“The Genesis of this Prize Begins with My Own Pain”

May 24 2021

By Kate Krueger and Thea Burke from XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion and Helikon Consulting

“The Genesis of this Prize Begins with My Own Pain”: A look into the influencers behind alternative proteins, food security, and policy.

Tony Robbins is a benefactor of XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion. Willem Van Eelen is hailed as the father of alternative protein biotechnology. While Van Eelen was born in 1926 in the Netherlands, Robbins was born in 1960 North Hollywood, CA. The two went on to have two very different (yet both prolific) careers. Van Eelen as a medical researcher and doctor, and Robbins as an author, motivational speaker, and philanthropist. Although from starkly different backgrounds, Robbins and Eelen both attribute their motivation for solving food insecurity to experiencing traumatic hunger. Van Eelen as a prisoner of war, and Robbins as a child of poverty.

 According to New Harvest, a nonprofit in cellular agriculture research and development, Van Eelen’s personal interest in food security was born after he almost died of malnutrition in a war camp during World War II. In addition to his own hunger during his time as a prisoner of war, witnessing harm inflicted on animals spurred a lifelong interest in slaughter-free, cultivated meat. Robbins, although never a prisoner of war, also holds deep personal interest in issues of food security rooted in personal experience of hunger and malnutrition. On XPRIZE’s podcast titled, “The Inspiration Behind $15m XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion,” Robbins says, “I think what’s really critical is for people to understand how big the problem is, because living in the Western world we don’t realize it. I realize it, because I grew up without food.” Robbins goes on to describe a Thanksgiving meal he had that consisted of crackers and tuna, stating, “the genesis of this prize begins with my own pain.” When the Robbins family was gifted a Thanksgiving meal that day, it changed Robbins’ life and opened his worldview to the possibility of changing others’ lives through food.

Along with Robbins and Van Eelen, Winston Churchill is often recognized for his role in fathering the concept of cellular agriculture. In his famous 1931 speech, he said, "With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e. the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."  While supporting innovation through his words, Churchill simultaneously created harrowing famine in India through his policies. In 1943, India spiraled into a famine that killed around 3 million, as the country was directed to export their rice (an amount that would have kept 400,000 people alive) for consumption in wartime Britain. Along with traumatic fatalities, people turned to sex work, migration, and violence in order to survive. Food insecurity often creates offshoot global health issues in developing countries such as India. For instance, migration can overwhelm surrounding cities, testing their resources, leading to overcrowding, disease, and poverty.

Foundations like XPRIZE go a long way in terms of inspiring innovation. By raising awareness, funding, and interest around the cellular agriculture space, XPRIZE is popularizing the idea of cultivated meat and fish cuts and filets. However, it is imperative that competitions like these, long after they end, are backed by supportive policy that allows the industry to make a true, long lasting impact. While famines like Churchill’s are often caused by political power plays or racial hierarchy, the pain of food insecurity that Van Eelen and Robbins experienced can be eliminated on a globe that produces enough food to feed its population. Yet while challenges such as this one are named with ambitious titles like “feed the next billion,” without policy, challenges like this will fall short in reaching their goals. 

According to the FAO, food security was coined a term in the 1970s, and since then has taken on around 200 different definitions across publications. The concept of food security is once again shifting with the introduction of cellular agriculture, which has implications for solving the issue of global food security. As cultivated protein expert and CEO of Helikon Dr. Krueger says, “Every year nearly 690 million people go hungry and two billion lack regular access to safe, nutritious food. So, as our earth’s population continues to grow it’s become increasingly apparent that we not only need to think about how we’re going to feed the next generation but also about how technology will play a role in the future of food.”

Food safety is another area of high concern. There are around 600 million cases of food-related illnesses globally each year. As the FAO mentions, these illnesses disproportionately affect those in low income countries and migrants. This is the same for climate related disasters; those who are in low income or marginalized communities often face the full brunt of climate disaster, and lack the resources to recover swiftly. Examples of this can be found in our own country of the United States, in instances such as Hurricane Katrina. Cellular agriculture is one solution to mitigating both foodborne illness and climate disaster. However, alternative protein products, and especially cultured meat, face their own regulatory and food safety challenges. The first public funding in the EU was given last year in 2020, when the European Union gave Meat4All a £2.7 million grant. This public funding allowed for safety assessment tests, a key aspect of product regulation and market success. The FDA and the USDA are currently responsible for overseeing food safety for cultured meat. The issues which have arisen in the partnership have been blamed on poor interagency collaboration. While this is likely a significant issue, the root of it most likely lies in the fact that research on food safety of cultured meat is lacking, which can be traced back to a lack of public funding.

According to the World Health Organization, a leading reason why our global population is not meeting food security goals is due to the expense of healthy diets, which are likely to be five times more expensive, and unaffordable for over 3 billion people in the world. In 2019, two billion people (about 26% of the population) were hungry or malnourished. Based on WHO and UN projections, there will be an additional 83 to 132 million after the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to these statistics, we are not on track to achieve the UN’s goal of Zero Hunger by 2030.

Cellular agriculture needs a range of funding

Van Eelen’s research and direct appeal to the Dutch government acquired the federal funding that created Mark Post’s first cultured hamburger; the funding then dried up as it was rerouted to proteins such as pea and bean proteins. Projects like XPRIZE’s will produce products of high value, and will be presented once for judges’ and chefs’ review. In order for these products to enter into a viable consumer market, both government and investor funding in cellular agriculture is imperative for future market success.

One type of private funding that XPRIZE’s project will encourage is impact investing. Impact investing is investment with the goal of a social or environmental impact, along with a traditional financial return. This type of investing is used by groups like the United Nations, which encourage it for projects such as their Sustainable Development Goals.

The funding gap is a significant challenge in cellular agriculture. It’s a challenge often faced by the biotech space in general, but gapes even wider in cellular agriculture. Private funding has vastly increased in the last two years alone. Companies like Perfect Day have acquired as much as $361.5 million. This funding has gone a long way to advancing cellular agriculture; Mark Post has claimed he can now make a burger for €500, when the original cost €250,000. However, the downside to this type of private investment lies in its encryption. Investors’ money is being fed into companies and products, and while groundbreaking for some aspects of product development, this leaves funding for public research that happens at the university largely underfunded. These investments are accompanied by NDAs that protect both investment and patent, which while positive for security in intellectual property rights and financial investment, does not advance research that would be found on a wider scale in a university setting (where research yields Post’s in vitro burger, or Wageningen’s groundbreaking shear cell technology that creates fibrous meat analogues). That’s not to say that private investment does not happen at the university level. Venture capital firm Big Idea Ventures recently partnered with nine universities, which will advance food technology research and innovation, and develop new, sustainable products. 

A balance of private and public funding would also increase market competition, bringing the consumers favorable prices, increased quality, and higher levels of industry innovation as companies become motivated to create products of quality.

Learn more about XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion and Helikon Consulting.