06 Dec 2022 — As the food industry attempts to solve the modern problems of sustainable food production, leaders, manufacturers and scientists are turning toward an equally modern solution: AI. Within this field, Israel is proving to have an extremely vibrant start-up ecosystem.
Within that ecosystem are three exciting start-ups: Eggmented Reality, which is developing egg-alternatives from naturally-occuring proteins, Imagindairy, which is developing animal-free dairy proteins that have the same taste, texture, functionality, and nutritional benefits as their bovine counterparts, and Alecto AI, which uses AI to manage the food industry’s energy usage.
With capabilities vastly beyond any human endeavor, AI is poised to become an essential tool to not only streamline the F&B sector, but reshape human livelihoods by freeing up the workforce.
FoodIngredientsFirst speaks with Dr. Eyal Afergan, co-founder and CEO of Imagindairy, Jon Rathauser, CEO and co-founder of protein Eggmented Reality and Alon Mashkovich, CEO of Aletco AI, about the latest developments, ideas, and strategies in the Israeli AI space .
Breaking the cost barrier
Afergan at Imagindairy details his view of how AI technologies can secure sustainable food production, particularly for dairy-based products.
“The demand for protein is forecasted to be doubled by 2050, with the need to feed 10 billion people. The food industry must convert to more sustainable and efficient production methods to answer this need. AI-powered technologies can ensure the efficiency, quality and safety of food systems, which is much needed,” he explained.
Imagindairy develops animal-free dairy proteins, aiming to provide the same taste, texture, functionality and nutritional benefits as their bovine counterparts.
“Our core technology is based on AI models that amplify protein expression, making precision fermentation commercially viable to produce these proteins while tackling the biggest hurdle in this space: reaching cost-effectiveness,” says Afergan.
This commercial viability is the wall that has held back mass fermentation processes, although Afergan feels AI is the “force needed to break through this wall.”
He details that AI is an enabling technology that can push food production systems forward when applied wisely. Precision fermentation is a well-known process in the industry, yet AI is needed to pass the cost barrier currently present for edible proteins.
“We realized that we must solve the production cost issue to produce edible proteins in large quantities by precision fermentation. We found the solution in a lab at Tel Aviv University, where one of our co-founders, Prof. Tamir Tuller, is developing an innovative AI technology that enables high protein production by our protein-producing microorganisms. From this moment on, we had all the pieces of the puzzle,” concludes Afergan.
Imagination without limits
AI could be a pathway to a “utopian vision” of food production and how Eggmented Reality is navigating that road, Rathauser underscores. Eggmented Reality has developed a protein platform that has leveraged bioinformatics to create their first product: an egg and methylcellulose-functional alternative.
“The uniqueness of Eggmented’s technology platform is to ‘ask’ nature [utilizing bioinformatics] for the right non-genetically modified organism protein that would provide improved functionality, reduced allergenicity, increased stability to processing, and more,” he says.
Rathauser’s approach is less about solving existing problems and more about imagining a production process with no restraints, then leveraging AI to enable that vision.
“We’re having conversations with food manufacturers that force them to consider: What would you make if you didn’t have the constraints of today’s ingredients? What new product lines would you pursue, how could you tailor compositions, and who else can you reach with your product offerings?” he says.
Unlocking new livelihoods
Using AI to solve the complex challenges of our food industry may also stand to create opportunities that didn’t previously exist, Rathauser stresses.
For Eggmented Reality, such progress will hopefully beget even further improvement.
“I prefer to think of technology in food as an enabler – such as, if we can free someone from the farm who would rather spend their waking hours as an artist, or if we can make certain food products available to more people if we neutralize an allergen,” says Rathauser.
He continues to detail that if we can unlock the creative potential of chefs or bakers, it may lead to new culinary experiences and greater nutritional health, and ultimately solve the challenges of feeding more people healthy food without destroying our environment.
“Technology alone will not solve all these challenges, but it is indispensable if we wish to have the chance.”
Such a future may be far away, but Rathauser is keen to point out developments in the present.
“As technology has made it possible to analyze the entirety of an entity’s financial records instead of only sampling and spot-checking, so will we see these benefits in food safety. We can more quickly, less expensively, and comprehensively assess food for consumption and reduce the risk of contamination that used to be commonplace,” explains Rathauser.
“As in other disciplines, I don’t see this trend going backward.”
While many leaders tout the potential of AI, others warn of its dangers, such as presenting new hacking vulnerabilities.
Despite such warnings, large scale ingredient specialists such as ICL and Protera biosciences have made moves to integrate AI-based solutions fully.
Lowering energy prices
During a historic time of global inflation and supply cutbacks, Mashkovich tells us about how AI can unshackle the food industry from rising energy prices.
“The food industry is well known for its high consumption of energy. We are developing a unique technology capable of identifying the machinery connected to a single metering point without any additional hardware installed.”
He continues to argue that AI and deep learning is the only way to analyze a dynamic list of power quality parameters.
“The producer’s pricing model needs to consider electricity bills as part of the production line, as they cannot tell how much energy is consumed for the whole process. AI is crucial in the food industry to take energy consumed into account while calculating the total cost of the product.”
Rathauser summarizes the broad sentiment of AI leaders in Israel, saying that “food production encompasses many components, which will take a long time to digitize and automate – should we decide that that’s our goal as a society.”
By James Davies
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