How public-private partnerships are accelerating alternative proteins: a case study from the North East of England
We visited mycoprotein pioneers Quorn Foods and the Centre for Process Innovation, home to the UK’s National Industrial Biotechnology Facility, to see how effective public-private partnerships can accelerate alternative proteins.
Image credit: Quorn Foods
13 November 2023
It takes a village: that’s the key message of GFI Europe’s new report reviewing the United Kingdom’s alternative protein ecosystem. Scientists, food producers, entrepreneurs, policymakers, investors – everyone who has a stake in transforming our food system – will need to work together to accelerate the development of plant-based foods, cultivated meat and fermentation.
But collaboration can seem slightly abstract when we talk about it like this. So, to see it in action, some of the GFI Europe team headed to the North East of England. We visited mycoprotein pioneers Quorn Foods and the Centre for Process Innovation, home to the UK’s National Industrial Biotechnology Facility, to see how effective public-private partnerships can accelerate alternative proteins.
From an English garden to the world’s largest mycoprotein production facility
In 1967, scientists made a discovery in the compost heap of an English garden: Fusarium venenatum (Fv). This filamentous fungi was identified from among thousands screened by a team of scientists at Rank Hovis McDougall. Working against the backdrop of a global “protein gap” crisis, they spotted Fv’s potential as a nutritious source of protein with a meaty texture, which could be produced in huge volumes.
But the company couldn’t commercialise its discovery alone. Mycoprotein was a new innovation. It had to be characterised and demonstrated as a safe, nutritious food. Quorn turned to experts at the University of Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to co-produce the necessary evidence and work in close partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
By 1985, Quorn was on the shelves of UK supermarkets. Today, the company’s huge 170,000-litre fermentors are nestled among the heavy industry of the Tees Valley in north-east England. Producing mycoprotein on a huge scale has brought – in the words of the region’s Conservative mayor – “good jobs” to Teesside and demonstrated how it can “succeed in an outward-looking post-Brexit world”.
For many alternative protein entrepreneurs following in Quorn’s footsteps, working with academic researchers and novel food experts will be crucial as they follow the regulatory path to market. The UK has latent strengths in food science and safety – for example at the world-leading Quadrum Institute – but as our new report notes, it isn’t always leveraging this potential to support alternative proteins.
Standardising food safety protocols will be crucial as cultivated meat and precision fermentation products begin to enter the UK market – and it concerns the whole industry. This isn’t something companies should be tackling in silos. Just as Quorn did in the 1970s, companies should collaborate with academics and regulators to coproduce standards and expand the evidence base on food safety – similar to ongoing work from New Harvest.
And public-private partnerships don’t end at food safety. They are also crucial for developing tastier and more affordable sustainable options.
As an example, during fermentation, Fv can grow or ‘branch’ in a way that makes the fibrous strands of mycoprotein more crumbly than meaty. Not enough is known about what causes this and how to make Fv less prone to variation.
So Quorn has partnered with experts at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany on a project funded by UK Research and Innovation to investigate – in hopes of making production more efficient and products more consistently meaty.
It isn’t just Quorn who will benefit from this kind of research: many mycoprotein companies use Fv. And public funding ensures that the benefits of this R&D won’t be locked up with a single company.
This is particularly crucial for health and nutrition research – where it’s vital policymakers and practitioners have open access to high-quality evidence. “We need to be able to demonstrate that mycoprotein is nutritious, and working with academic institutes is integral to this”, Quorn told us.
Today, the company works with several UK universities like the University of Exeter and Northumbria University to enrich our understanding of the health and nutritional benefits of mycoprotein. For instance, in a recently published randomised control trial, researchers at Northumbria found that mycoprotein has positive impacts on gut health and cholesterol levels when compared to red and processed meat.
Next level: helping alternative proteins scale up
Crossing to the south bank of the Tees brings us to another exciting public-private partnership. Co-funded by the Tees Valley Combined Authority, the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) recently opened a new £2 million Novel Food Innovation Centre.
CPI’s Kris Wadrop sees alternative proteins as a major opportunity for the region: “The north-east is set to become the epicentre of this green revolution in the food industry and, at the same time, we can give back to the region by creating highly-skilled jobs and economic growth.”
The centre offers alternative protein companies, particularly those using fermentation, the chance to pilot their processes and products from end to end. Vital equipment – like the centre’s automated mini-fermentor system for conducting multiple test batches simultaneously (pictured below) – would be unaffordable and unnecessary for a single startup to purchase.
Tees Valley Combined Authority Mayor, Ben Houchen, visits the CPI Novel Food Innovation Centre
Just as important are the skills in bioprocess design and scale-up that the centre’s scientists offer. And that’s why pilot facilities are the bridge across the valley of death for startups – or, as CPI’s Wadrop puts it, “a catalyst for business”.
But pilot and scale-up capacity like this is sorely missing in the UK. Our recent report recommends that the UK Government invests £390 million in plant-based, cultivated meat and fermentation R&D between 2025 and 2030 – including creating more food-grade pilot facilities. We earmarked a significant proportion of our recommended funding for collaborative R&D – the kind that has enabled Quorn to become the world’s leading mycoprotein producer.
The next decade will be pivotal for developing and scaling alternative proteins. The UK is in a race with its European neighbours and other international competitors to do so.
As Quorn put it to us: “It’ll need the UK Government to recognise that alternative proteins have an important role to play not just in the future of human and planetary health, but also in the UK’s economy.”
While there has been fantastic progress in recent years, ensuring that regions like the Tees Valley continue to drive forward and benefit from this exciting sector will require a step-change in the UK’s ambition during the remainder of the decade.