Q&A: GEA helps customers scale up from plant-based to cell-based

GEA is one of the world’s largest suppliers of systems and components to the food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries. Its New Food division is primarily focused on the production of alternative protein foods and protein-rich components.

Heinz Jürgen Kroner, Senior Vice President BU Liquid Technologies & New Food, and Daniel Bussmann, Director Process Technology & Innovation Beverage & Dairy, will be participating in a panel discussion on CBA & Precision Fermentation at our Plant-Based Foods & Proteins Summit Europe in the Netherlands 21-23 June. They answer this Q&A in advance of their presentation.

GEA has been operating since 1881. How has the company adapted itself to a changing market, particularly in alternative proteins?

Heinz Jürgen Kroner

GEA enjoys a rich history, rooted in the founding of the metals trading company Metallgesellschaft AG (MG) in 1881. Since then, our business has greatly evolved. By adding companies with specialized competencies to the group, we have bolstered our portfolio and know-how in key sectors, from supplying processing equipment to designing and manufacturing entire plants. Today, GEA is one of the largest suppliers for food-processing technology and related industries. The global group specializes in machinery, plants, as well as process technology and components.

Since GEA strives to gain a leading role and drive our businesses, this also means that we evolve along with the development of our customers and the demands within the market served, and the technologies to constantly support and serve our customer needs. That is why GEA has already started to work in the area of plant-based proteins (i.e. protein extraction from lentils) decades ago and now can support the customer best in their needs. So the turn to alternative proteins was a natural development, as the market is developing in this direction, it was clear that we had to refocus as well.

Daniel Bussmann

Driven by changing consumer expectations, the New Food market is now gaining dynamics. For GEA, this development presents exciting growth opportunities. As a full-range supplier with all the relevant technologies, we are well-prepared to serve this demand. Based on our comprehensive expertise and proven strengths in scaling industrial applications, we aim to expand our strong position in this segment and become a market leader.

Observing the market evolving quite fast in the past years, we wanted to give the necessary attention to it with its special needs in terms of speed and also product quality, so we had founded a dedicated business unit “New Food” that deals purely with alternative proteins. For GEA, these novel foods contain more than plant-based proteins. The term New Food refer to products and ingredients based on plant, microbial and cell cultures that are made using both traditional and new processing methods, such as precision fermentation or tissue engineering. Last but not least, New Food is one of our strategic levers for attaining the Mission 26 targets that the group aims to reach by 2026.

What are the main challenges that the plant-based industry currently faces and how could those be tackled with GEA’s help?

Plant-based protein customers are actually facing the problem to scale up their processing plants. While laboratory setups alone are enough to provide experimental evidence that a particular formula or cell growth might work for a specific end product, it is only possible to evaluate those results and develop a viable concept for industrial scaling with a pilot line.

With the launch of the GEA Mobile Test Center for new food applications, GEA is offering a new way of providing proof of concept for cellular agriculture. Available for customers to rent or purchase and use in their or GEA premises, this fully equipped, pilot-scale process line for cell cultivation or fermentation can be individually configured.

With the process experience and know-how GEA has on the one hand and the 16 test centers plus the mobile test center on the other hand, we can support customers in testing a batch easily. This allows our customers to test new products or intermediates without having to rebuild their plant, namely from raw material to final product, whatever that looks like.

That’s the advantage with GEA: Given an unmatched inhouse technology portfolio and using our vast experience in processing food and beverages in each form and at the most sophisticated food safety and efficiency level GEA enables manufacturing customers to proceed with their product development and upscaling to an industrial level. We help turn our customers’ concepts into reproducible processes.

How do your production processes best benefit customers?

We are able to deliver all process steps and meld them into one defined and perfectly working process for our customers’ needs.

The customer can start with any raw material, like beans or cells, and we guide them through the process via different steps to get any intermediate or even end-product they want to have, like cultivated meat, fish or any alternative meat burger. This applies to almost all required processes in the field of new food, as we can simulate almost any production process in our test centers.

How do you see the future of the alternative-protein space?

On our journey, we will see much more alternative protein in our diet in the future, as it will drive the shift of the whole food industry towards the resource friendly, safe, affordable and ethically sourced food angle.

However, we believe that the future will be cell-based. Until then, we still have a long journey ahead of us, in which plant based and especially hybrid products will be the future for a long time.

We expect to see a lot of new base materials coming up by the customers and asked by the end consumers. That fosters our idea of supporting our customers by developing and guiding through their process set-up and designing as well as build-up phase.

What can you tell us about your panel presentation coming up at Summit Europe?

We’re excited to start a fruitful discussion with panelists and to get to know their positions during that event. It’s a knowledge journey up and foremost.

So, if we want to express ideas into technology and feasible process lines, we need to understand the market constraints and challenges even more. That is the everyday learning aspect in our job — which we enjoy so much.

You can connect with the GEA team and learn more about what they have to offer at Summit Europe 21-23 June in Ede, Netherlands.

Summit information here.

Summit program here.

Summit registration here.