In 1798, an English clergyman and economist named Thomas Robert Malthus predicted that soaring population growth around the world would lead to hunger, hardship and susceptibility to famine and disease. As population growth was inevitable and the means of subsistence were limited, he argued, there could be no progress towards a happy and utopian society.
Fortunately, he was wrong. While there is starvation in the Third World, the current world population of 7.8 billion people is able to feed them all if innovation and hard work are applied to increase yields. Ideally, the food should be tasty and nutritious.
Israelis are doing their bit to make this happen. A startup named Mediterranean Food Lab is developing natural plant-based flavor bases for the alternative meat sector.
It is one of the three winners in the EIT Food Accelerator Network (EIT FAN) program; EIT Food, Europe’s leading food initiative, aims to accelerate startups that will shape the food world in the coming decades.
Created by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology in 2018, EIT FAN was held for the third time this year in the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and in five other hubs in Switzerland, Germany, the UK, Spain and Finland. The program at the Technion is run in collaboration Israel’s Strauss Group, and is one of the first programs to focus on the cultivation of innovation and entrepreneurship in the food sector.
In addition to the winning Israeli company, the others were Odd.Bot of the Netherlands, which developed the “Weed Whacker”, an intelligent in-row weeding robot that will reduce the use of crop protection products; and UK-based Arborea, which has developed artificial BioSolar leaves that generate breathable oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the air. Each of the companies will receive €100,000.
The Mediterranean Food Lab, founded by Yair Yosefi, Omer Ben Gal, and Ben Goldberg, develops natural, healthy flavor bases that are sustainably produced and affordable, using novel methods based on traditional, multi-phase, solid-state fermentation of plant protein. The founders joined forces to harness their individual research and development expertise in plant-based flavoring agents to establish the startup.
Goldberg explained that the rapid expansion of the alternative meat sector is thus far mainly limited to emulating meat as a main protein serving, “a large piece of protein that sits in the middle of your plate, such as hamburgers, steaks and chicken nuggets,” But large pieces of protein account for only 20% of the global meat market by volume. By contrast, the use of meat to enhance and improve the flavor other foods accounts for 30% of the market. “Even if we stop slaughtering animals to produce hamburgers and steak, the food world will still need billions of animals each year to feed our appetite for the flavor-enhancing qualities and meaty flavor profile presently delivered by animal protein, unless there is a great-tasting alternative. And that is what we’re working on,” he said.
Goldberg explained that the accelerator program at the Technion, which included intensive studies, access to mentors from industry and ongoing advice from the Technion’s gave the company highly significant impetus. Winning the finals of the local competition at the Technion granted The Mediterranean Food Lab a ticket to compete in the European finals of the program, against other outstanding companies that had been declared winners in the various European hubs.
The company also won a grant from the Good Food Institute to research the potential of traditional Southeast Asian foods for the development of rich flavors for the alternative meat.
This year, 60 companies were selected from 400 applicants to participate in EIT FAN across its six hubs. In Israel, the program took place at the Technion, under the leadership of associate Prof. Uri Lesmes, Dr. Avital Regev Siman-Tov and Prof. Eyal Shimoni, with the participation of 10 startups from Israel, Italy and the UK. Two outstanding companies from each hub progressed to the final stage of the European contest, where the top 3 finalists were selected by a professional international panel of academic and industry experts.
“We believe innovation holds the key to fixing our food system so that it is healthier and more sustainable for all,” added Benoit Buntinx, director of business creation at EIT Food. “These startups and scaleups represent the inclusivity and innovation of the EIT Food community and embody the important role entrepreneurs will play, if we are to accelerate the transformation of the food system.”
This is the second time in the three years that the winner of the prestigious EIT-FAN finals is a participant of the program at the Technion. In the program’s first year, it was Redefine Meat – an Israeli company that developed a 3D meat printing technology for creating animal-free “whole muscle” cuts of meat (steaks) with the appearance, texture, and flavor of real meat, but made from natural plant-based sustainable materials.