Biotech Heights, the public-private collaboration to boost home-grown protein diversification in Sweden

A trip to Biotech Heights, a newly launched public-private partnership initiative based in Sweden.

10 May 2024

Kemicentrum in Lund where Biotech Heights is based
Photo: Lund university

As investment in research and development (R&D) begins to bear fruit, scalability is emerging as one of the next major challenges for the alternative protein sector. We visited the newly launched Biotech Heights interdisciplinary research and innovation hub in Lund to explore their facility and learn about their collaborative approach to growing the Swedish alternative protein ecosystem.

What is the Biotech Heights research and innovation hub?

The hub is an interdisciplinary research and innovation facility for bioprocess technology and scale-up, co-founded in 2023 by Lund University, food processing and packaging company Tetra Pak, and Sweden’s national innovation agency Vinnova. 

The combined footprint of the labs, offices and consumer testing facilities is a hefty 1,400 m2 and offers the various stakeholders a central place to learn, build community and connect with international players in the sector. These activities and collaborations in turn attract further investment, industry involvement and startup creation.

How is it funded?

At present, Tetra Pak is the founding industry partner, but the project is keen to attract more partnerships with companies wanting to explore new research and innovation opportunities. 

On top of this private funding, the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova will support research exploring different perspectives of the current and projected ecosystem, and devise strategies to maximise their impact, all with the objective of contributing to a sustainable society.

Lund University then serves as the centrepiece of this collaboration, home to a thriving academic community, with researchers and students able to use the facilities at Biotech Heights to spin out their work into new startups and collaborations.

What kind of research takes place?

The funding is being used to support small, agile projects such as feasibility testing, proof of concept for products and/or processes, ecosystem mapping, events and conferences. Applications for funding are accepted on a rolling basis, and funds are allocated to successful projects three times per year. The administrators actively encourage projects that foster the co-creation of ideas and solutions, and welcome collaborations with researchers from other institutions and organisations.

Case study: Using upcycling to feed innovation

Prof Ola Wallberg
Photo: Lund University

Prof Ola Wallberg is an Associate Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering at Lund University, specialising in creating feedstocks for fermentation out of agricultural waste, such as sugar beet molasses left over from making sugar. 

Ola works to analyse sidestreams and waste products from across industries and find ways to use them in other contexts. The outputs of one project to turn raw materials into industrial-grade sugar feedstock were found by chemistry company BASF to have the same quality as those currently used by industry. The only barriers to using it were scale and price. 

“Companies come and rent our bioprocessing equipment and we have so much flexibility here that we can find a solution for whatever they need to do.”   – Ola Wallberg

One such company on our visit was a startup working to optimise their fermentation process by using feedstocks from a waste sidestream to produce fungi protein ingredients.

This specialisation means Ola’s expertise is in high demand, but space in the Kemicentrum at Lund University is limited, highlighting how more infrastructure like this is sorely needed.

The infrastructure

A photo of some of the equipment at Biotech Heights

The facilities at Biotech Heights, by design, cater primarily to those looking to go from lab to pilot scale or improve bioprocess efficiency, with fermentors available with capacities from five to 100 litres. In addition to this, all equipment at the base is movable and changeable, allowing for maximum flexibility. The facilities include more than just fermentors, however, with analytical and separation technologies, and even a test kitchen.

Unpacking the future of food and the role of supply chains, markets and policy

The research focus of Biotech Heights is not limited to just technology optimisation: corporate strategy, market dynamics, and policy are also key focal points.

Innovation and sustainability advancements cannot happen in a vacuum. In order to be successful they need to be cost-effective and generate genuine value for companies and consumers. It is for this reason that market-driven solutions and economic viability within the farm-to-fork value chain are key focal points of the work done at the centre, in addition to product and process development. 

Prof Thomas Kalling
Photo: Lund University

The experience of the hub’s commercial partner, Tetra Pak, feeds into this part of the research, offering advice to researchers on business models and policy context that can help shape the successful implementation of new innovations. As a result, the hub also has the capacity to conduct modelling to predict how changes to the food system might impact things like sustainability and consumer behaviour. 

This research is led by Prof Thomas Kalling and his team, who have developed recommendations to help the established industry embrace the growth of the alternative protein sector. Their findings suggest that external influences such as inflation, increased capital expenditure costs, workforce pressures, and changing demand are all obstacles to growth in the alternative protein sector. However, Prof Kalling believes that these considerations are all secondary to scalability, which is by far the single largest challenge. 

Scalability, he says, is not just about processes for production, but the full value chain such as ingredient supply and infrastructure development. The insights from this research are a core part of the way Biotech Heights approaches the challenge of ecosystem building, which they hope will enable them to play a key role in overcoming these challenges.

The importance of public-private R&D partnerships in delivering scale for alternative proteins

The public-private partnerships model used at Biotech Heights is one that has proven to be effective in several similar projects seeking to build the alternative protein scientific and commercial ecosystem elsewhere in Europe, such as the Bio-Base Europe pilot plant in Belgium, and the Centre for Process Innovation in the UK. It is a model that is tried and tested in Sweden too – with Lund University’s collaborations with Tetra Pak and other companies stretching back over 50 years.

Ida Svensson, Transformation Manager for Future Food at Tetra Pak, commented on the company’s growing focus on protein diversification, which has led to further collaboration with the university: “We see that we have a food system today that is not sustainable and in which we can play an important role.”

As the project expands, it is expected that the required public funding will slowly decrease, as more company partners get involved. Prof Eva Nordberg Karlsson, Professor of Biotechnology at Lund University, said their aim is to develop bioprocessing technology to roughly technology readiness level 4-6, after which promising approaches and products can be handed over to industry to invest in scaling and commercialisation.

In their own words, the facility has been set up not only to benefit the University and Tetra Pak as a commercial partner, but also to encourage broader investment and employment in the area: “Biotech Heights strengthens the region as a centre for groundbreaking food innovation. We look forward to expanding this collaboration with many more organisations in the future.”

Where does Biotech Heights fit within the larger picture in Sweden?

Sweden is fertile ground for such an initiative, with a vibrant research ecosystem and track record of innovation in plant-based food (and drinks). Multiple universities, as well as the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) and Vinnova, invest in alternative protein research. Sweden is home to 29 companies working within the alternative protein sector, including one of the most successful plant-based companies in the world – oat milk makers Oatly. Sweden also has one of the highest per-capita spends on plant-based foods in Europe

Biotech Heights therefore sits within a broader ecosystem of innovation in Sweden. Perhaps most notably, the state-owned research institute RISE plays a key role in facilitating collaboration between Swedish universities, companies and local governments to make Swedish industry more competitive. As part of this work, food has been identified as an important thematic area. Consequently, there has also been a significant increase in the number of research projects on alternative proteins.

A few such public-private collaborations to have come out of these calls are outlined below:

ProjectPublic partnersPrivate partners
Ocean Bite: Developing seafood made from seaweed.RISEHooked Foods
Like:meat: Developing second-generation plant-based meat with enhanced nutrition using Swedish inputs. RISELantmännen R&D, Orkla Foods
Yeast – protein source of the future?: Exploring applications for increasing use of yeast in the food system. RISEJästbolaget and Orkla Foods
FINEST: Swedish legumes for protein-rich plant-based food: Seeking to identify and support the use of local Swedish crops in plant-based alternatives to animal products.RISE, Chalmers University, Uppsala University (Norway)13 industry and regional partners
Algae in a sustainable food system: Focusing on expanding knowledge of algae’s environmental impact, nutritional quality and health effects.RISE, Chalmers University, KTHFormas
Value-creating plant-based residues: Exploring ways to upcycle plant-based byproducts into useful ingredients for plant-based foods. Read our meet the researcher piece with Karolina Östbring to learn more. RISE, Lund University, Karlsom UniversityThe Green Dairy

The growing importance of the public-private partnerships model

As food security continues to become a growing priority for governments, and the international race to reap the rewards of the emerging cleantech and biotech sectors accelerates, public-private partnerships will have a growing role to play in delivering timely, market-oriented, scalable solutions. Alternative proteins, a sector at the intersection of so many global priorities, therefore represent a key opportunity for such collaborations, but the dividends can only be felt if governments enable these partnerships to flourish, and create a nurturing policy environment to attract investment. 

Check out some of our other case studies on similar projects: Bio-Base Europe pilot plant, Centre for Process Innovation, National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering.


David Hunt Research Support Manager

David works to help sustainable protein scientists across Europe access the knowledge, resources, infrastructure, and collaborators to conduct their research effectively.