Sector News

Finding food talent: GFI flags need for specialized scientists and engineers to propel alternative protein

April 15, 2023
Food & Drink

Alternative protein start-ups have been trimming their workforce amid uncertain economic conditions and global market downturns, along with their legacy counterparts from the food industry and beyond. However, the Good Food Institute (GFI) is optimistic that alternative proteins and start-ups specializing in them are poised to drive economic growth and job creation – but this requires a sharpened focus on attracting highly specialized talent to keep the maturing alternative protein movement moving.

To build a technological paradigm for feeding the world’s growing global population, GFI says industry needs “people power” to propel plant-based, cultivated and fermentation technologies forward: highly-specialized scientists and engineers, and lots of them.

These conditions present an abundance of opportunity for scientists and engineers looking to make their mark and a bounty of economic development potential for governments interested in bolstering regional competitiveness.

According to a 2021 Global Innovation Needs Assessment by Climateworks Foundation, “the alternative protein market could create more than 8 million jobs globally by 2040, and up to 9.5 million by 2050.”

Though the sector is still in its nascency, there are “promising signals” of its potential to trigger widespread economic growth.

As the plant-based arena sees rapid expansion, industry is capitalizing on innovative food technology to remedy consumer boredom. Currently, innovators and manufacturers are dealing with complex challenges, such as new processing techniques, new proteins, taste, masking, texture, preservation, costs and (environmental) sustainability.

Next-generation “talent”
There are almost 2,000 specialized and diversified alternative protein companies across the value chain, creating thousands of new jobs worldwide. Governments are beginning to seize the alternative protein opportunity with landmark investments in research and training.

Institutions such as Tufts University and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology have established research and training hubs to nurture the next-generation of alternative protein talent. Since 2020, the alternative protein sector has raked in US$11.2 billion of capital. However, a recent GFI analysis revealed that demand for alternative protein talent continues to outpace its supply.

GFI has surveyed its global community of alternative protein start-ups on their workforce development needs. It received 130 responses from North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa and 53% of the respondents work on plant-based technologies; 34% work on cultivated, 20% work on precision fermentation; and 20% work on biomass fermentation; with 27% of respondents working across multiple production platforms.

The plurality (48%) of respondents were from start-ups with between one and four employees, which means the data is heavily weighted toward the needs of early-stage start-ups.

Scientific and engineering capacity is needed
While the alternative protein sector has steadily grown in the last decade, start-ups feel pressed for sufficient technical talent to drive their technologies forward, states the GFI.

A significant proportion (52%) of respondents reported “difficulty hiring technical talent,” and among them, 94% viewed technical talent bottlenecks as posing “very severe” or “moderately severe” challenges to their organization’s success.

Of those that reported difficulty hiring technical talent, 79% reported having difficulty hiring scientists and engineers for research and development roles, with 35% and 22% reporting difficulty hiring operators and technicians for manufacturing roles and quality assurance and control roles, respectively.

Consistent with other emerging technological fields, GFI expects the nature of talent needs to shift as the sector matures and increasingly transitions toward commercial-scale production when the plurality of the technical workforce will likely become manufacturing operators and technicians rather than benchtop scientists.

Cross-production platform skills crucial
When the GFI asked alternative protein start-ups to select the top technical skills and backgrounds missing from their team today, it found that “general” or “cross-platform” skills and experience appear most needed.

Cross-platform skills include disciplines like food science and meat science, process development and scale-up, manufacturing, product development, and food safety, which have a wide range of applications across the spectrum of alternative protein technologies.

When the GFI asked companies to predict the top technical skills they anticipate needing most five years from now, skills related to manufacturing, process development and scale-up, product development and automation came out on top.

Specialized, platform-specific skills and backgrounds are also needed
Moreover, plant-based meat companies need more protein extrusion and food texture development experts for product development.

Cultivated meat companies report a significant need for bioreactor operators and controllers, scaffolding design experts, cell culture media developers, cell line engineers and tissue engineering experts to support research and scale-up across the value chain.

Meanwhile, precision and biomass fermentation companies highlighted a need for downstream process engineers to support scaling from lab and demo scale to commercial-scale production; and precision fermentation companies cited a need for microbial strain development capabilities.

The landscape of talent needs will be “ever-evolving,” according to the GFI, as the sector reaches new phases of maturity. However, they stress that alternative proteins will likely continue to be a vast, multidisciplinary undertaking requiring talent across the science and engineering continuum.

Partnering with higher education institutions
Universities and professional associations have a crucial role in ensuring that their members and students understand the rich tapestry of career opportunities in our movement toward a cleaner, greener mode of meat production, says the GFI.

The alternative protein start-ups that the GFI surveyed signal a healthy appetite for partnering with academic institutions to bridge labor force gaps.

Participating start-ups were most interested in working with universities, independent research institutes, and technical colleges and trade schools.

Spotlight on Singapore
Having previously been labeled as a global launchpad for cellular agriculture, Singapore has been at the forefront of innovation for cultivated chicken, having initially obtained approval from the Singapore Food Agency for its first chicken product in November 2020 and subsequent approval for new formats of its poultry in November 2021.

The country is also looking for talent for the agri-tech sector, specifically for cultivated meat and fish. In a new visa scheme expected to come into effect in September 2023, Singapore will attract foreign professionals as businesses prepare for one of the most extensive updates to the country’s visa scheme.

From artificial intelligence engineers to cybersecurity experts to alternative meat scientists, the Singapore government released a list of 27 jobs that will be favored in the point-based assessment process, showing what the city-state expects from global companies as it seeks to grow the economy post-pandemic.

Analysts say the new scheme – which also requires workplace diversity – focuses on employers’ contributions to the local economy, prompting businesses to adjust their hiring strategy to the country’s economic priorities.

Edited by Elizabeth Green


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