A critical ingredient in the alternative protein industry that’s never in short supply

We all want a brighter food future. Collaboration is the key to getting us there.
Collaboration is key in the alternative protein industry.  this image depicts several figures on computer screens interacting and working together.

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

This oft-cited African proverb has particular resonance in the alternative protein ecosystem. 

This is an industry that intends to go far. The aims of companies in the sector are ambitious and lofty – to make the meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs that people love, but to make them in a way that is better for people, the environment, and animals. It’s an industry that aims to transform the way people around the world eat. But to go far, the industry must collaborate and go together.

Creating a brand new industry comes with all the challenges you might expect and many that you don’t. Companies are tasked with a daunting array of activities: creating first-of-their-kind products and ingredients, developing and scaling up novel production practices, working with regulators, and establishing new markets, to name just a few. 

Excelling in so many areas is challenging for even the best companies. This is why, as the industry grows, the need for collaboration grows exponentially. By working collaboratively, companies can pool resources to solve collective needs. This is particularly critical for emerging technologies like cultivated meat or precision fermentation. Aligning on accurate yet appealing nomenclature, developing a strategy to work effectively with regulators, and setting and maintaining industry standards are all areas where companies benefit from a collaborative approach.

The role of trade associations and working groups

Trade associations and working groups are vital tools in these pre-competitive areas. We know nearly 20 alt protein trade associations globally and several other alt protein working groups. Many have formed recently, and the membership and goals of each group range widely. The newly formed Fungi Protein Association, for example, has quickly grown to a global group of over 30 member companies focused on fungi fermentation generally.

Other associations, like the APAC Society for Cellular Agriculture (APAC SCA), are focused on a production platform within a specific region. APAC SCA addresses cultivated meat and seafood food regulation and inter-country dialogue within the APAC region. Meanwhile, the longstanding Plant Based Food Association has been a powerful force for plant-based companies – gathering market data and consumer insights, developing partnerships with retailers and foodservice operators, and advocating for plant-based companies with US policymakers. 

Industry collaborations are challenging but, when done correctly, are extremely powerful. With associations, companies can do much more than what they would each be able to do individually, like:

  1. Promote a specific technology, process, or product within an industry or externally 
  2. Create common standards across an industry 
  3. Solve common challenges faced by all companies (share risk and reward by pooling resources towards solving a common problem) 
  4. Coordinate regulatory strategy among companies 
  5. Educate the public about the benefits of their approach and products

Ensuring successful collaboration

Of course, starting or joining an association or alliance is just the beginning. From conversations with many association and industry leaders, we’ve identified the following takeaways for ensuring an association or working group is successful:

A clear focus is critical

It is critical to have a shared and clearly articulated goal for the collaborative. Any organization formed must have a specific objective and a communications strategy supporting it. Companies must spend the time upfront to determine shared priorities, positions, and the value that the group provides to the industry. Before forming, some groups we spoke with spent six months to one year discussing shared challenges and developing areas of focus.

Consistency is key

As with any collective effort, trust is an essential ingredient for success. It is important to have a consistent person from each company tasked with engaging with the group to establish and maintain trust. The team member ultimately selected is dependent on the goals of the group. However, it should be someone with relevant subject matter expertise, as companies need to come to meetings with a perspective and a position (early-stage companies may not have these positions and preferences developed yet but can learn from experts). The designated person should also have the hours and the capacity to devote to shaping the group (time commitments ranged from 3-4 hours/week to 3-4 hours/month). The CEO is NOT the right person to be involved as they typically do not have the capacity.

Meet in person (if you can!)

The opportunity to meet in person accelerates impact. Many groups were able to accelerate their work significantly while meeting at conferences and other events – both because of the time to discuss and coordinate and also because it helped foster trust between association members.

Association formats vary, but having a neutral third party leading is imperative

Everyone we’ve spoken with has emphasized the importance of having a neutral third party manage the organization, whether an association manager, public affairs consulting firm, or association executive director. This ensures that all companies feel equally valued and heard.

Collaboration takes time

Because of the number of stakeholders involved with various needs, opinions, and capacities, it can take some time to establish a working group. The time it takes to go from ideation and scoping to the actual launch of an industry group can be up to two years. Groups that can launch in one year typically engage a consultant or have a dedicated person engaged to facilitate the group very early on. At a minimum, it’s recommended to spend at least six months in the beginning to establish trust and shared goals among potential members.

Cooperation comes with a cost

The cost to establish an association varies depending on what organizational model is set and the goals and activities of the group. In our conversations, the costs to be involved in an association ranged, on average, from $5K/month to $5K/year, although we also heard some association management groups cite fees as significant as $1.5MM annually. There are various fee structures used, from companies each paying the same flat rate fee to required contributions calculated based on each company’s amount of funding or their number of employees. These costs typically allow associations to hire skilled management teams who can ensure the group is working efficiently towards achieving shared goals.

Stronger together

Collaborative efforts accelerate industries and can lead to massive step-change improvements in areas of collective benefit. Associations and working groups are one main avenue of organized cooperation. However, collaboration can take many forms.

We operate as a convener and catalyst and routinely bring together companies and individuals to discuss issues in our industry roundtables. We host mixers and events virtually and in person and share knowledge freely via our webinars. Our commitment to this work reflects our belief that the alternative protein industry can change the world. We must work together to realize this vision for a brighter food future.

Hungry for more?

Check out our consortium-building session from our recent Good Food Conference.