While many flock to Israel for falafel and shakshuka, it is less famous for its food technology.
Yet the country, home to more than 350 agricultural and food-tech companies, punches above its weight. In 2018, annual investments in the food tech sector in Israel reached $100 million, according to a recent report by Start-Up Nation Central.
This makes it an important player in a booming market: BIS Research predicts that the global food technology market will be worth more than $250 billion by 2022.
“There’s so much going on in such a small place,” says Tamar Weiss, business development manager for Start-Up Nation Central’s food technology sector.
Weiss believes this is due to Israel’s ambition to address environmental and ethical challenges around agriculture. “People are aware of it in their personal lives, it’s really pushed the industry forward,” she adds.
In 2017, Didier Toubia created Aleph Farms, an Israeli food company that designs cultured beef — meat grown in the laboratory from cow cells.
“The goal was to restore the balance in nature and use the earth’s natural resources more wisely,” he told CNN Business.
The company has raised $14 million to date and made headlines around the world last year for developing the first no-slaughter beef steak. In October, he managed to grow meat in space for the first time.
This experiment proved that cultured meat could be a way to produce high-quality protein using fewer resources, Toubia says.
Barclays predicts that the alternative meat sector could reach around $140 billion in sales over the next decade, with companies like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are leading the charge.
Although not yet marketed, cultured meat The market is also growing, with the number of startups in the field jumping from four at the end of 2016 to more than two dozen last year, according to The Good Food Institute.
Israel’s thriving scene is partly due to its government’s Innovation Authority, which provides grants to businesses and has funded a $28 million food-tech incubator.
But it is also a matter of culture. “In Israel, there’s a lot of animal welfare awareness… I think it’s encoded in Jewish tradition,” Toubia says.
Weiss adds to this by stating that kosher culture “brings a lot of awareness around food: it’s clean, or made in a specific way, or attaches values to food.”
Yehuda Elram, CEO of Jerusalem-based start-up eggXYt, agrees that the Jewish religion values compassion for animals. “They are conscientious consumers who demand that companies respect certain rules, among which is an end to animal cruelty,” he says.
eggXYt has developed a technology capable of detecting the sex of chicks before hatching, in order to prevent the practice of culling male chicks in poultry farms where female chicks are needed for egg production.
Each year, around seven billion male chicks are killed after hatching, according to industry estimates.
Sorting the males from the females before the chicks hatch would prevent this, while helping financially: factories would no longer waste space and energy incubating male eggs, and the eggs could be reused for industry food or cosmetics.
eggXYt is one of many startups working on this problem, but is unique in its non-invasive pre-incubation method. Using CRISPR, a gene-editing tool, they insert a detectable biomarker into the laying hen’s DNA that marks the sex of the eggs without any side effects. The laid eggs are then sent through a scanner which identifies the male eggs due to their fluorescent light.
“Its accuracy rate is very high and it has no effect on the hatching of female eggs. And that leaves the industry with the seven billion unincubated male eggs as a product rather than a waste,” says Elram.
Although eggXYt did not disclose its value, the company received $4 million in grants from the Israel Innovation Authority, EU Horizon 2020 and other awards, Elram said. Its technology is currently undergoing regulatory approval.
Another major trend dominating the field of food tech in Israel is health, with companies like Amai Proteins and DouxMatok developing alternatives to sugar.
Or MyFavorEats, a Tel Aviv-based startup that has developed an algorithm that personalizes recipes online, suggesting alternatives when ingredients aren’t available or adapting them to the user’s dietary needs.
“For example, a diabetic, who must maintain a certain amount of carbohydrates per dish, or a professional athlete, who counts proteins”, specifies Orly Rapaport, CEO of the company.
The algorithm, trained on 1 million recipes, has learned to recognize the role of each ingredient and its taste and texture parameters. Although not yet on the market, the technology will be available through wellness and health apps or recipe editors.
Not only does this respond to the growing trend of veganism and vegetarianism, but also the growing prevalence of food allergies. The World Allergy Organization estimates that between 240 and 550 million people worldwide suffer from food allergies.