Bjoern Witte, Managing Partner and CEO of Blue Horizon, gives his insights into the world of alternative protein investments, the company’s plans for 2023, and his thoughts as to the future of the category.
What does your current portfolio look like; in which new companies did you invest in 2022?
We see a lot of very innovative companies that we source through our Seed portfolio which sort of acts like our finger on the pulse of the industry. One example of a new company we invested in this year would be Arkeon, an Austrian company that produces proteins from carbon dioxide. Arkeon’s technology makes it possible to convert CO2 directly into all 20 amino acids that are essential for human nutrition. At the same time, this opens up a whole new world of food.
“Blue Horizon has now made investments in over 70 alternative protein and food tech companies.”
Another exciting company is California Cultured, a company that is reinventing the future of chocolate. As we all know, the global chocolate industry relies on a fragile cacao supply chain that causes deforestation in biodiverse tropical areas and is often implicated in human rights issues.
California Cultured uses plant cell cultures to grow whole cells in bioreactors rather than fields, similar to cultured meat. This allows cellular agriculture to produce delicious chocolate that is completely GMO-free while avoiding all the negative impacts. Blue Horizon has now made investments in over 70 alternative protein and food tech companies.
In the Growth strategy, we’re helping build the emerging global leaders of the sustainable food system. Tropic develops high-performing commercial varieties of tropical crops which promote cultivation efficiencies, enhance consumer health, and improve sustainable environmental practices, using cutting-edge genetic editing technologies.
AgBiome improves the world through microbial solutions; isolating microbes from environmental samples from across the globe, then fully sequencing each microbe’s genome. And Motif FoodWorks which makes plant-based food better by analysing, discovering and designing differently resulting in crave-worthy food that’s better tasting, more nutritious and more sustainable.
What were the biggest challenges?
The recent pullback in tech investment has affected all types of companies, from software to synthetic biology. Alternative protein companies are not immune from such broad trends, but the transformation toward a sustainable food system is underpinned by strong secular drivers, such as the push for greater sustainability and shorter, more resilient supply chains. The more localized supply chains associated with plant-based proteins, compared with animal-based proteins, have smaller carbon footprints and are more resilient to disruptions from global shocks.
The war in Ukraine has underscored the vulnerability of global supply chains, and many policymakers are intently focused on their nation’s need to secure its food supply chains and become more independent. In doing so, they should recognize the contribution that alternative proteins can make.
Alternative-protein supply chains are often shorter and more resilient than conventional animal protein production. Some governments are already taking steps to invite infrastructure and technology players (such as companies building bioreactors for cell-based proteins) into their jurisdictions, pushing development of local economic clusters around alternative-protein capabilities.
So in the end, the current global economic climate only supports the transition to a more sustainable food system as it accentuates the need for a change for many countries around the world.
The alternative protein space has benefited from the most recent geopolitical developments. The importance of a working sustainable food system became apparent in the wake of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Issues like global food security and sustainability across the value chain are finally on the front page of the newspapers.
It is tragic that it often takes extreme crisis situations for people to really wake up, but this is now happening and this offers all of us the opportunity to really make a difference. Food is the biggest industry on our planet, and if we can leverage this and accelerate the shift to a more sustainable system, then we have a real chance of getting our future back on the right track.
What were the highlights?
One of the highlights of the year is the fact that we see consumer interest in alternative proteins continuing to increase on a global level. This could not come at a better time. Reducing animal agriculture in the food value chain is one of the highest-impact solutions to the global climate crisis.
The positive impact it can have on GHG emissions ranges from significant (the equivalent of decarbonizing 95% of 2019 aviation industry emissions) to astounding—a reduction of 6.1 gigatons by 2030, or 11% of the 55 gigatons of emissions projected to be released in 2030 in the UN’s current-policies scenario.
And compared with other solutions, such as flying less or retrofitting existing housing stock, it requires relatively small economic and consumer tradeoffs. Consumers start to understand this: more than 30% of consumers consider having a major positive impact on climate to be a primary reason to switch to alternative proteins.
What are your plans for 2023?
We have various interesting projects in the pipeline for 2023. We continue to focus on the buildup of our Growth strategy with a stronger focus on institutional investors. We are also continuously expanding our Blue Horizon Seed portfolio, which allows us to remain close to the pulse of the market and to be at the forefront of innovative products and technologies. The wave of innovation that will be rolling towards us in the coming years is huge.
What is happening right now in the field of precision fermentation, for example, is particularly exciting. Fermentation is an incredibly efficient process that allows us to produce proteins in hours or days instead of months or years, as is the case with animal-based proteins. Inevitably, this means that through fermentation technologies we can either completely negate or at least largely avoid many negative environmental impacts. We can reduce greenhouse gases and deforestation, stop the loss of biodiversity, reduce water consumption, and improve many aspects of human health.
What is Blue Horizon’s view on the further development of the plant-based sector?
We believe consumers around the world want healthier foods – both for themselves and for the planet. We recently conducted a survey together with BCG where we found that more than 30% would fully switch their diets to alternative proteins if doing so would have a major impact on climate.
Consumers know and like alternative proteins, but they also want to see continued improvements in health, taste, and price. The share of consumers eating only or mostly alternative proteins would double if their main inhibitors were overcome. The most frequently mentioned inhibitors include health and nutrition, taste and safety.
President Biden’s recent executive order backing, to some extent, food-tech, is huge news for the sector. Do you think it’s enough? What more do you think governments should be doing?
The sustainable food system is a core beneficiary of this executive order, with around 80% of the total funding volume spent potentially relevant to the food sector. The commitments cover the entire food value chain: From production of inputs (e.g., development of new crop seeds, biomanufacturing of fertilisers) to production of food ingredients (e.g., those enabled by fermentation like heme, which provides colour, taste, and nutritional benefits in alternative meats), to packaging (e.g., bioplastics) and distribution (e.g., biofuel), to recycling and waste management.
The executive order also supports research initiatives to train future researchers, and thus indirectly contribute to the bioeconomy, as well as biomanufacturing of advanced pharmaceuticals. Although not explicitly mentioned in the executive order, another emerging technology, the cell-based production of cultivated meat, may benefit from the initiative. A senior administration official stated during the press brief that “[The government is] also looking to improve food security and drive agricultural innovation, including through new technologies that [produce] foods made with cultured animal cells.”
How can alternative proteins contribute to food security?
I am convinced that the prices for animal proteins will increase in the long term, while they will decrease for alternative proteins. Today, in many countries there are huge subsidies for traditional meat production and sometimes even advertising and marketing is financed by tax money. This has to change, and it will. The traditional meat industry has reached a natural limit in terms of the efficiency of its processes.
“I am convinced that the prices for animal proteins will increase in the long term”
Everything is super-efficient, and there’s not much room left to squeeze out additional margins. Alternative proteins, on the other hand, are still in the very early stages of development. This, coupled with efficiency gains, will lead to a positive explosion in supply.
Together with BCG, we have calculated that alternative proteins will capture at least 11% – if not double – the global protein market in the next 10 years. Achieving price parity will be critical for widespread adoption, as consumers will be all the more willing to try new plant- or cell-based alternatives if they are cheaper than the animal-based originals.