The focus in India is to find food companies and start-ups which are focussed on promoting alternative protein. This was the central theme of a conference on the Future of Alternative Protein, which took place in Mumbai recently.

It was organised by Ashika Group, a 25-year-old financial service provider offering numerous packages and products under one roof, and hosted by Mihir Mehta, senior vice-president, Ashika Capital Ltd.

The panellists were Andrew D Ive, founder, Big Idea Ventures, and Varun Deshpande, chief executive officer, Good Food Institute, a global non-governmental organisation (NGO) whose objective is to promote clean food technology.

Ive is an icon in the alternative protein space, and has successfully run a venture capital firm plus an accelerator start-up in New York and Singapore. He is now interested in doing the same in India.

They deliberated on how the world was changing with regard to its food habits, and how the food eco-system was changing.

“In globally-recognised markets, the focus is on building alternatives, and a critical question is how we are going to feed 10 billion people globally, one-sixth of whom are in India itself, through sustainable means that do not negatively impact the environment with global warming, climate change, scarce resources and several other problems that may arise,” said Deshpande.

“We work with scientists, government organisations, open access research and entrepreneurs who are focussed on acceletrating these technologies that give consumers the choices to switch over without them feeling like they are making a sacrifice,” he added.

“By giving the consumers choices to eat food that taste the same or better, and cost the same or less, they will have the option of switching over to products that do not devastate the environment,” Deshpande stated.

Ive said, “Solving the world’s greatest problem by backing the world’s best entrepreneurs who are focussed on plant-based protein or cell-based protein, ingredients and technologies because it is definitely possible now through the kind of creativity that can be brought into the market to create some amazing products which taste as good as, if not better than, their animal protein counterparts.”

“It is going to be possible to do all this at a price that is competitive with those animal products, and yet these products are not going to have devasting impacts on the environment. Plus they are going to be good for health due to zero cholestrol,” he added.

“We are focussed on finding 100 companies in the next four years, giving them money and investing a lot of time working with them in order to achieve success. We have offices in New York and Singapore, and now we would like to shift our focus to India,” Ive said.

“We are building value chains, and we are finding the right ingredient partners, the right manufactures, distribution, retail, and other services in each of these markets, so that when we find fantastic products, we will be able to put them out there for everyone to enjoy globally,” he added.

When asked what prompted him to pick India over other countries, Ive said, “My first solid food as a human being was Indian food. My mother fed me curry when I was 18 months old, and I fell in love with it.”

“Culturally, this country has been vegetarian, but not any more. Seventy-two per cent of the country is now switching over to eating meat. As that increases, the impact on the climate is going to be horendous. We cant tell the Indian people, ‘You cannot do this’. Who are we to tell Indians, or anyone in the world, what to eat and what not to,” he added.

“The best way to unravel that is by bringing great-tasting, price-competitive foods to the consumers that are culturally relevant to not have any animals involved in the process. That is the secret, we as investors are not focussing on vegans or vegetarians,” Ive said.

“We are focussed on products that everyone will enjoy on a daily basis, because it tastes really good. We are interested in finding great companies who have the same focus. We want to invest in them and help them bring great products to the market that have no animal protein in them and that everyone can enjoy,” he added.

“The reason I am interested in India is because Indians are shifting from predominantly vegetarian-eating habits to eating meat. This is going to have devastating effects on the environment,” Ive said.

“Culturally speaking, India is a very entrepreneurial society. This is a country of hustlers. Indians are creative, hard-working and focussed on bringing new things to the market. India is just a phenomenal country,” he added.

When asked how he has seen entrepreneurs evolving in India, Deshpande said, “The evolution in India with regards to entrepreneurs is still in its infancy, but we are hoping to see a lot of great products being launched in the next couple of months to years. Our focus is on building an ecosystem that addresses rising protein demand in this country, that is, quite frankly, a ticking time bomb.”

“The protein demand in this country is similar to South-East Asia, China and Sub-Saharan Africa. As people’s incomes rise, they want to consume more meat. It is a matter of prestige. There’s great research from Tata Trust that explains that if you go into an urban slum and you ask a family which spends Rs 460 a week on one mutton meal a week, which brings their family together to enjoy it, and if you ask them if they are willing to spend Rs 920 for two meals a week, they would say, ‘Yes, absolutely’,” he added.

“So that is what we are faced with. We are dealing with an issue right now that is putting us in a position of stress due to using about 80 per cent of all agricultural land on this planet to grow crops and feed them to animals, and then eat a portion of those animals,” he added.

“We need to have a 10-year-view in place, and early stage capital hand-holding and nuturing, while simultaneously building and manufacturing research facilities, talent pools, education and all of these things together, so that the ecosystem can thrive in a realistic manner,” Deshpande stated.

In response to a question whether we are converting vegetarians to vegans, or trying to encourage meat lovers to become vegans (which, simply put, meant what was the target group from an entrepreneur perspective), he added, “Basically every person is different. There are people who might want to consume meat on one or more days of the week and some who might want to consume plant-based food.”

“India has a strong co-op for early adopters of meat-like products. There are a lot of people who are stating that they do not want to consume any products that have animal protein in them, but do not want to compromise on taste or cost,” Deshpande stated.

Ive’s response to the target audience they are looking at was, “Interestingly, most entrepreneurs I have spent time on are usually those that are trying to scratch their own itch.”

“They want something, and they are upset because it does not exist in the market. They think, ‘If big- or medium-sized companies won’t give it to me, I will just go ahead and make it on my own’,” he added.

“They make it and give it to their friends, and if their friends like it, they think, ‘Maybe I’ve got something here’, and they go ahead with it. It may not be clear as to exactly what target audience we should be looking at, because we are putting our money into it, but I would say that we are looking at companies that will produce products that are culturally-relevant,” Ive said.

“So the idea here is not to take the American burger, make it out of plants and have everyone else around the world eating plant-based burgers, because they have nothing else to eat,” he added.

“We are investing in a Singaporean company called Karana, that uses whole foods, a meat alternative approach through which they replace meat with young jackfruit. So it has the texture and flavour of pork, but is, in fact, jackfruit,” Ive said.

“If we are going to be making a difference here, we need a range of foods which are culturally relevant to the countries and regions. So we are not trying to convert people’s habits or give up what they love because of ethical or climate reasons, but only because they want to make a change,” he added.

“Generally speaking, when push comes to shove, people will always make a selfish decision. So how do you solve that problem? You create food that is so delicious and cost-competitive. It is not a difficult decision to make. People will then choose the plant-based one instead of the animal-based one, because it is ideally less expensive, and plus it is tasty and healthy,” Ive stated.

When asked how the problem of importing expensive ingredients can be resolved without increasing the prices of the products, Deshpande asked, “Does anyone remember a time before smartphones? Do you remember a time when you had no choice, and you had one phone with buttons on it?”

“The reason that that has changed is because of people that wanted to make things better. They created a space for change. Every entrepreneur has both hands tied behind their back,” he added.

Deshpande said, “One is functionality. _ how are these ingredients going to perform? Plant based ingredients will not perform in the same way that animal protein does. You have to add a bunch of things and then you get a product. The other reason is cost. That becomes a problem because I have to import a bunch of ingredients that are only available abroad, but I need them to make my products here in India.”

“This is going to change in the near future. It is not only going to be bulk products like wheat and soy, but you are also going to see moong beans, chickpeas and all sorts of indigenous crops function as binders and stabilisers. That is what we are looking for, clean eating. If you have all this is place, then you can create a product that is healthy and cost-effective,” he added.

Ive stated, “We need not focus only on wheat, soy and other b-protein products. The rest of the world is sucking up all of the world’s supply of b-protein products, and that means that the prices of those products will increase dramatically. The alternative pulses, the fava beans, chickpeas and so on will start to be experimented on from an entrepreneurial perspective.”

“It is not only about ingredients but also about manufacturing houses that are getting smart about making the products better,” he added.

On the role of FSSAI in India and overseas, Ive said, “In the US and Europe, the organisations that are focussed on food safety departments do not get too involved when it comes to plant-based products because you are taking natural ingredients and blending them and bringing them together with other plant-based foods.”

“So there is no real need for the FDA or more bodies to get involved in it. However, there is a big discussion around cultured meat or artificial meat, and it has become a bit of a political issue in the US, because the tradition of the meat industry are an established business,” he added.

“They have done things a certain way for some time, because the reality that you can grow meat in a lab is unravelling them. The government bodies are being asked to hold back on calling clean meat as meat. There is no clean meat company currently that has been approved, so none of them are able to sell their products in the US,” Ive said.

On being asked his views on distribution, he said, “We are looking at direct to consumer distribution, this is how we cut out the middleman. It cuts out the begging of retail stores to house your products on their shelves.”

“It is a challenge in India but it must be done. It is challenging to bring products to market in the traditional way, but direct to consumer is really ewxciting. One thing entrepreneurs like is food services,” Ive said.

“You can sell large quantities of product at a decent market and you dont have to support that product in every single outlet. Generally, you have to go to the store and do free samples, and demos and use discounts, this becomes expensive in terms of supporting that product,” he added.

Ive stated, “If a large food company buys your product then you dont have to worry about people getting to use your product, because that is what the food company does for you. That becomes a great stepping stone for young start-up companies. The profit that is acquired from there can be use to later tackle grocery stores and retail stores.”

In summation, he informed that they were starting to establish relations with the UNO. “They want to work with us at a beta service. If we decide to go forward with it, they are going to look at the impact of our investments. They are going to monitor our investments with regards to the impact we are trying to make. This equation needs constant connection and updation of data from the companies, not just when you invest, but it has to continue for the next 10 or 20 years,” he added.

Ive said, “It is an ongoing process. We help entrepreneurs to realise their potential and be proactive. We made need a different model in India in order to be able to build the products in a proactive way. It is called Make a Model. If I set up an office here in India, I am not looking at five companies. I am looking at 100 companies. We have food scientists in our company in Singapore, and they are sharing their findings with the other companies. We are looking to set up pilot plants here in India.”

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