Introduction to stimulating alternative protein research

What students can do to advance alternative protein research

This resource guide will cover high-impact activities that can stimulate alternative protein research at your university. Opportunities for students to kickstart alternative protein research include:

  1. Getting faculty and postdoctoral researchers involved. By engaging scientists whose specializations are tangential to alternative proteins and encouraging them to conduct alternative protein research, student groups can catalyze innovation at their university and beyond. For example, the Stanford Alt Protein Project inspired multiple faculty who had never previously considered working on alternative protein research to submit proposals to our research grants program
  1. Doing high-impact research projects. Student research opportunities allow students to learn pertinent technical skills. Building a portfolio of alternative protein research projects is critical to building a capable talent pool for the field. Some of our Alt Protein Project student leaders have already kickstarted their own groundbreaking research. Mia Keyser from the Boulder Alt Protein Project received a fellowship for her PhD proposal on designing growth factors for cultivated meat, the university’s first-ever cultivated meat science research project.
  1. Fostering a strong research ecosystem. A robust research ecosystem entails more than individual research projects. Students can create meaningful change by working on a variety of research-related efforts, such as engaging with high-level administrators to allocate more funding for alternative protein research or encouraging faculty to add research tools, protocols, and cell lines to open-access repositories. For example, the BioSense Alt Protein Project secured a grant to bolster the scientific communication skills of alternative protein researchers in Serbia.

Communities of passionate students and researchers around the world are already working to create opportunities that answer the field’s most pressing research questions. Our Alt Protein Project groups have shown it is possible for students to initiate and contribute to groundbreaking research projects and catalyze activities, like consortia-building, at their educational institutions and in the surrounding region. The knowledge and insights gleaned from their initiatives are foundational to this guide, and these student leaders have kindly shared their tips, tricks, and resources with us. As you begin your own alternative protein research activities, we’d love for you to contribute to our culture of open sharing by adding your insights, templates, and resources back into this hub.

The importance of stimulating open-access alternative protein research

The alternative protein field is rapidly growing with new and exciting strides in research happening nearly every day. However, though the field is growing at an astonishing rate, there remain many knowledge gaps that have yet to be addressed by the scientific community. Talented researchers from around the world are eager to join this emerging field, but they are often in need of clearly articulated research funding opportunities or may be unaware of how their existing skills can be applied to these emerging technologies. Fortunately, because many universities have robust research ecosystems and are responsive to student needs and interests, students can play an essential role in igniting open-access alternative protein research at their institutions. 

This resource primarily provides guidance on closing technical research gaps for the alternative protein field. However, both the natural and social sciences are crucial knowledge domains for accelerating alternative proteins. We encourage social science researchers to review relevant sections of this guide to better understand how their subject matter expertise can support and expand the existing body of alternative protein research.  

Alternative protein companies are conducting important and valuable research, but there remains a need for open-access research that helps advance the whole frontier of alternative protein science and engineering. Important research gaps exist for all three alternative protein pillars: plant-based meat, cultivated meat, and fermentation.

Learn more about critical research priorities for alternative proteins.

  • Cultivated icon Cultivated
  • Fermentation icon Fermentation
  • Plant-based icon Plant-Based

Life Cycle Assessment for alternative seafood relative to conventional fishing and aquaculture

To date, no robust environmental assessments have been conducted to compare alternative seafood to its conventional counterparts. An open-access, quantitative analysis of the relative environmental impacts of alternative seafood will…

Read More
  • Cultivated icon Cultivated
  • Plant-based icon Plant-Based

Plant-based scaffolds to improve cultivated meat nutrition

A variety of plant-based scaffolds present the opportunity to combine the natural nutritional and structural benefits of plants with the taste and high protein of cultivated meat. Bacterial nanocellulose from…

Read More
  • Cultivated icon Cultivated
  • Plant-based icon Plant-Based

Animal-free, non-recombinant albumin and transferrin for cultivated meat

The identification of non-animal, non-recombinant proteins with similar functionality to serum albumin and transferrin will lead to major cost reductions in cell culture media development, facilitating progress toward achieving price…

Read More
  • Cultivated icon Cultivated
  • Fermentation icon Fermentation
  • Plant-based icon Plant-Based

Life Cycle Assessment for alternative seafood relative to conventional fishing and aquaculture

To date, no robust environmental assessments have been conducted to compare alternative seafood to its conventional counterparts. An open-access, quantitative analysis of the relative environmental impacts of alternative seafood will…

Read More
  • Cultivated icon Cultivated
  • Plant-based icon Plant-Based

Plant-based scaffolds to improve cultivated meat nutrition

A variety of plant-based scaffolds present the opportunity to combine the natural nutritional and structural benefits of plants with the taste and high protein of cultivated meat. Bacterial nanocellulose from…

Read More
  • Cultivated icon Cultivated
  • Plant-based icon Plant-Based

Animal-free, non-recombinant albumin and transferrin for cultivated meat

The identification of non-animal, non-recombinant proteins with similar functionality to serum albumin and transferrin will lead to major cost reductions in cell culture media development, facilitating progress toward achieving price…

Read More
  • Cultivated icon Cultivated
  • Fermentation icon Fermentation
  • Plant-based icon Plant-Based

Life Cycle Assessment for alternative seafood relative to conventional fishing and aquaculture

To date, no robust environmental assessments have been conducted to compare alternative seafood to its conventional counterparts. An open-access, quantitative analysis of the relative environmental impacts of alternative seafood will…

Read More
  • Cultivated icon Cultivated
  • Plant-based icon Plant-Based

Plant-based scaffolds to improve cultivated meat nutrition

A variety of plant-based scaffolds present the opportunity to combine the natural nutritional and structural benefits of plants with the taste and high protein of cultivated meat. Bacterial nanocellulose from…

Read More
  • Cultivated icon Cultivated
  • Plant-based icon Plant-Based

Animal-free, non-recombinant albumin and transferrin for cultivated meat

The identification of non-animal, non-recombinant proteins with similar functionality to serum albumin and transferrin will lead to major cost reductions in cell culture media development, facilitating progress toward achieving price…

Read More

The ideal alternative protein research ecosystem

Imagine a university where alternative proteins have recognition and support from high-level administrators; an abundance of research funding opportunities for students and faculty; a diversity of students building the foundation of their careers through trainings, internships, and fellowship opportunities; and interdepartmental and multidisciplinary collaborations. This ideal research ecosystem creates a diverse set of pathways across all three alternative protein pillars, offering students multiple ways to enter the alternative protein field. So, what is needed to create a robust alternative protein research ecosystem at your institution?

  • Institutional research funding allocated for alternative protein research can ensure that faculty are able to fund their labs while branching  into new research areas.
  • Interdepartmental and multidisciplinary research collaborations can foster engagement between researchers who have seemingly disparate backgrounds by uniting them under a common goal. Collaborations bring together a diversity of perspectives that can improve problem-solving for key white spaces, create novel learning opportunities, and build trust between faculty and students from distinct academic backgrounds. Cooperation across labs, centers, and institutions at a university can eventually lead to the construction of facilities directly relevant to alternative protein research, like alternative protein centers of excellence that have research and workforce training opportunities. Universities can also partner externally with academic, corporate, or government partners. Refer to step 4  in our “Other research-related activities” section below to learn more about the steps needed to build research consortia.
  • Engagement between your university’s technology transfer office and research faculty can streamline the process of translating research into commercial use, which is necessary for driving real-world impact and ensuring the long-term economic viability of the alternative protein field.

A diversity of stakeholders can also drive the research priorities at universities. Engaging with them is key for establishing an alternative protein-focused research agenda at your university. Who are the people essential to making this vision a reality? 

  • Student, postdoctoral, and faculty researchers, especially those from underrepresented demographics, can build the foundation for a diverse, equitable, and inclusive alternative protein research ecosystem. Engaging historically underrepresented groups in STEM can ensure that research projects reflect the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds critical to the success of the alternative protein community. 
  • University administrators, such as your university’s vice president or vice chancellor of research or the chair of a relevant department, can guide institutional research agendas in favor of alternative protein-centered projects. They can help your university actively prioritize, not just passively support, alternative proteins as an institutional focus. The reverberations of these interactions can create new funding opportunities, lead to the development of new research centers, and build a stronger talent pipeline from your university to the alternative protein workforce.

Universities are not closed systems, and novel research discoveries serve the world best when they’re accessible to everyone. Consider the ways you can support alternative protein research beyond your educational institution. What are some of the shared values that will create the most inclusive, resilient, and innovative alternative protein research ecosystem?

  • Open sharing of findings, tools, and protocols makes it easier for other researchers to build off the work of others and contribute to the alternative protein field in meaningful ways. Open-access resources like our cell line repository and cultivated meat research tools database are important for reducing duplicative work, and contributing to them can increase researchers’ visibility, citations, and likelihood of being approached for collaboration. 

Engagement with alternative protein field-builders can break down academic silos. Engagement with the students, educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other movement-builders across the alternative protein space through avenues like our collaborative researcher directory and GFIdeas community will help researchers step outside of their academic neighborhood and identify opportunities to plug into the broader alternative protein field.

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Ecosystem mapping exercise

Has your student group already completed our ecosystem mapping exercise? If so, refer back to it for useful information on mapping the research landscape, including relevant departments and faculty members.

Developing your strategy

Before you get started, examine how you’re uniquely positioned to stimulate open-access alternative protein research at your institution. This section is designed to help you understand the research landscape that exists at your university and identify ways that you can make the most meaningful difference. 

Mapping the research landscape

Mapping your research landscape will help you identify potential collaborators, focus your outreach efforts, and eliminate duplicative work. 

These are the key categories you should map:

  • Schools and departments related to alternative protein research. This list should include schools and departments that house key disciplines for alternative protein science. The ideal departments that indicate alternative protein expertise vary from one alternative protein pillar to another. You can learn more about these areas of expertise in our ecosystem mapping exercise
  • Centers, institutes, and facilities relevant to alternative proteins. These may include centers specifically designed for alternative protein research, but more likely their focus area will be tangential to alternative proteins, such as sustainability or business. Many universities also have core facilities with lab equipment and other critical infrastructure needed for alternative protein research, ranging from food science and molecular biology equipment to pilot-scale food processing and fermentation facilities. 
  • Existing or potential alternative protein researchers at your university. These might include faculty and postdoctoral researchers in the departments you mapped who conduct research directly relevant to alternative proteins or who work in fields that have high overlap with alternative proteins, such as food science, cell biology, and tissue engineering. This list should also include scientists who conduct research on other subjects, such as agricultural economics or environmental science, or who might be enthusiastic about conducting research relevant to the broader implications of a shift toward alternative proteins.

People outside your university who could potentially support your research programs. In addition to finding and cultivating on-campus champions, it’s important to build a support system that spans beyond your university and connects your efforts with the local community. These contacts could include alumni working in the alternative protein field or companies interested in stimulating local economies. Engaging with the wider research community can help stimulate local innovation, build broader coalitions across institutions, and spur new regional innovation hubs for alternative proteins. You can search for potential research partners or industry collaborators using our company database or collaborative researcher directory along with professional networking sites like LinkedIn.

Selecting the right kind of research initiative

The strategy you choose depends primarily on the facilities, faculty expertise, and overall enthusiasm for alternative proteins present at your university. Take these factors into account when considering the nature, scope, and scale of your research initiatives. 

Selecting the appropriate pillar of alternative protein research

Your university may be better positioned to pursue certain pillars of alternative protein research over others. For example, if your university is a well-known agricultural school, you may have more success if you try to expand research programs relevant to plant-based meat. Similarly, if your university has a robust institute for stem cell research, you may have more success if you try to expand research programs relevant to cultivated meat. Your university may also have a well-established program in food science and technology that can support successful research across all alternative protein pillars. 

Deciding between social or natural science research

Research can be broadly divided into the social and natural sciences. Both are important, but some universities may be better suited for one type of research endeavor over another. Natural science research is critical for addressing technical research gaps in the alternative protein field. Meanwhile, social science research places an emphasis on social, cultural, and economic systems. It provides an important source of insight for facilitating a resilient and just food system transition. Utilize a reputable global rankings list, such as QS World University Rankings, Times Higher Education World University Rankings, or Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, to determine whether your university is strong in any of the social or natural science disciplines.

Identifying the optimal scale for your research initiatives

Once you have a high-level awareness of faculty and administrative interest, set realistic expectations about the scope of your initiatives. While your final goal may be to build a robust and thriving university research ecosystem for alternative proteins, your starting point will differ significantly depending on your university, its faculty, and its available resources. Use the following considerations to get a better idea of how to get started.

  • Student-led research projects are a solid first step if there is little or no interest from faculty members, but plenty of excitement from students. Using the tactics and resources below, encourage students to actively pursue their own alternative protein research projects under faculty whose work is alternative-protein-adjacent. This can allow skeptical faculty to generate the preliminary data needed to justify pursuing a more significant research focus in alternative proteins. We’ve seen many faculty members, like Dr. Rachel Floreani, enter the alternative protein field in this way.
  • Faculty-led research projects are possible if there are departments, facilities, and faculty with relevant skills and expertise as well as the resources to pursue larger-scale research endeavors. Engage with these researchers by sharing how their work aligns with alternative protein whitespace needs. Aim to secure a faculty champion who can support your ecosystem-building efforts and advocate for alternative proteins at departmental and administrative levels. 

Department-wide, multidisciplinary, and interinstitutional alternative protein research projects are possible with interest from multiple faculty within or across departments, schools, and centers. Work toward collaborative projects between the alternative protein researchers that already exist and aim to generate enough momentum to start consortium-building endeavors. Examples of universities at this stage include the University of California Davis, Tufts University, and the University of Novi Sad.

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How to stimulate open-access alternative protein research

Once you’ve mapped your university landscape and developed a strategy for your initiatives, it’s time to start building an alternative protein research ecosystem at your university! The exact steps may vary, but here’s what we suggest based on success stories from our Alt Protein Project student groups.

This section provides a step-by-step guide for the different initiatives we consider core to stimulating open-access research at your institution:

  1. Getting more faculty and postdoctoral fellows involved in alternative protein research
  2. Doing high-impact alternative protein research
  3. Initiating other research ecosystem-related activities

How to get more researchers involved in alternative proteins

Inspiring faculty and postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) to start alternative protein research is a high-impact way to shift the research priorities of university departments and schools toward alternative proteins. Research faculty tend to have years of expertise in their field, manage well-resourced laboratories, and supervise multiple researchers. Consequently, the impact of faculty devoting a fraction of their time and resources to novel research ventures can be quite high. Postdocs are also great candidates for this outreach because they have a solid foundation of technical skills and may have greater flexibility in terms of their research direction. 

There are several ways for students to persuade faculty and postdocs, who may otherwise remain in their own academic silos, to dive into alternative proteins.

Step 1: Identify research areas that align with your university’s strengths

To find the right research areas, you’ll first want to explore what has already been done. Familiarize yourself with already-published research, current projects, and key whitespaces that exist for the alternative protein field. 

Take all of this information and translate it into your university context. Use the insights from your ecosystem mapping exercise to narrow down the research areas best suited for your institution. Avoid diving into the microscopic details of topics at this point. You’ll want to have a bird’s eye view of the alternative protein research landscape to see what could align with your university’s academic priorities.

For a more detailed walkthrough on how to identify high-impact research topics that are pertinent to your university, refer to step 1 and step 2 of the “How to do high-impact alternative protein research” section below.

Step 2: Find useful funding opportunities for faculty and postdoc research projects

Once you’ve narrowed down whitespace questions and areas that are most suitable for faculty at your university, look for funding opportunities to power that research. 

There are a few funding opportunities specifically intended for alternative protein research, including our Research Grant Program.  However, most funding opportunities are related to, but not directly centered around, alternative proteins. Look for grants with a broad focus that also encompass alternative proteins, starting with our research funding database. This tool helps  compile external funding opportunities that have potential relevance to alternative protein research.

Refer to step 3 of the “How to do high-impact alternative protein research” guide below to learn more about considerations for sharing grant opportunities with faculty.

Step 3: Contact research and faculty postdocs

After completing the ecosystem mapping exercise, you should have a list of faculty and postdocs who could potentially start alternative protein research. Reach out to each potential researcher via email. Make sure every email is personalized with a clear ask that specifies why their research expertise aligns well with the research topics and grant opportunities you’ve already narrowed down. Here’s an email template adapted from the Stanford Alt Protein Project that you may change accordingly and send to prospective researchers.

Remember: Don’t be discouraged if you don’t receive a response right away; faculty and postdocs are extremely busy! Send a follow-up email after one week, or follow up in person when possible.

In the meantime, consider reaching out to the department chair or a high-level administrator to make the case for why alternative protein research will benefit their department. Gaining support from administration and leadership can kickstart new research projects or expand those that already exist. And, because these administrators have a broader view of the university ecosystem, they may be able to connect you to researchers who have already signaled an interest in alternative proteins. Refer to step 2 of the “Initiating other high-impact research activities” section below to learn more.

Step 4: Prepare for your first meeting

Once you’ve received a response from the faculty, postdoc, or department chair, it’s time to arrange a meeting and assemble a team of students, faculty, administrators, or others who can make meaningful contributions to your conversation. Think about how you’ll organize the meeting and delineate roles accordingly. Your primary goal is to help the researcher navigate available resources, like funding opportunities and whitespace opportunities. You should not feel responsible for finding the exact research question or creating a detailed research timeline on behalf of the researcher you’re meeting with. After all, for many researchers, identifying the right research question is half the fun. 

The resources you choose to share during this meeting will be different depending on who you’re reaching out to. In some cases, the faculty or postdoc will show excitement about starting a new research project and it may be most helpful for you to bring a few funding opportunities. If they would like to stay plugged-in to alternative protein news and join a community of other scientists, you can encourage them to join the collaborative researcher directory and GFIdeas community. Sometimes, they may need some convincing about the viability or importance of alternative proteins and it will be useful to bring insights from our state of the industry reports or advancing solutions for alternative proteins database

End your meeting by outlining the path forward. If things go well, have a discussion about administrative needs for starting their research project. Don’t forget to follow up and maintain communication with the researcher. If the outcome was a no or maybe, reflect on the conversation and make note of what went well and what didn’t. Retain your meeting notes in a clearly organized fashion so your team has a record and can strategize to build longer-term relationships without needing to circle back too often. Continue to maintain a cordial relationship. You never know, they may even become an alternative protein research champion one day! 

Contact us if you would like one of our team members to join your meeting or provide additional support during the planning process.

Step 5: Help faculty craft strong research proposals

If you’re successful in convincing researchers to apply for alternative protein research funding, take a moment to celebrate—this alone is a hugely exciting milestone! Crafting a strong research proposal takes immense time and energy, and researchers who devote time to creating new proposals—successful or otherwise—are far more likely to stay tuned-in to future funding opportunities. 

Once the faculty member you’re working with has selected a suitable funding opportunity, they can begin the process of writing a grant proposal. Most academic researchers are well-versed in the grant writing process. However, it may still be helpful to refer to step 5 of the “How to do high-impact alternative protein research” section below and share those considerations as they begin the grant-writing process.

Many grant programs only fund ~10-15% of applications. While most applicants don’t receive funding on their first application, an initial rejection does not equate to a poorly written grant. If it would be helpful to have our team provide feedback or letters of support to your faculty member during the grant-writing process, please loop us in!

Step 6: Encourage faculty to support the alternative protein community

Whether or not the researcher you contact is able to secure a research grant and formally start research, you can still encourage them to engage with the broader scientific community and, in doing so, accelerate progress for alternative proteins on a global scale. Some key ways to engage with the community include:

  • Joining a diverse network of alternative protein scientists like the GFIdeas community, a directory full of entrepreneurs, scientists, students, and subject matter experts who are also driving alternative protein innovation through collaboration, insight, and investment. Such communities can connect researchers to funding opportunities, research advancements, industry partners, useful seminar series like The Science of Alternative Protein seminar series, and more. 
  • Sharing news of a successfully funded project with the rest of the alternative protein community through resources like our research grants tracker. When a researcher shares their funding success with the broader community, others can better understand what type of research is being funded and by whom, which can inform their own proposals and increase their odds of success. This also gives the newly minted alternative protein researcher greater visibility so that prospective collaborators can find them.
  • Openly contributing research tools and protocols through resources like our cell line repository and cultivated meat research tools database. This lowers the barrier of entry for other alternative protein research initiatives and makes a researcher’s work more visible and widely used. Refer to step 1 of the “Initiating other high-impact research activities” section below to learn more.

Step 7: Help faculty and postdocs amplify their research

Encourage faculty researchers to share their research findings with the broader scientific community. It’s important to get the word out about their groundbreaking alternative protein research. This supports both the researcher and the university in  building a new platform as a leader in the field. Additionally, the entire alternative protein field can benefit from the knowledge they’ve generated. Consider encouraging them to speak at relevant research symposia and seminar series, like our Science of Alternative Protein seminar series, that address technical audiences and foster discourse around cutting-edge research developments. 

If faculty researchers need help identifying ways to broaden the reach of their research, look for communication channels that align well with their research area. Consider the audience they want to connect with and ensure they’re sharing research findings through reputable sources. Refer to step 7 of the “How to do high-impact alternative protein research” guide below to better understand the various ways they can showcase their alternative protein research at prestigious conferences and in reputable open-access academic journals.

Step 8: Help your faculty member translate their research into real-world impact

When your faculty researcher’s project is further along, it can be helpful to guide them toward commercializing their work. Bringing research to market is one of the greatest challenges that currently exists for the alternative protein field. Many universities are uniquely positioned to bridge this gap through technology transfer offices, incubators, accelerators, and other organizations that support entrepreneurship. Refer to step 8 of the “How to do high-impact alternative protein research” guide below to learn more about how to support your faculty member with commercializing their research. 

Gfideas alternative protein community

Science is better in good company

Together, we can break down academic silos and build interdisciplinary connections that help magnify and accelerate the impact of alternative protein research.

How to do high-impact alternative protein research

Aside from encouraging faculty to initiate alternative protein research projects, doing your own alternative protein research is one of the most important ways to begin the process of ecosystem-building at your university.

Student research projects generally have shorter timeframes, tend to require less funding, and are still able to generate excitement about the field amongst faculty. These can generate enough preliminary data to lay the foundation for more comprehensive projects and may even inspire faculty to shift their research focus to alternative proteins!

Step 1: Understand the alternative protein research landscape

In order to find the right research topic, you’ll first want to explore the research that has already been done in your areas of interest relevant to alternative proteins. 

A great first step is to conduct a literature search to familiarize yourself with the current state of alternative protein research. Studying previous research can be helpful for identifying commonalities between projects and developing a deeper understanding of how alternative protein research is evolving. To start your review process, we maintain databases with publications, patents, and theses for cultivated meat and literature on crop development, ingredient optimization, and end product formulation and manufacturing for plant-based meat.

Once you understand the type of work researchers have already published, familiarize yourself with what research is underway. Start by reviewing GFI-funded research grant projects and looking through the research grants tracker

Next, learn about the key research gaps and commercial whitespaces that have yet to be addressed. Review our state of the industry reports to see what components of the alternative protein value chain have the greatest potential for innovation. Explore our advancing solutions for alternative proteins database for examples of areas that are in need of further research. Filter for criteria most useful for you, such as the academia and research and development filters.

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Alternative protein thesis guide

Aditya Vaze, Bernard Prasetyo, and Lai Hao Yang from the Wageningen Alt Protein Project developed a thesis guide to help students identify high-impact research projects. For each production platform, the guide highlights ongoing research at their university and suggests potential supervisors to contact for new projects. This is a stellar way to help more students navigate the alternative protein research ecosystem. Let us know if you create a similar resource for your university!

Step 2: Narrow down practical research ideas

Each research gap, white space, and proposed solution permits a multitude of approaches to tackle the challenge based on bandwidth, the funding landscape, faculty expertise, or available research facilities at your university. Take these considerations into account in order to craft a feasible research project.

Student research projects are typically considerably smaller in scope than faculty projects and usually last from a few months to a few years. Keep this in mind when sorting through which research areas and solutions are possible for you to pursue.

Before digging into a topic in detail, try coming up with a very rough research plan for several topics and think about resources or constraints that might make each one more or less practical. After some consideration, you may land on a research question that’s different from what jumped out at you at first. Consider the following questions when exploring potential topics: 

  • What research has already been done within these topics? What subtopics remain unexplored? 
  • Which of these would you be most excited to dig into in practice? What technical skills are you hoping to learn from your work?
  • If you are already conducting research in a lab, does your topic line up with your research team’s expertise? If not, could you find a collaborator to fill the gaps?
  • If you’re a student applying to research labs, who would you ideally want to work with on this topic? 
  • Will you have access to the necessary equipment and supplies? Do you need to form a collaboration with another institution or a company to make this research happen? If so, what would that look like? 
  • What is your research timeline? Are you doing research full-time or on the side? Will this be a 3-month summer project or a PhD thesis? Is this a reasonable timeframe to accomplish your goals?

Reference articles with valuable tips for managing a research project from start to finish. Some examples of useful articles include: 

Seven essential tips for managing a large research project by Eva Langsoht

Step 3: Identify funding opportunities for research projects

Identify relevant funding opportunities to power your research once you’ve narrowed down the research areas and questions that are most suitable for you. 

Our research grants program powers open-access research for plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-derived meat, but there are currently very few funding opportunities like this explicitly dedicated to alternative protein research. As you broaden your search, it may not prove fruitful to search for something like “plant-based meat funding opportunities.” Instead, it may be most useful to search for grants that are broad, but could potentially encompass alternative proteins. These may be centered around sustainability, agriculture, engineering, and more. Begin by browsing through our research funding database, which compiles external funding opportunities with potential relevance to alternative protein research.

Many student funding opportunities are agnostic to the actual research topic and are more about acquiring hands-on research experience. Training, internship, and fellowship opportunities for students may be found at your university or through corporate sponsorships and organizational grants. These can help build a portfolio of technical skills that lay the foundations for a meaningful scientific career in the alternative protein field and include the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship program and Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Academic institutions may also have pools of research funding available for students. These may come in the form of research stipends, student employment programs, department-level funds, and scholarships. Check whether your university has resources regarding student grants. For example, the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has a webpage devoted to funding opportunities available to their undergraduate researchers and The University of Melbourne has a webpage with all available student scholarships

Refer to your earlier ecosystem mapping exercise to identify the schools, departments, centers, and offices that may have research funding opportunities for students. You may also find it more illuminating to chat with other student groups, administrators, educators, and researchers and ask about other funding opportunities to have on your radar. 

When selecting and applying for grants:

  • Plan ahead since the process of finding, applying to, and securing suitable funding opportunities is time-consuming. Don’t forget to check eligibility requirements and due dates before proceeding!
  • Set realistic expectations about securing funding for alternative protein research. As previously mentioned, many grant programs only fund ~10-15% of applications, and many applicants do not get funded the first time they apply. One rejection does not make your research proposal any less exciting or innovative—keep applying until you succeed! 

If your proposal is rejected, feel free to share your proposal and the reviewer’s feedback with us. Pending the bandwidth of our team, we may be able to help give feedback for your next submission. This information also helps us when we engage with funding agencies to encourage them to fund more alternative protein research; reviewer comments can indicate what reservations the review committees had about the field.

Step 4: Secure a research advisor

Identify which faculty members are most likely to take on alternative protein research projects for undergraduate and graduate students. 

Reach out to each potential faculty researcher via email and clearly outline your background, skills, and interests while showing that you’re familiar with their research. Include a clear ask. For example, are you seeking a full-time or part-time position? Will this project only last the duration of a summer or could this potentially become a PhD thesis? Here’s an email template adapted from the Stanford Alt Protein Project for initiating student research that you may change accordingly.

When sending outreach emails, don’t be discouraged if you don’t receive a response right away; professors are extremely busy! Send a follow-up email after one week, or follow up in person when possible.

Come prepared for your first meeting. Have a list of the research topics you’d like to work on with clear reasoning for why this aligns with the work this researcher is already doing. If the faculty member is unfamiliar with alternative proteins, be able to demonstrate the importance of the field and its growing prestige by highlighting some well-known universities and researchers that are involved.

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The science of plant-based meat

Learn about the science of plant-based meat. Discover resources and research on the latest technological developments and key scientific questions.

A battered and fried cultured meat, a cultured chicken cutlet, plated with sauteed greens and mashed root vegetables | image courtesy of upside foods

The science of cultivated meat

Learn about the science of cultivated meat and the challenges that must be addressed for commercial production.

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The science of fermentation

Learn about the emerging role of microbial fermentation in building the next generation of alternative protein products.

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Solutions Database

Explore startup ideas, commercial opportunities, research projects, and investment priorities throughout the alternative protein supply chain.

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Research grants

Learn about cutting-edge alternative protein research funded by GFI. Find funding opportunities for your own research.

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Research funding database

GFI’s research funding database provides curated grant opportunities for open-access alternative protein research.

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Research grants tracker

Explore and filter data on funded alternative protein research grants from around the world to discover insights.

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Collaborative Researcher Directory

Use this directory to find scientific collaborators in the alternative protein field.

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GFIdeas Community

Learn from and network with experts in alternative protein. GFIdeas is a community for entrepreneurs, scientists, students, and subject matter experts.

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Massive open online course

Enroll in GFI’s open-access online course to learn about the science of plant-based and cultivated meat.

Be prepared to navigate rejections or noncommittal responses from faculty members. If this happens, analyze the meeting and keep a record of any salient points or outcomes. Think about why things didn’t work and what you could do differently in future outreach efforts.

Step 5: Craft a strong research proposal

Congratulations on narrowing down practical research ideas, identifying relevant funding opportunities, and finding a potential advisor! You now have everything you need to begin crafting a proposal that can eventually become a full-fledged research project. Some tips for the proposal-writing process include:

  • Clearly identify what the goals of the grant are and ensure you address them. If you have multiple aims for your project, make sure they are related, but not overly dependent on one another. For example, if aim 1 fails, ensure you can still do aims 2 and 3, or that you have charted out an equally valuable alternate plan if you need to pivot during the project. Additionally, consider the broader impacts of your research proposal. Could this work train undergraduate or graduate students, result in the establishment of a new research lab, or provide insights that will directly support other researchers at your university and beyond?
  • Maintain reasonable research goals given your skills and experiences, the team you’re working with, project timeline, and budget. 
  • Thoughtfully mention risks or limitations so it’s clear you’ve acknowledged what may go wrong. Use this to demonstrate you are thinking about challenges and how to mitigate those risks rather than ignoring them. That being said, don’t make too much of your proposal about how you might fail; be sure to focus mainly on your confidence in your research plan, your ability to execute it, and the broader significance for the field and for the world if you succeed.
  • Provide the necessary background. Since much of the research directly related to alternative proteins is in its earliest stages, don’t assume the reviewers know much about your topic. 
  • Include helpful figures to communicate your ideas or project process in a digestible format. Figures can be especially helpful for describing an experimental workflow concisely. 
  • Request feedback from peers and advisors prior to submitting your application. 
  • Make note of the university proposal submission process since most universities have a process for submitting proposals that requires sign-off by university officials. This sometimes means the proposal must be completed and submitted to the university two weeks or more before the actual due date of the proposal. Talk with your institution’s grant administration office well in advance of the deadline to find out how early you must get everything submitted, as well as to inquire what grant-writing or editing support they may provide.
  • Reference resources that share tips and tricks for preparing a successful research proposal. Many articles address critical pitfalls that grant applicants make. We recommend Secrets to writing a winning grant by Emily Sohn. 

Best of luck submitting your proposal! If you experience a rejection, feel free to share your submission and the reviewers’ feedback with us. Remember that an initial rejection does not equate to a poorly written grant. Pending the bandwidth of our team, we may be able to give feedback for your next submission.

Step 6: Join and support the research community

Help advance alternative proteins by joining the community, sharing your funding successes, and contributing tools and protocols to our databases. Discovery and innovation move far more quickly in a culture that shares freely and promotes the cross-pollination of ideas! 

Join our GFIdeas community to stay plugged-in to the most significant happenings in the alternative protein field. Communities like this can connect you with students, researchers, educators, investors, and others who want to help the alternative protein field achieve greater success. Check the collaborative researcher directory to find other scientists in our network who may be interested in working with you and, if applicable, join the directory yourself!

Utilize and contribute to open access directories like the cell line repository and cultivated meat research tools database. Share your own resources to such directories to help others who are doing similar work. View the alternative protein research grants tracker to see who has received funding and for what. Share your own funding success there so that the community gets a clearer picture of the alternative protein funding landscape.

Step 7: Amplify your research

Once you’ve secured a grant and started an alternative protein research project, you can multiply your impact by showing other researchers the ropes. Sharing your process, useful resources, and your success story can be immensely beneficial for any individuals navigating this process for the first time.

Find opportunities to showcase your successful grant award within your institution ecosystem through communication channels like university newspapers, department newsletters, student-led journals, and social media platforms. Look into sharing your work at student research conferences, poster sessions, seminars, and in prestigious academic journals or in informal settings like brown bag lunches and department meetings. Use these avenues to share your processes and successes with other students. You’re in a unique position to inspire, mentor, and support those who are also hoping to do their own alternative protein research!

Publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals

Publishing your work in reputable sources will validate your research approach and results, communicate valuable findings to a broader scientific audience, and establish you, your research adviser, and your university as leaders in the alternative protein field. Selecting the right journal to publish in is critical and there are multiple questions and considerations to have during this decision-making process.

  • What types of researchers do you hope will read your work? If you are addressing a particular problem in the alternative protein field, who is best positioned to utilize your findings and build off your work? Are they tissue engineers, environmental scientists, or food scientists? It’s important to note the world of alternative protein research is relatively small right now so active and engaged researchers in this field will likely see your publication regardless of which journal it’s in. Consequently, think about who else you want to see your work. The journal’s website will give you an idea of who their target audience is. 
  • Is the journal open-access? One of the most significant barriers to progress in the alternative protein field is the dearth of open-access resources, including scientific literature. Open-access research is disseminated more rapidly and to broader audiences—like researchers outside of your field, students, policymakers, and journalists—because it doesn’t have a paywall barrier. There are many reputable open-access journals with a rigorous peer-review process and equivalent prestige to journals with paywalls. 
  • What is the reputation of the journal? Journal reputation and quality are measured by a variety of metrics. Impact factor can be useful when comparing the influence of journals within the same field, but be wary of the limitations of using impact factors as the only selection criteria. Assess the quality of recent articles the journal has published. 

Some journals have already published multiple original technical research papers on a variety of alternative protein related topics. We’ve listed a few below:

On consumer acceptance, environmental impacts, and the socioeconomics of alternative proteins: Food Quality and Preference, PLoS One, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, British Food Journal, Animals, and Appetite.

Step 8: Translate your research into real-world impact

When your project is further along, begin thinking about its readiness for commercial applications. Commercializing alternative protein research by bringing products or services to the market will bridge the valley of death that exists between laboratory research and commercialization. 

A university technology transfer office can provide everything you need to cross this valley and explore commercial interest in your technology. Your university may house incubators and accelerators to help raise capital, launch new products, and start companies. These programs often have experienced alumni and faculty mentors who can help your faculty improve concept; share perspective on the startup and fundraising process; and provide feedback on strategy, products, pricing, sales, intellectual property, and other topics related to entrepreneurship. 

If you’re interested in launching a startup, refer to the university spinouts guide for resources on what to expect when launching a company from within the university. We also provide a variety of resources for entrepreneurs to help you navigate the commercial landscape for alternative proteins. 

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Resource

Research funding database

GFI’s research funding database provides curated grant opportunities for open-access alternative protein research.

Initiating other high-impact research activities

There are plenty of ways to nudge researchers, educators, and administrators at your university to support alternative protein research. Here are some of the most significant actions you can take, aside from directly starting research projects.

Encourage faculty to contribute to open-access repositories and databases

The success of the alternative protein field is contingent on open-access research and easily accessible information and resources. Cell lines, research tools, and laboratory protocols are among the most crucial open-access resources for the alternative protein research community. When approaching a faculty member, make the case that depositing cell lines or other research tools and data will make a meaningful contribution to the scientific community and the research faculty’s career. 

Cell line repositories like our own are important for cultivated meat research. Access to appropriate cell lines is a significant barrier to research progress. Convincing a faculty researcher to dig an old cell line out of the back of the freezer and deposit it in a public repository can contribute to the field in a big way! The most useful cell lines come from agriculturally-relevant species that are commonly consumed. There are a variety of priority cell types, including embryonic stem cells (ESCs), induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), fibro adipogenic progenitors (FAPs), myosatellite cells, fibroblasts, and others. See which cell lines already exist or are “in the works” to determine the areas of greatest need.

Research tools and protocols can be added to our cultivated meat research tools database to ensure consistency across research projects and make the lives of researchers significantly easier by sharing validated protocols, knowledge about what reagents work with a given species, and validated protocols. If your faculty has developed or is aware of a useful tool or protocol for alternative protein research, encourage them to share it.

You can also offer to help with the logistics! For example, if they have a relevant cell line frozen away that they are willing to add to a repository, offer to take care of the paperwork and ship it to the repository once a lab member is able to propagate the cells. Faculty researchers are busy and may sometimes say “no” due to lack of bandwidth. A helping hand can make a world of difference.

These sorts of contributions can benefit the faculty member and their associated research laboratory. Sharing cell lines, tools, and protocols can increase a researcher’s prominence in the academic community, earn them more citations on their papers, and serve as a potential revenue stream for the lab.

Meet with university administrators to make the case for alternative protein research

Support from the highest-levels of your university can guide the research priorities of departments, schools, and institutes towards alternative proteins. Conversations with administrators about why your university should become an alternative protein leader are important for supporting students and faculty interested in advancing alternative proteins as a field of scientific inquiry. 

University administrators may hold office hours or other forums for direct conversation with students. The Brown Alt Protein Project utilized such an opportunity to discuss alternative protein initiatives with their university president. In other cases, it may be useful to follow the email outreach recommendations in step 3 of the “How to get more faculty and postdoctoral researchers involved in alternative protein research” guide. Share your background, the goals of your student group, and include a clear ask in your email.

When meeting with administrators, share insights about:

  • Who you are and, if applicable, what student group you’re associated with.
  • What the goals of your student group are
  • The social, economic, environmental, and scientific cases for alternative proteins
  • Why your university is well-positioned to focus on alternative proteins
  • What your university can do in the short and long-term to build a robust alternative protein research ecosystem

For more information on how to frame a discussion with university administration, refer to this five-year vision document and outreach presentation created by the Chapel Hill Alt Protein Project.

Improve alternative protein representation at prestigious conferences and relevant workshops

A robust alternative protein research landscape requires significant community-building. Relevant research conferences, academic societies, and workshops can help students and faculty connect with each other and expand their professional network. 

Refer back to your ecosystem mapping exercise to identify existing events like conferences and workshops and communication platforms at your university that can 10x the impact of your work while significantly reducing the amount of effort required to elevate the alternative protein discourse than if you were to build these same platforms from scratch. Connect with student and faculty researchers who are doing alternative protein research and guide them toward these events and platforms. 

Attend alternative protein conferences and events if you’re interested in starting or learning more about alternative protein research. If your goal is to expand awareness about alternative proteins at key conferences, select ones that are prestigious and do not focus explicitly on alternative proteins, such as those hosted by the International Society for Stem Cell Research and American Society for Microbiology. Other prestigious conferences include the Food Structure and Functionality Symposium, Plant Protein Science and Technology Forum, and International Conference on Food Fermentation and Functional Ingredients.  This will help the alternative protein field establish legitimacy and raise awareness among researchers in well-established scientific fields. 

Once you narrow down the conferences and workshops where you’d like to have alternative protein representation, consider the ways you can guide discourse at these events. For example, students can steer the content of conferences by submitting abstracts or session proposals. You can organize trips for students and others to attend these conferences, and create a list of thoughtful questions that these attendees can ask the presenters about alternative protein-related applications of their work. This may slightly nudge researchers working in relevant spaces toward exploring opportunities in alternative proteins. You can also host conferences and events of your own.

If you or another researcher are preparing to submit an alternative protein publication, help them select the right academic journal. Refer to step 7 of “How to do high-impact alternative protein research” for important considerations.

Build research consortia that convene innovators

A research consortium is a collaborative alliance that can include researchers, universities, companies, policymakers, and other innovators. Greater synergies unfold in consortia than the sum of their individual members’ capabilities and may result in more significant research outcomes, larger-scale collaborations across disciplines, and a smoother pathway from lab to fork. Finding groups of faculty working on complementary projects and nudging them to collaborate with one another could push consortia building efforts forward. With enough support, you can secure grant opportunities to build alternative protein-focused research centers and institutions. Here are a two  examples of consortia:

  • The National Institute of Cellular Agriculture is a research institute focused on advancing cellular agriculture at Tufts, Virginia Tech, Virginia State, University of California-Davis, MIT, and the University of Massachusetts-Boston. 
  • The Plant Protein Innovation Center (PPIC) is a research center housed at the University of Minnesota in collaboration with a consortium of university and industry partners. PPIC is the first center of its kind dedicated to studying plant proteins at every stage of the value chain, from breeding and genetics, to processing, formulation, and marketing. 

The Alt Protein Project student groups are also in the process of consortium-building across institutions. The Chapel Hill Alt Protein Project has brought together policymakers, educators, and researchers from multiple universities like Duke University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and North Carolina State University, in efforts to center alternative proteins as a research priority in North Carolina.

Building research consortia is considered a more advanced research initiative that requires the presence of existing alternative protein faculty champions. Reach out to us if you’d like help facilitating discussions, identifying funding opportunities, and finding academic and industry collaborators.

How to request research support

We offer assistance to student and faculty researchers seeking to start alternative protein research projects, apply to grants, and build consortia—subject to bandwidth limitations. 

If you’re interested in reaching out for research support, please review our list of ways our science and technology team can help, including: 

  • Providing insights into whether your research question is novel and impactful
  • Identify grants that may be a good fit for your particular research question
  • Identify potential collaborators
  • Provide a letter of support
  • Review grant proposal drafts

Don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance to you and your research ecosystem-building initiatives!

Share what you learn and subscribe for updates

If you used this guide to support alternative protein research activities, we’d love to hear about it! Sharing your experiences will support others across the world who are working to catalyze alternative protein research at their institutions. You can also use this form to share tips, tricks, and additional templates created by your student group; we will add these to our hub of resources for university ecosystem-builders.

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Meet the authors

Arjun iyer

Arjun Iyer

GFI ALUM

Amy huang

Amy Huang

UNIVERSITY INNOVATION MANAGER

Amy Huang oversees GFI’s efforts to transform universities into engines for alternative protein research and education.

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Connect with us

If you would like help growing the alternative protein ecosystem at your university, please reach out to the Alt Protein Project team. You can also share student testimonials or helpful tips for our global community of alternative protein ecosystem-builders.

altproteinproject@gfi.org