The Liveability Challenge 2019 dared entrepreneurs around the world to develop ideas for products or services that would make cities throughout Southeast Asia not only more liveable, but also more resistant to economic challenges. The goal was to make this part of the world cleaner and greener, and therefore a more pleasant place to live. Three-hundred different forward-thinking entrants submitted ideas for this challenge, and a number of finalists were shortlisted. Ideas ranged from low-energy air conditioning and 3D printing with organic materials to a system designed to convert diesel engines to hydrogen. Other unique ideas included data center designs for energy efficiency and a drink cup rental service. However, one idea beat out all of these, and it is one that focuses on non-meat proteins, a pursuit that has gained momentum in the last decade.
The winner of the challenge was Sophie’s Kitchen, which proposed a sustainable protein source made from microalgae that could be used in a variety of different settings. Outside of nutrition, the product could play a role in biofuel, cooking oil, and more. What differentiates this protein from others, especially in crowded Southeast Asia, is the limited resources that need to be invested. While a ton of beef requires 141 hectares of land, an equivalent amount of this protein needs only 0.02 hectares. Furthermore, the sustainable protein is affordable, with an expected final price of about $2 per kilogram once the whole process is refined.
The company plans to use the $1 million in prize money awarded from the competition to set up a research and development facility in Singapore. While Sophie’s Kitchen is based in California, the company has big plans to turn Singapore into a sustainable protein powerhouse serving all of Southeast Asia. The decision at the competition in favor of this new protein was unanimous. The judges believe that plant-based protein will one day take the place of animal protein and that Sophie’s Kitchen can help to speed up this process. Bringing the product to market faster will mean that its benefits will become apparent to local citizens more quickly. This drive is what fueled the final decision at the challenge.
The cofounder of Sophie’s Kitchen was inspired to create the microalgae protein by his daughter, who is allergic to seafood. The protein was devised as an alternative that his child could eat. However, he was also thinking about a food that could be consumed in space and possibly even fuel future expeditions to Mars. The microalgae protein is fermented using regular food waste, such as spent grain from tofu makers and breweries, as well as molasses from companies that refine sugar. These byproducts are readily available in cities across the world from other food companies, so the ingredients are of high quality. The final product has a flavor that is similar to seaweed.
The whole fermentation process takes between three and five days. At the end of this time, the microalgae is strained and then dried. The final product accounts for about 60 percent of the biomass, which means that impurities like fiber, oil, and ash must be removed. The protein is fit for human consumption within a week, which is a remarkably short production time when compared to animals and even produce. The final product can be used as an ingredient in veggie burgers and other plant protein food. However, the company is exploring a wide range of other applications for the powder.
The process of fermentation allows the protein product to be produced vertically, which means that the sky is literally the limit for its creation. Furthermore, production does not require a lot of physical labor since much of the process is automated. Production involving up to 20 tanks requires only a couple of individuals to oversee the process. These tanks can even be managed remotely, so expanding the technology to new jurisdictions would prove quite easy. The other major consideration is water use. About 90 percent of all water used in the protein production process is recycled for later use, so not much waste is generated. These features make the protein ideal for countries where land is scarce, such as in Southeast Asia. The technology drives food security while actually minimizing the carbon footprint.
However, Sophie’s Kitchen does not plan to bring the product to the market for another few years, as the company plans to refine the technique and work on reducing costs. Ultimately, the plan is to have the product cost about the same as tofu when it hits shelves so that it will be quickly adopted. In the meantime, the company offers a range of other faux seafood products made with vegetable proteins, including scallops, shrimp, crab cakes, and fish. The company is continuing to develop new products in this vein with smoked salmon pastrami and a non-seafood product, pastrami jerky, coming soon.