XPRIZE, a nonprofit organization out of Culver City, California that hosts competitions to create technological advances in order to benefit humanity, has launched its Feed the Next Billion campaign. The Feed the Next Billion challenge is based on the statistic that by 2050, Earth’s population will have risen to 9.7 billion people. According to XPRIZE, 50 percent of the Earth’s habitable land is already being used for agriculture, as well as 70 percent of the planet’s water. Cities are seeing an increase in wealth, and a subsequent increase in market demands for animal products, such as fish and poultry. Alternatively, COVID-19 has increased food insecurity for many. The challenge comes at a timely point in cellular agriculture’s development, as XPRIZE announced the plans one week after Singapore has given the green light on the commercial sale of cultivated meat. On Saturday, December 19, the cultivated chicken bites made by the California based company Eat Just launched in Singapore’s 1880 restaurant.
The competition is defined by XPRIZE as follows: “XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion is a four-year, $15M competition that will incentivize teams to produce chicken breast or fish fillet alternatives that replicate or outperform conventional chicken and fish in: access, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, nutrition and health, as well as taste and texture.” The challenges hosted by the nonprofit are public and encourage holistic applicants from a wide range of biotechnical backgrounds, whether an applicant feels they can help perfect the aroma, the texture, the nutrition, or the cost effectiveness of the finished product. There will be a bonus prize given to the team that produces the product (which can be purely cultivated protein, plant-based protein, or a blend of the two) at the “lowest production cost.” The challenge is partnered by Aspire, part of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council, and is funded by the Tony Robbins Foundation, a charity. The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization and thought leader in the alternative protein industry, will be serving as a team success partner.
I reached out to Eliot Swartz, senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, who gave some perspective on how XPRIZE’s challenge reflects the mission of the Institute. “GFI is thrilled that XPRIZE will be funding talented teams across the world to create fully structured chicken and fish products, which are key gaps in the alternative protein marketplace. Competing on environmental sustainability, nutrition, health, access, and versatility will incentivize new creative solutions and provide additional motivation for consumers to make more conscious meat and seafood purchasing decisions.”
While cultivated meat is still a new endeavor in the biotech industry, cultivated fish is even more of an industry infant. The texture of fish is softer and harder to achieve than a springy, meaty texture. New Harvest, a cellular agriculture research organization that relies on donor funding, has supported start-ups in both the cultivated fish and meat space. At the recent SynBioBeta Brands & Biology conference, Finless Foods, one of these start-ups supported by New Harvest, made an appearance on a panel about climate solutions and cellular agriculture alongside Kate Krueger, emphasizing the need for capital behind this cutting edge research. According to NPR, as of 2019, there were about a dozen companies working on cultivated animal protein, and only six were working on cultivated seafood. Alternative seafood still lacks regulatory approvals, and generally lacks the full extent of research that cultured meat has behind it. Krueger is a former research director for New Harvest with a PhD in Cell Biology from Yale, and is now Founder of Helikon Consulting and newly appointed cultivated protein technical expert for the XPRIZE challenge.
The Feed the Next Billion challenge has gotten a significant amount of press already. One article that stood out was published by Yahoo, as it touches on peripheral questions surrounding the challenge and the field, and highlights how XPRIZE takes a holistic approach. As reported by Yahoo! Finance, XPRIZE has focused on the issue of food security in the space of cultivated meat, an issue (perhaps because the industry is still so new) that is often left untouched. The article continues with statistics from the United Nations, which warn the number of sustainably caught fish could decrease by 25 percent by the close of the century, due to climate change. There’s a significant sector of the world’s population that relies on seafood, and climate change is likely to increase food insecurity across many populations — and that’s not including current food security threats such as Covid-19. The challenge places significance on the need for climate solutions, and comes at an exciting and critical time in the cellular agriculture industry. As Swartz said, “We foresee a future where the emerging technologies of structuring and formulating plant-based ingredients and cultivating animal and microbial cells come together to meet the protein demands of a growing population without sacrificing human, animal, and planetary health. The Feeding the Next Billion prize will get the world closer to achieving that goal.”
Written by: Thea Burke for Helikon Consulting, LLC