Jeroen Willemsen, Innovation Lead Protein Shift: “We are rapidly approaching the tipping point in the protein transition”

Strengthening the global protein ecosystem is the aim of Jeroen Willemsen, Lead Protein Shift at Foodvalley NL. “We are rapidly approaching the moment where we can truly turn plant-based from niche into mainstream. This requires new roles for all stakeholders involved.

What makes the Protein Shift crucial in the transition to a sustainable food system?

We need to ensure future-proof protein production and consumption. Our planet currently does not have the resources to supply enough protein for the estimated 2050 population of 10 billion, should global protein consumption mirror, for example, the Netherlands. We are facing two major challenges: first, to increase consumption of plant proteins - and thereby restore the protein balance - in those parts of the world where animal proteins have become the major source of protein, such as Europe and the US. Second, to prevent an unsustainable imbalance in huge countries like India, where protein overconsumption does not (yet) exist and plant proteins currently make a major contribution to everyday diets.

To ensure a sustainable future for all our children and their children in turn, I have dedicated my career to making the protein shift happen. Over the past 20 years I experienced the protein transition in many roles. First as a researcher developing new technologies for protein fractionation and texturization. In 2009 entrepreneurship beckoned and I became the co-founder of the next-generation meat-analogue company Ojah, growing it significantly. For the past six years I have been bringing together stakeholders across the value chain, in their joint ambition to achieve innovation in plant-based proteins. I believe these different responsibilities have given me the knowledge, experience and network to further strengthen the thriving Protein Shift ecosystem.

We are rapidly approaching the tipping point in the protein transition, the moment where plant-based turns from niche into mainstream. Corporates and investors are stepping up, as they notice the demand for plant-based variations to meat, dairy and fish is growing exponentially. This demands new roles for all stakeholders involved. Think of corporates embracing and scaling-up innovative propositions, and governments supporting ecosystem-alliances. We need to anticipate these changes, otherwise we’ll miss the opportunity.“

Why is Foodvalley NL involved in the transition?

“We are in the unique position of being able to connect all the stakeholders needed to smoothly guide the protein shift to the tipping point: start-ups, corporates, knowledge providers, government and educators. We began bringing these stakeholders together four years ago when we established The Protein Cluster. That’s how we learned to match company needs to innovations and adapt them to each new stage of the protein transition, inside and outside the Netherlands. An example I am proud of is the Green Protein Accelerator (GPA) that we initiated in collaboration with Bobeldijk Food Group. The GPA is a well-known site for young companies looking to scale-up production of new plant-based propositions. From this positive experience, the Foodvalley Protein Facility Map evolved, matching parties seeking and offering facilities for testing, trials and production.”

How will Foodvalley NL contribute to this transition?

“We believe that the highest impact can be made by focusing on two themes:

  1. Closing the protein gap. Ensuring that supply keeps up with the exponentially growing demand. We want novel technologies, such as precision fermentation, to become available for users around the world as fast as possible, by facilitating development as well as technology upscaling. We inform all stakeholders of the added value of innovative solutions, share actual and accurate data, and offer startups a platform to put their message across while connecting them with potential launching customers, investors and other potential partners.
  2. Becoming protein self-sufficient. We enable the building of short value-chains for local plant-protein production and consumption, in the Netherlands and abroad. We connect innovative entrepreneurs with upstream and downstream partners that can help them achieve strong market positions. And we showcase companies that are inspiring examples for others. The Nieuwe Melkboer (winner of the Foodvalley Champion 2020 in the category Protein Shift) for example. This startup shows that it is possible to connect local soy production, processing and consumption. And Schouten Europe, nominated for the same award, will launch an innovative decentralized-protein-factory concept in India.”

Could you share some project examples to give a flavor of your work?

“In The Protein Cluster over 70 companies, start-ups and corporates from around the world, are collaborating, already delivering a range of innovative ingredients and products.

Another great example is our initiative with five Dutch provinces to collaborate beyond provincial boundaries. This has culminated in the compilation of a comprehensive National Protein Strategy, presented by Carola Schouten, Dutch minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Quality. Currently. We are planning activities that involve all stakeholders, and contribute to the ambitions in this strategy, such as connecting consumption with local plant-protein production. In late 2020, we had already begun CO-FRESH, a collaboration with Wageningen University & Research, involving twelve local fava-bean chain-partners - including KeyGene, Louis Bolk Institute, Meelunie and Ojah - connecting Dutch growers with consumers and all parties in between.”

Who do you want to attract into the ecosystem?

“We need all hands on deck to achieve our goals. What we have achieved in recent years is just a warming-up: the protein game must and will change drastically over the next ten years. We have already created a strong foundation, together with many innovative and committed game changers in the Foodvalley ecosystem. But we need more protein pioneers to achieve critical mass. Do you want to help take us to the tipping point, and dare to go beyond?”

Want to know more?

Please contact Jeroen Willemsen, jeroen.willemsen@foodvalley.nl

In this interview series, eight members of the Foodvalley NL team share their ideas, ambitions and latest milestones in the transition to a sustainable global food system. Read the previously published interviews of Edith Schippers, Chairman Foodvalley NL, Marjolein Brasz, Managing Director Foodvalley NL, Judith van der Horst, Innovation Lead Food & Health, Huiberdien Sweeris, Human Capital, Jeroen Wouters, Global Ecosystem Development and Jonathan Teoh, Entrepreneurship. More interviews to come in the next coming weeks.

About Foodvalley NL
Shaping the future of food together: building and strengthening the Foodvalley ecosystem so that we can realize the transition to a sustainable global food system. That is Foodvalley NL’s mission. In this interview series, members of the Foodvalley NL team share their ideas, ambitions and latest milestones.

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