Research 12.09.23

Leaping the hurdles for plant-based scale-up

A case study by The Good Food Institute (GFI) Europe following a visit to the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering.

Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park is notable for a lot of reasons. Its state-of-the-art facilities make it a training centre for many of the world’s top athletes, which has earned it the honour of becoming the only Olympic park in the world that has not actually hosted an Olympic Games. Perhaps more relevant to our recent visit, it is home to the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering (NCEFE). The centre specialises in optimising the health and sustainability of foods, using its extensive infrastructure from various interconnected hubs and expertise from Sheffield Hallam University to help companies optimise and scale their processes. Given its close collaborations with several plant-based and fermentation companies, a few members of the GFI Europe team visited the facility to explore how it can further support the UK’s sustainable protein ecosystem.

GFI Europe was welcomed at the centre by Anthony Warner, chef, food scientist and author of The Angry Chef – Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating. His work to combat the root causes of the ongoing obesity epidemic led him to the NCEFE, where he has been working to establish a Healthy Sustainable Food Accelerator. They were also joined by Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam and NCEFE’s ‘Healthier Lives’ theme lead, Dr Caroline Milman – an expert in food safety.

Place-based innovation
Built after the 2012 London Olympic Games, the Park began with a primary focus on elite sport. What is special about this site, however, is the focus from its inception on translating its findings for broader use in public health.

Public and private investment has followed, supporting the expansion of the park’s infrastructure and creating a broad umbrella of research into projects across sport, medicine and food science relevant to public health. It is a natural home for NCEFE and why they are rightly part of a National Food and diet innovation hub.

Helping companies de-risk research into sustainable, healthy foods for scale-up
Sustainable proteins offer solutions to some of the most pressing environmental and public health challenges, but the fledgling sector is being buffeted by the economic headwinds currently facing the broader food industry. As a consequence, conducting essential research and development – often expensive and without a guarantee of commercial return — is a big hurdle.

Scalability in particular is a major challenge for companies in the sector, from startups to larger organisations, as it requires advanced technical expertise and expensive infrastructure to translate a new technique or product from a small scale to a commercially viable process.

Pilot facilities offering access to expertise and infrastructure to establish proof of concept and help traverse the notorious ‘valley of death’ can therefore be invaluable to unlocking funding for scale-up and commercialisation. To give an example, there is a considerable difference between how a fermentation process operates at 30 litres compared with 30,000 litres. Scaling up in increments helps scientists and engineers understand a bioprocess properly, reducing risk at a commercial scale. However, despite their importance, pilot facilities like this are few and far between.

NCEFE already works with an array of businesses, from local startups to established multinational companies, in a number of ways. One primary offering is access to infrastructure and consulting expertise from across the Park’s broad and interconnected specialist hubs at a far lower cost than would be possible for individual companies. As part of the university, they also connect businesses with students and researchers to focus on a specific problem the company is looking to explore, such as optimising the taste and nutrition of plant-based meat or improving the sustainability of their manufacturing processes.

Safeguarding home-grown manufacturing in the UK
A core part of the British economy, food and drink is the largest single segment of the UK’s considerable manufacturing sector, accounting for just under a fifth of all manufacturing. Establishing resilience and sustainability in the sector is therefore crucial to ensure continued growth. Sustainable proteins are a key opportunity for the UK, but in the current economic climate companies will struggle to deliver on this opportunity without the right support.

Innovations such as a Sustainable Healthy Foods Accelerator are a great case study into how the strength of a country’s higher education sector can be used to foster broader regional and national economic growth. The placement of an accelerator in Sheffield and its relationship with Sheffield Hallam University confer significant benefits – the city has a proud history of industry and manufacturing, and the accelerator will be part of one of the UK’s foremost food and sport science research universities. In return for access to these assets, pilot projects and facilities in particular offer students and apprentices the opportunity to spin their research out into new companies, or to connect with corporate partners.

The Sustainable Healthy Food accelerator
The accelerator is expected to formally launch in the coming months, supporting an intake of 8-10 companies per year which will receive seed funding and access to the expansive NCEFE facilities, pilot equipment and food engineering team. These companies will also have access to newly developed offices, workspaces and labs within the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, as well as the expertise of the other hubs including health, sport, robotics and information science.

For companies approaching the commercialisation stage, the accelerator will also offer consulting to support intellectual property development, funding applications, product design and marketing.

The goal of the Sustainable Healthy Food accelerator is to catalyse sorely needed change within the food system that is not currently happening as quickly as it needs to. Such projects could be invaluable to support the proliferation of sustainable and healthy foods like plant-based, cultivated and fermentation-made meat, particularly given the current difficulties faced by the food sector as a whole.

Despite their huge potential, there aren’t enough examples of such facilities. In the UK there are remarkably few, and beyond Belgium’s BioBase Europe Pilot Plant, similar projects are also scarce across Europe and the world more broadly. Public and private support for such infrastructure to enable the upskilling and scaling of the nascent sustainable protein ecosystem could therefore represent a hugely leveraged opportunity to foster growth.

Interested in getting involved in the project? Find out more here.

Caption: GFI Europe exploring the facility with Anthony Warner and Dr Caroline Millman. The state-of-the-art rice mill in the background is part of a significant academic-industry collaboration between Koolmill and NCEFE to increase the efficiency of rice milling and valorise the byproducts of the process.