Ryan Schroeder is the president and chief executive officer of CRB, an engineering, architecture, construction and consulting company.
The phrase “alternative proteins” lands differently depending on who’s listening.
To my neighbors back home in Kansas, who come from generations of cattle ranchers and meat packers, the term may seem irrelevant, or even threatening. To market analysts and journalists, it has recently evoked skepticism and dismal predictions for the future. To entrepreneurs working in this sector, it represents a solution to urgent problems—food insecurity, climate change, precarious human health.
I offer you another perspective. Because in the face of immense external pressures, manufacturers of alternative proteins have become a case study in resilience—and within that case study are useful insights for any ambitious leader.
Make sure your purpose is rooted in pragmatism.
What makes me so sure of this industry’s resilience?
My company, which designs and constructs facilities for pharma, biotech, and food and beverage manufacturers, has been collaborating with alternative meat, dairy and seafood producers for years. We sensed this industry was trending upward, contrary to reports. To know for sure, we formally surveyed 150 alternative protein manufacturers. Here’s what we found:
• The number of respondents manufacturing at commercial scale is up by 25% since 2021.
• More than 65% of survey respondents have seen their sales volume climb since 2021.
• A pipeline of new entrants is feeding this sector: Two-thirds of the plant-based producers in our survey generate less than $100M in revenue.
Additionally, the USDA’s recent decision approving the sale of chicken made from animal cells will likely stoke renewed optimism. Data from SPINS and the Good Food Institute indicates plant-based U.S. sales were up 6.6% in 2022, while investors and major food brands maintain sizeable stakes.
Today, alternative protein manufacturers are looking more like mature, traditional food and beverage companies from a commercial readiness point of view. They’ve still got their mission, but they’ve also got savvy.
To see this duality in action, look at cultivated meat. Companies at the leading edge of this sector are vocal about their revolutionary vision, earning them significant media buzz. At the same time, their eyes are open to the problems that lie between buzzworthy products and a mature, cash-positive business. They’re spending immense time and resources trying to solve those problems. The solutions may not be flashy, but they’re practical.
Have tunnel vision, but look out the windows.
Maintaining focus is important in startup culture, where success depends on persistence. But marching forward while ignoring peripheral inputs can become a liability, especially in an all-new sector.
Consumer buying behavior, for example, remains a difficult nut to crack, particularly with respect to the “price parity problem.” Studying this problem from multiple angles is a key skill for successful alternative protein manufacturers.
The disparity between what it costs for a pound of alternative protein versus a pound of traditional meat will shrink as alternative protein manufacturers develop new ways to scale, but for now, companies already in the marketplace must pass that cost to consumers. Many are trying to justify that markup by selling themselves as the more sustainable choice.
Here’s where things get interesting: Those same manufacturers acknowledge that consumers have other priorities. A product’s ingredients deck, nutritional profile and taste all outrank sustainability in terms of attracting buyers, according to our survey respondents. With that in mind, nearly three-quarters of manufacturers in our survey plan to change their product line, with goals like “ingredient innovation” as their objective. This capacity for peripheral vision—and a willingness to realign manufacturing strategies accordingly—is impressive.
Competitors have just as much to teach an alert business owner as consumers do. Take the mycelium (or fungi) sub-sector, for example. We were shocked to learn from our survey that manufacturers with mycelium as their source protein have sprinted ahead of cultivated meat manufacturers. They are planning to build bioreactors three times as large as the average cultivated meat manufacturing facility, for example.
Their success is due in part to their assessment of other sub-sectors and their ability to differentiate themselves accordingly. Cultivated meat manufacturers are watching, and they’ve invested heavily in new advances to boost their product’s nutritional profile.
Agility is essential—from the factory floor to the boardroom.
I work with people on the frontier of cell and gene therapy manufacturing, RNA research, and animal health. In all that experience, I’ve rarely seen an industry as agile as this one.
Numerous companies in the alternative proteins space are findings ways to swiftly adapt their product offerings. Such thinking is critical, according to a recent EY alternative proteins report highlighting the importance of anticipating geopolitical and environmental changes and shifting consumer tastes.
From my own relationships with senior leaders across the sector, I sense no “typical” origin story for alternative protein companies; their founders are equally likely to come from biotech, healthcare or alternative energy as they are from food innovation—a signal the sector is rooted in flexible thinking.
What’s really fascinating is how that agility shows up at the product level—even from the older sub-sectors, like plant-based dairy. Plant-based dairy manufacturers have had time to get the fundamentals right: scalability, reputation, market penetration. But instead of resting, they’ve pressed on. Our survey respondents report that cheese alternatives have overtaken fluid milk, and other dairy alternatives like sour cream, yogurt, and ice cream are rapidly emerging. Continuous agility, even after achieving commercial stability, pays off—continuously.
It starts with a culture of adaptability and empowering employees to engage in continuous learning—from colleagues, industry peers and most of all, clients. Combining that with a lean approach—streamlining process and encouraging faster decision-making—is a recipe for long-term success.
Don’t underestimate the power of protein.
There may be little consensus about how alternative proteins will impact global food systems. One thing is certain, though: This industry isn’t going away.
We may be years from flipping cultivated burgers on the BBQ, but our local markets are stocked with vegan meat, our coffee shops offer plant-based lattes, and we’ll soon see mycelium-based protein in retail stores. Against strong headwinds, this industry has grown more commercially savvy all the time. That’s a business lesson that all of us can feast on.
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