to follow, and the FDA clearly has a well-established process for evaluating premarket safety submissions. But that said, I also think that it’s likely they’re going to receive a flood of applications. And so on the balance, I’d expect around the same timeline from, you know, final safety dossier submission to receiving that no questions letter.
Sebastian Bohn: Yeah, that’s a great point. I mean, especially where we’re seeing some of the data with GFI, just the number of companies getting into the space with timing of everybody trying to now hit the ground running and get those letters back. There’s definitely going to be a lot of work for the FDA between now and then. So I guess just one final question on this regulatory aspect is, do you think have we seen any structural changes that would help pave the way for future letters?
Brittany Sambol: Yeah, I think, you know, what we’re seeing now is that both FDA and USDA are pretty closely following the structure that they outlined in and published back in 2019. And so I don’t see a high likelihood that we’re going to see a change in structure that would change the speed at which this is happening, just since that seems to be the practice for now.
Ashley Martins: Imagine: shopping at your local supermarket for cultivated meat or perhaps ordering sushi-grade cultured salmon at a restaurant. Both of those scenarios may be reality in just two years, but cultivated meat must be made more accessible to consumers which includes achieving a more reasonable price point.
One way alternative protein manufacturers can accomplish that is to increase the quantity of product they produce to then help drive down its cost. Our findings discovered that the majority of companies intend to expand their cultivated meat production, even enlisting support from contract manufacturing organizations. Brittany shares her thoughts on this and what to consider when vetting a partnership with a CMO.
Sebastian Bohn: When we went to the industry and part of the survey asked the planned largest percentage of companies planning to increase volume at a contract manufacturer, you’re trying to see within each of the different alternative protein sectors, you know what their future plans were. It was interesting to find that the largest response we received was from the cultivated meat sector at 64% versus 59% and 60% to the other alternative meat sectors. What’s your take on that?
Brittany Sambol: Yeah, I think I’m not surprised to hear that companies want to scale with contract manufacturers if they can. If you just think about, you know, the stage we’re at in the capital investment that it takes and the time that it takes to build these facilities, and especially if you think about also the factors at play with the macroeconomic and kind of VC [venture capital] like fundraising climate right now, being able to get to higher production capacities sooner, without that capital investment would be path that makes sense. So, you know, it’s not surprising to hear that companies want to do that. That said, you know, I think right now that’s not a readily available avenue to pursue within this particular space.
Sebastian Bohn: Yeah, it’s interesting that you note that because it’s something that we’ve thought about as well. I mean, when you look at the traditional food market, Co-Man, co-packing, that happens all the time, all the different, you know, standard products, you see on your shelves, and there’s a lot of those options out there for those kinds of products. But when you start looking at cultivated meat, I don’t think we’re aware of any, to that matter, contract manufacturers in the U.S. with food cell culture, capacity or capability, for that matter. Do you think that that’s an opportunity for investment?
Brittany Sambol: Yeah, I think so. And even if you look at within the alternative protein category and other segments within the category that are a little further ahead than where we are with cell cultivated products. So I think precision fermentation is a good example where we’re starting to see the first purpose-built contract manufacturers, at least, you know, have plans in the works that are starting to break ground. And so we see this happening in other kind of adjacent segments within all proteins. And, you know, I’m sure that will be a path down the road for so cultivated. And, you know, I think the challenge that anyone going into contract manufacturing for these products will have to navigate as we are trying to navigate with our own self-built facilities is just figuring out, you know, how to take this technology that oftentimes in manufacturing looks a lot more like a pharmaceutical process as far as like the care and control that’s required, but be able to put that into a food application that from an economic standpoint, you know, will meet what’s necessary for food to be able to have this these products be accessible.
Sebastian Bohn: Yeah, it’s interesting for me to tie that even back to the previous topic when we’re looking at the regulatory aspect. In your comment about FDA and USDA, and all of that will have to trickle down to those companies, especially if they’re looking at targeting production within the space. So I definitely agree. I think it’ll be a challenge as well as an opportunity for these companies. When it comes to Wildtype’s perspective, what types of things do you think Wildtype is going to be looking for in a partner in this space and do you see the focus being only on a certain part of the process or its entirety?
Brittany Sambol: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think, you know, one of the things that’s unique in this space right now is, you know, typically like even thinking back to my to my own experience scaling more mature products into contract manufacturing facilities is, you know, there’s a lot of rapid development happening both on the products and the process. And so I think any contract manufacturer in the space needs to be highly nimble and flexible to be able to accommodate tech transfer on probably a pretty rapid pace. You know, and that’s the exciting thing about where this industry is right now. You know, we’re making these step-change improvements, you know, very rapidly in just the quality of the products that, you know, the yields, the throughputs, things like that from a process side and the engineering side. So I do think that, you know, this is not a typical or more traditional contract manufacturing environment where you have very high throughput, highly predictable processes, right, that you’re just doing day in, day out. And we’re in you know, it’s a truly proof of concept stages for so many of these things, but it demands flexibility. And so I think that’s a key point. And then, of course, focus on continued quality improvement, cost reduction; these are just front and center focuses for Wildtype. And I’m sure if your company is well within the space.
Ashley Martins: Scaling up by increasing bioreactor volume can reduce the final price of cultivated meat products. However, our experts discovered that rather than use a larger bioreactor, over three-quarters of cultivated meat companies anticipate relying on a bioreactor volume of less than 10,000 liters through 2027. This surprised us because bioreactors are capital-intensive, so scaling up in volume is cheaper than owning more smaller equipment. Sebastian asks Brittany to explain why companies may consider this approach and how will this strategy allow manufacturers to make cultivated meat more accessible and financially attainable to consumers.
Sebastian Bohn: So let’s go into one that’s a little bit of a hotter topic. It’s been in a lot of articles and a major focus. One of the real pillars of trying to bring costs down in the industry is just the overall bioreactors. So, you know, when you look in the food industry, we often see facilities that can produce millions of pounds of meat a year. However, when we ask respondents about the largest bioreactor they anticipate to have in production within the next two years, the average was only around eight and a half thousand liters, with three quarters of respondents earning less than 10,000 liter volumes. This seemed rather small to some of our experts and especially when compared to commodity meats and just throughput anticipation. So what do you think’s the best commercial strategy for scaling this industry?
Brittany Sambol: Yeah, that’s such an interesting question as we think about, you know, certainly again here at Wildtype and I know this is shared with many of the companies in our space, is this desire to have an impact, right, on improving from sustainability standpoint. You know these products that we’re bringing to market and having alternatives to the conventional versions that, you know, are produced in, you know, not as sustainable of a way. And so with that in mind, you know, it’s easy to want to just scale as quickly as we can, right, and start to really move the needle in the market and having these products available. I think that said, you know, again, going back to some of the frustrating part, honestly, about being in this proof of concept stages, you know, you also have to be very intentional, thoughtful about how you scale. And it’s not surprising to me that, you know, companies are focused on this kind of size of bioreactors at this point for a few reasons, I think one of which even goes back to the previous topic of contract manufacturing is just thinking about for a brand new industry and segment of these categories is the predictability of demand and just getting out in the market and understanding consumer acceptance and product market fit. And you know, even when I think back to my experience and much more mature CPG [consumer packaged goods] industries, it can be very difficult to accurately forecast demand. And so we think there is an aspect where, you know, we need to be mindful of the capital investment that we’re making. And that’s where I think it is nice that if contract manufacturing were more readily available, to have that as a way to be able to absorb a little more of these inevitable peaks and valleys that are going to happen with demand as these products first enter the market. And, you know, we’re starting to get a better feel for what consumer acceptance looks like.
And I also think you know, that along those lines, there’s a lot of consumer education that needs to happen and a lot of support as we introduce these products to market and so if you think about if you took an approach where you were building massive facilities and planning ongoing and nationwide launch into retail like right off the bat, you know, it’s probably not feasible to be able to support in the way that these products will need from the like I said, the education piece, both for consumers, customers, you know, and so we think that a more stepwise approach to scaling makes sense and it’s going to be a phased approach, certainly here at Wildtype. And it also links back to what we were talking about previously with the rapid development in our processes and our products is being able to make sure that we’re building the production capacity in a way that we’re not getting, again, too far ahead of ourselves, that we want to be able to incorporate improvements from the engineering standpoint or process changes that we’re able to do that as we kind of go from one phase to the next.
Sebastian Bohn: Yeah, it’s a great overall insight and recommendation. Like you’re talking about just leverage partners, whether it’s Co-Mans or whatever, for those peaks and valleys. And I think there’s been some other headlines as far as strategies with asset light approaches and making some different scales, and in general, there’s a lot of levers to pull like you’re mentioning. So I guess in the near term, far term, do you think that will end up gravitating towards production that looks more like traditional food or traditional meat?
Brittany Sambol: Yeah, I think from a production design standpoint, as you think about the facilities, going back to what I was talking about earlier, where right now, you know, there are many aspects of especially the cell culture piece of the production process that can look very much like a pharmaceutical process. And that’s right now probably the most, now with this example, you know, we have to move away from that and move more towards typical food production in order to achieve the unit economics that will make these products sustainable from a business viability standpoint and also accessible to consumers, right?
We want these to be able to be at price parity with the conventional products so that they can, you know, live alongside those products on the shelf and be a viable option for consumers to choose. And, you know, I think that we’ll get there. There’s already so much work happening, again both within Wildtype and I know with many of your peer companies as well, to make changes to inputs like the nutrient media that cells grow in, right. So early on, these, these medias that have a lot of things like amino acids and salt and things that cells need to grow and were made with pharma grade ingredients because that’s where those materials are typically used. But there’s actually been a lot of activity even in the last six months with companies partnering with more food grade commodity manufacturers and looking at replacing a lot of these components with more food grade components in order to help have this look more like typical food production from a from a cost standpoint.
Ashley Martins: Pricing their products comparably to traditional meat is a smart way for alternative protein manufacturers to attract customers. Another way to sway customers to alternative meats is through sustainability. According to a joint study conducted by McKinsey and Nielson IQ, companies that displayed environmental, social, and governance related-claims on products averaged 28% cumulative sales growth versus 20% of products without those claims between 2018 and 2022.
One of the ways that alternative protein companies can manufacture more sustainably is by creating a circular economy where a manufacturing process re-uses its waste products within the facility. This can come from using recycled materials or even reusing water. Brittany shares how Wildtype is pursuing a circular economy, how sustainability impacts its facility design decisions, and why being a sustainable company isn’t enough for consumers to buy a product.
Brittany Sambol: Yeah, so I think, you know, for us it starts with thinking about just within our own very nearing footprint of our manufacturing plants. And again, you know, it’s difficult when we’re at this very early proof of concept phase, and we have a very narrow focus on what we can do right now and also having a line of sight to what we’re going to build into our facilities in the future for sustainability.
And so, you know, that circular economy when it comes to our production facilities is thinking about the best re-use of our own waste products is within our own facility. And so thinking about, you know, from water standpoint or other kind of recycling of materials within our facility and how we do that, but also thinking about just the design from the energy that’s used to power the facility. You know, we’ve located a site and selected a site for our first larger scale commercial facility that is in a geographic area that is very focused on renewable energy and we’re thinking about how we can build that into our facilities. And you know, even more broadly, again, you know, we’re not there yet, but thinking about from finished packaging thing, you know, down the road, of course, you know, if you have any residual food waste, you know, packaging that is compostable, you know, makes the most sense because then we can have that actually go into soils that if you really think about the circularity of it, right, could then be going back into growing some of the feedstock inputs to our nutrient media. And so I think there’re a lot of exciting things to consider. And you know, some of these things are going to be a little further down the road for us here. Wildtype is, as we said, just as we’re focused right now on just you scaling up the process and making sure that we’ve got a really high quality product and a path to cost. But these are all things that are top of mind for us. As for thinking about our future facility designs.
Sebastian Bohn: That’s great. And I think it’s, you know, in general, you know, really exciting, not only what this space is doing and the whole messaging behind that the why of a lot of these companies such as yours. But I mean, even like you mentioned, whether it’s packaging and or some of these other technologies and those industries are trying to tackle those hurdles, so as far as all of these technological advancements as they’re happening in parallel, then everyone can benefit and, you know, take advantage of the technologies from one industry, utilize them in another. It’s, I think, egregious. It’s a really exciting time for the whole circular economy and the sustainability advancements that are happening right now.
You know, bringing it back to maybe the two aspects of sustainability that you mentioned earlier, water reuse and reclamation, you know, those are really hot topics that are typically brought up not only in, you know, cultured meat or alternate protein space, but even traditional manufacturing as well. And however, from our data, we’re seeing that both water reuse and reclamation is least likely to be used by cultivated meat, but most likely to be considered. So what’s your take on that?
Brittany Sambol: Yeah, I think it, again, goes back to just these early stages that we’re at, right? I think that, you know, the first step is being able to demonstrate that you have a repeatable and predictable process. And you know, there are so many variables already with, you know, taking things from benchtop scale up to, you know, hundreds of liters scale to thousands of liters scale for the very first time. And so I think things like introducing media reclamation or water reuse, things like that is kind of a next phase Once you have that process better established and kind of characterized it in each of those scales, and then you can start to evaluate opportunities to introduce these streams. So I think it’ll definitely come. It’s just a matter of it, you know, probably similar to where we are at Wildtype, you know, we’re very focused on being able to demonstrate repeatability as we get through each of those phases of scaling and then that’ll be a next step for us.
Sebastian Bohn: We’re seeing alternative protein companies list sustainability as a top driver, but it’s not in the top three factors for retaining customers. Does Wildtype see this any differently?
Brittany Sambol: Yes, it is really interesting, you know, how I think more and more consumers care about sustainability and considering that when they’re making purchasing decisions. But at the end of the day, like especially for a food product, it still has to taste great. I think if the consumer purchases something that has a great sustainability message and they try it and it just doesn’t taste good, they are not going to buy it again. And so, you know, I think you have to clear those first hurdles first, which are, you know, a great quality product that tastes good. And is that at an acceptable cost? Right. And then I think it’s in the state where you have multiple products that are achieving that then sustainability is probably going to be the, you know, maybe what drives that consumer to purchase your product versus another. But you have to have something that tastes great, you know. And so I think, you know, we of course, are putting a ton of focus on that and the quality side of it and cost reduction to make sure that these products are accessible to consumers and that, you know, we have a viable business to scale so that we can increase our impact, right. But in order to do that, you know, it’s all with sustainability in mind, but those other things have to come first, I think, for consumers.
Sebastian Bohn: Yeah, great insight on that. I think you mentioned with, you know, myself going to the grocery store, if I see something that costs a little bit more and it’s better for the environment, obviously the first reaction is, yeah, let’s go, you know, makes sense. And then you bite into it at home if it starts to taste a little funky, then you really question it the second time store.
Brittany Sambol: I think we are all really excited to see the progress on the regulatory front, and you know, are hopeful that we’re going to start to see these products hit the market and then not too far distant future. And we’re just so excited to get them out, to get products in front of consumers and get feedback and, you know, continue to grow this category because it’s got so much potential.
Ashley Martins: Thank you so much, Brittany, for joining us on the CRB Horizons Podcast and sharing your perspectives! We hope this helps guide the conversation between you and your team when planning the direction for your alternative protein manufacturing facility. For more information on what companies like Wildtype are seeing in the industry and how it impacts their business decisions, download your copy of the free 2023 Horizons: Alternative Proteins report by visiting CRBgroup.com/horizons-reports. You can learn more about Wildtype at wildtypefoods.com. We will share those links in the show notes.
This is the last episode in our 2023 Horizons: Alternative Proteins report series. If you enjoyed it, share your favorite episode with your colleagues! Stay tuned for our upcoming series covering CRB’s 2023 Horizons: Life Sciences report. Subscribe to the show, so you will be notified when it launches this fall. Thanks for listening!