Cultured Meat and Future Food is a short-form podcast series discussing the role of plant based food, cultivated meat and food technology. The show is focused on asking industry leaders questions for an audience with a non-scientific background. Cultured Meat and Future Food is targeted towards entrepreneurs interested in the food technology space.

Caroline Kolta of XPRIZE podcast graphic

Caroline Kolta of XPRIZE

This episode is part of the Transforming The Future of Proteins series.

XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion is a multi-year, $15M competition that incentivizes teams to produce chicken breast or fish filet alternatives that replicate or outperform these conventional proteins in the following ways: access, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, nutrition, as well as taste and texture.

Caroline Kolta is the Program Director on XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion, where she oversees the technical and day to day operations of the competition including project management, knowledge management, stakeholder management, and risk management.

Prior to this, she worked on an array of projects including supporting XPRIZE Foundation’s research on circular and resilient food systems, in addition to designing competitions for alternative protein, circular water economy, sustainable food packaging, and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Caroline comes to XPRIZE with 7 years of experience in the international development, governance, and election monitoring sectors in the Middle East and North Africa region as a project manager, researcher, and policy advisor. Her professional career is geared towards advancing human rights and freedoms, civic engagement, and empowering marginalized populations.

She holds an MA in Sustainable International Development, with a focus on Conflict Resolution and Coexistence from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and a Bachelor of Political Science from Cairo University. 

Learn more about the XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion Challenge at ⁠⁠

Alex Shirazi (00:04):

Thanks for joining us on the Future Food Show. This episode is part of the Transforming the Future of Protein Series where we explore the work of XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion, a global incentivized competition that challenges innovators to reinvent alternative proteins. On this episode, we’re excited to have Caroline Kolta, director of the XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion global competition. Caroline oversees the technical and day-to-day operations of the competition, including project, knowledge, stakeholder and risk management. Prior to this, she worked on an array of projects, including supporting XPRIZE Foundation’s research on circular and resilient food systems, in addition to designing competitions for alternative protein, circular water economy, sustainable food packaging, and Alzheimer’s disease. Caroline comes to XPRIZE with seven years of experience in the international development, governance and election monitoring sectors in the Middle East and North Africa region. As project manager, researcher and policy advisor, her professional career is geared towards advancing human rights and freedoms, civic engagement and empowering marginalized populations. She holds an MA in sustainable international development with a focus on conflict resolution coexistence from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, and a Bachelor of Political Science from Cairo University. Caroline, I would like to welcome you to the Future Food Show.

Caroline Kolta (01:30):

Hi Alex. Thank you for having me.

Alex Shirazi (01:33):

Caroline, I’m really excited about, you know, talking about XPRIZE, jumping into the Feed The Next Billion challenge. But before we do that, tell us a little bit about your background.

Caroline Kolta (01:43):

So I come from a region of the world that is deeply impacted by big problems such as political instability, poverty, gender discrimination, and the very topic of this podcast, which is food insecurity. This environment drove me to choose a career in international development, which looks at improving the lives of individuals worldwide across several areas such as health, education, food security, as I mentioned, democracy, sustainability, and all those things that you know, better position folks to live a more equitable life and have greater opportunities in life. So what I do specifically in all of this is design and operate programs that build resilience in the face of these inevitable global challenges. I initially focused on programs geared towards democratic transition and building an infrastructure of good governance and civic participation. And I think that naturally led me to expand this focus into this global challenge of food insecurity.

Alex Shirazi (02:50):

And I guess we’ll talk about XPRIZE in just a second, but before you joined the XPRIZE team, were you working on food or more of some of the other challenges that you mentioned?

Caroline Kolta (03:00):

My work in food really started with XPRIZE. So before that it was around the areas of conflict resolution, democratic transition, as I mentioned. And XPRIZE was really the introduction to this food industry and, and issues of food security specifically.

Alex Shirazi (03:16):

Okay, cool. And so let’s talk about what XPRIZE is for those that are not familiar, maybe beyond just the, you know, Feed The Next Billion challenge, challenge and XPRIZE as a whole. Can you give us a quick overview?

Caroline Kolta (03:30):

XPRIZE is a nonprofit organization. We are based in Southern California and have been around for almost 30 years now. What we do, it’s really a global movement. We set our eyes on a positive future and then chart very specific milestones that aim to achieve that vision. It’s a very interesting paradigm shift from traditional development approaches where we’re, they’re more reactive XPRIZE I think is more proactive in how it fosters this cross-disciplinary collaboration. And where it’s very unique is it’s leveraging the power of science and competition to catalyze innovation. So it’s not a grant program and it doesn’t offer traditional international development programming, but really specializes in this competition world to catalyze innovation and accelerate this more hopeful future that we envision Over time. Over the 30 years that we’ve been active, we’ve awarded millions of dollars in awards to teams from all over the world that push these limits of what’s possible in areas of on and off planet exploration, education, and climate change. And most recently with Feed The Next Billion food security.

Alex Shirazi (04:54):

That’s exciting. And when I think about XPRIZE, of course Peter Diamandis comes to mind, but when I think about XPRIZE, I remember walking into the Google office one time being in Silicon Valley. I think there’s a lot of opportunities to kind of go to Google offices, but they had one of the original, I think, XPRIZE challenges. It was some sort of suborbital space flight challenge. They had one of the, I guess, entries hanging from the ceiling and, and that was pretty cool. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the more well known challenges and also maybe who Peter Diamandis is as a character and how involved he is with XPRIZE today?

Caroline Kolta (05:36):

Of course, Alex, what you’re mentioning is the very first XPRIZE competition that was launched when XPRIZE foundation was, was founded in 95, I believe. And at the time before this experts competition space flight was the exclusive purview of government. And this was the challenge that Peter at the time identified along with an Anusha Ansari, the Ansari family funded the XPRIZE competition at the time, and Anusha is our current CEO at XPRIZE. So it’s started this relationship and that continues to this day with, with the the foundation. But at the time before the Ansari XPRIZE there wasn’t space for private companies to get into this world of space exploration and space tourism was a dream. It was very dangerous, too expensive and not really accessible for the general public. And at the same time, it was a very much a passion for Peter to explore that space and make and democratizing the innovation in that space.

Caroline Kolta (06:46):

So the prize launched in 95, I believe, and in October, 2004, XPRIZE captured the world’s attention and became really a, a more known name for a lot of people by awarding the Ansari XPRIZE. It was a 10 million prize at the time, the largest prize in history. And the idea was to carry three people on a reliable, reusable, privately franchised manned spaceship to a hundred kilometers above the earth, above the earth’s surface, and do it twice within two weeks. So this kind of gives you an idea of how XPRIZE competitions are structured. They identify a challenge and then set the course for very specific milestones to be achieved. The other, I love talking about this prize because it also highlights how XPRIZE is very unique in testing teams on their innovations. Because unlike a grant program, we don’t award ideas, we award real life demonstrations.

Caroline Kolta (07:55):

So in this specific prize, there was a real life demonstration with you know, the two week period going back and forth in this spacecraft that went up into space and came back. And at the time Sir Richard Branson was there at the demonstration and he ended up funding and supporting acquiring one of the competing teams now becoming Virgin Galactic. So it’s, it’s an amazing story. I love talking about it and it really set the stage for XPRIZE as a competition engine. And then expanded to other areas such as climate change and education and now food.

Alex Shirazi (08:37):

Wow, that’s cool. And the whole kind of backstory of Virgin Galactic. I didn’t know that. And that’s, I guess super inspiring too, that something like this could turn into something so big and well known too.

Caroline Kolta (08:49):

Right. And that’s really one of the foundations of our work is while we do incentivize innovation by a lot of things among which the award of course that teams compete to, to achieve, we expect companies, and you’ll we’ll see this and Feed The Next Billion too. When we talk about it, we do expect teams to invest in their innovation. So while the award is there as an incentive, we’ve seen time and time again teams raising way more than they expect to win from the prize. And that’s really the one of the intentions of XPRIZE is to galvanize this innovation landscape and involve others in funding and innovating around a certain problem.

Alex Shirazi (09:34):

That’s exciting. So let’s talk about Feed The Next Billion. When did it start and what’s the format of this challenge?

Caroline Kolta (09:42):

So XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion is the first XPRIZE competition tackling this challenge of global food insecurity. And the premise when we started thinking about this problem was, of course population growth. So by 2050 there will be around 10 billion of us on this planet. And as we grow as a population, more of us will also have access to better economic opportunities more than ever before. With that, we see that demand for meat products inevitably will increase as this population grows and and becomes more wealthy. Satisfying this global demand for meat accelerates some of the challenges with meeting that demand as well, such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, straining the water supply climate change. And with that also challenges around in intensifying inhumane treatment of animals. And, and that was kind of the, the vision behind XPRIZEs. It was a very interesting challenge of how do we help meet that demand while eliminating some of these negative impacts.

Caroline Kolta (10:54):

We started designing the prize in 2019 and we launched in 2020. And I think as many of your listeners know, this was the beginning of the alternative protein movement at the time. There weren’t as many players in this space. And while there were alternative meat products on the market, specifically in plant-based meat, a lot of it was, and still to this day, like revolved around burgers, chicken nuggets and fish fingers, XPRIZE put forth this prize XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion to incentivize a shift in the industry from these types of products that don’t really appeal to a global audience, to a delicious and versatile whole cut alternative that would be capable of competing with conventional products in a much more global market. So that’s how I like to talk about XPRIZE. This is the big shift that this competition is trying to, to move the industry towards. It’s a 15 million award. So we have milestone awards along the, the timeline of the prize and the whole sum of the award is 15 million. And while winners of this competition are expected to focus on a whole cut product, they also need to meet certain criteria and improve on the nutritional components and profiles of these meat alternatives. They’re not where they, they’re not where they need to be right now. They need to also improve on the environmental footprint and cost of these products as they scale up production.

Alex Shirazi (12:41):

Interesting. And I think, you know, you mentioned, you know, that these whole cuts are so much more diverse and it does appeal to that global audience and I think that’s very important. Can you tell us about some of the semi-finalists that are there now? And, and I know that some are plant-based, some are cultured or, or cell-based or cultivated. Can you tell us just kind of maybe not all of the companies, but highlight a couple of the companies that are semi-finalists?

Caroline Kolta (13:08):

Our semi-finalists span across, as you mentioned, all of the different approaches to the solution. So we have plant-based, cell-based and some companies using fermentation approaches to, to developing this whole cut product. One thing that’s very unique about the XPRIZE competitions and, and this XPRIZE competition and the company is competing, is that they’re focused on chicken and fish only. So we’re looking for them to produce a chicken breast or a fish filet with fish. They’re not tied to a specific species. They can pick whatever species they’d like to work on and scale up production in. So, and yeah, they, they span across the different technological approaches or scientific approaches to solving the problem. I’d love to highlight a few of them, but I I also, it’s hard to answer that question cuz I, I love all of our teams and I’d like to talk about all of them.

Caroline Kolta (14:09):

And I think one thing to, to keep your listeners excited is we hope to invite the finalist teams to, to speak on your podcast and introduce themselves to all of your audiences. But at a high level, I think one thing to to mention is that we are in the phase of the competition finalizing our semi-final stage. So we’ve just finished a big milestone in testing all of our semi-finalist teams and we’ll be announcing the list list of teams very soon. And then they’ll, they’ll be coming on your podcast hopefully to talk about themselves. But at a very high level, we have companies from all over the world. What I, what I’d really like to focus on is, is the global diversity of the semi-finalists. We were so overwhelmed with how excited they were about the prize and where they were coming from every corner of the world. So we have companies from Europe and Asia competing of course North America cuz XPRIZE is very famous in the region of course based in California and we also have teams from South Africa. So really very representative of a global audience and I think that ties really well with what we’re trying to achieve, bringing these products to a global market.

Alex Shirazi (15:36):

Absolutely. And we’ll put a link to the XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion website in the show notes. And you could go and and check out, I guess semi fi semi-finalists now, but eventually you said the finalist teams will be announced. What is the timeline for I guess the competition in general?

Caroline Kolta (15:55):

We just concluded the semi-finals phase of the competition through a series of testing activities to determine the, the finalist teams. One thing to mention is XPRIZE never operates alone. We can talk about the, the stakeholders involved in, in operating the prize, but for this specifically, we have an independent judging panel that is reviewing all of the testing results as we speak and we’ll be selecting the finalist teams from that point on. We hope to announce the finalist teams in May this year. So there’ll be a big announcement and at that stage we are awarding 2.5 million to those finalist teams from the 15 million total prize. And moving forward, we are currently gearing up for a finals testing and judging milestone, which is slated for summer 2024. And at that point we would be awarding the winners of the prize.

Alex Shirazi (16:59):

Wow, okay. And do you know, is there a specific number of companies that will make it to the finalists or is it more abstract and, and really based off of the results?

Caroline Kolta (17:10):

It is based off the results and this is where the judging panel will come in to determine the number of teams advancing and yeah, who, who will receive this award at the time.

Alex Shirazi (17:22):

And you mentioned that XPRIZE works with a number of stakeholders. Can you tell us about that and how they work with XPRIZE on these challenges?

Caroline Kolta (17:30):

Most XPRIZE competitions have a very similar structure where XPRIZE designs the competition, so sets the targets and the specific milestones teams need to achieve. But we rely on three main groups in operating XPRIZE. One is the judging panel, it’s an independent panel of experts in different fields and they independently review team submissions at each stage and select which teams advance from one stage to the next and then eventually select the winning teams. Another group that we work with is an advisory board and this work, this group works directly with XPRIZE. They also comprise of different experts in the field and advise XPRIZE on different issues in operating the prize. So they point us towards which judges to work with, which partners to bring on board certain impact areas that some work may be needed to advance industry. So, and the last group in all of that is our partners.

Caroline Kolta (18:44):

Our partners span across many different things. So we have testing partners that help us operate the testing of the prize. So for example, with XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion, we’re testing teams on the nutritional profile of their product. So we would be working with labs that specialize in nutrition analysis. These can be academic or private labs. We’re working on, we’re doing a sensory analysis to identify whether these products how they differentiate from conventional chicken and fish products. So we work with sensory analysts on that testing component. We do lifecycle assessments, techno economic analyses, all of those testing components rely on partners that are experts in that field. Another type of partner is an impact and scaling partner. These partners are partners that help teams scale up production. So we work as a platform to bring these entities over to work with the teams and collaborate with them on their scale up strategies.

Caroline Kolta (20:00):

So they can be anything from ingredient suppliers to bioreactors suppliers and also investors in this space that can help teams get to the next level. And then finally we, one of our main objectives, and we can talk about this a little further, is having a lasting impact more, more generally in a in a public setting. So we work with a lot of partners on raising awareness about these alternative protein products and about our teams. And in that we work, we really try to get to a, a more global audience, especially in this case consumers that might be, as you know, on the fence with these products. They don’t understand them. It’s new food is very personal and we help tell that story through some partnerships for a larger audience to understand what we’re doing.

Alex Shirazi (20:55):

That’s great. And it seems like a very comprehensive and diverse perspectives that come to the table and help with this challenge and, and I’m sure very many other challenges for those other challenges and partners. I want to ask you about the lead sponsor of the Feed The Next Billion. Can you tell us a little bit about Aspire, who they are and how it started?

Caroline Kolta (21:17):

Aspire is an entity under the Abu Dhabi government. It’s a program management pillar of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council, or ATRC, ATRC, which is the parent company is responsible for defining Abu Dhabi’s research and development strategy and consolidating funds for efficient investment and driving policy and regulation. So that’s kind of the big pillar. And Aspire works in consultation with cross-sector industry stakeholders, universities and research institutes to frame problem statements and support the creation of solutions through something like an XPRIZE competition. And I think it goes without saying that Abu Dhabi and the UAE a part of the Middle East and North Africa region, food insecurity is a prime concern for the entire region, given just the instability and also climate change that really does affect that region very negatively. So they’ve dedicated these resources through the XPRIZE competition to support solutions that feed into this food insecurity challenge and their strategy to, to help resolve some of the issues there.

Alex Shirazi (22:54):

Again, we’ll put the links to Aspire also in the show notes along with other details. Earlier you mentioned that there was a team in the original XPRIZE from back in 1995 through 2004 that was not the finalist, but then got picked up and became, you know, Virgin Galactic. I wanted to ask you, what impacts does the Feed The Next Billion program have for some of the startups and, and companies that are there now once the program has concluded? What are some of the opportunities that are available for these companies, even if they’re not awarded as the finalists?

Caroline Kolta (23:35):

I love talking about this because a lot of the time folks hear about XPRIZE and the most obvious impact, of course is the award, right? You’re competing for a number of years and you tend, like, you expect to receive millions of dollars in, in award money. So this is an obvious thing that we, that really doesn’t need a lot of talking, we don’t need to talk about it too much. However, to your question, XPRIZE is actively working throughout the competition, any competition and after the competition to support teams in a lot of different ways and also to, to have a lasting impact on an industry. So I like to talk about this in, in certain buckets. So the first thing that teams really come to us with, you know, feedback on how we’ve supported them is fostering this innovation and collaboration across many industries.

Caroline Kolta (24:34):

We’ve received overwhelming feedback so far from our teams that we have galvanized the entire industry to innovate in this whole cut sector. And a lot of these companies were looking for a focus area. They were looking for how to like be outstanding in the field. So being in this competition sets them on a course for innovation that they might have not identified on their own. So that’s one thing. The other thing is also through this partnership work that I was talking about, we encourage innovators to rethink how to engage with stakeholders and make these engagement opportunities very easy for them. So they’re, throughout the competition, they’re introduced and exposed to adjacent sectors in how they can offer support to their industry and accelerate the solution development. So we work with teams to invite them to conferences and put them in front of stakeholders that they might have not had the opportunity to interact with. So it’s very collaborative. The environment is very collaborative, not just with competing teams and other companies or suppliers or investors, but also between competing teams themselves. I think it’s, it’s an interesting contrast. It’s a competition, but it’s also a very collaborative approach. Some of us at XPRIZE call it a cooperation sometimes because we do see teams merging and joining forces sometimes and acquiring each other’s in expertise and, and really working together to achieve the objective and, and improve this competition environment.

Caroline Kolta (26:29):

Another area of impact that XPRIZE really offers to any team is validating technology. Testing falls under XPRIZEs responsibility. So while teams provide us with some information to assess their advancement in solution development, we bring in these external partners to assess teams very objectively. And we provide teams with these testing results, these testing results then go into teams portfolios as they talk to regulators and talk to investors about their achievements. They have kind of a stamp of approval from an external party that has no interest telling very objectively the story of how this team is performing across different criteria like nutrition and structure and consumer acceptance, all those different criteria that are very important for alternative meat companies. So those are two areas I think that teams, other than achieving the, the prize objective and receiving an award, they’re involved in a over a number of years in a very collaborative, supportive environment that is objectively assessing them and giving them their results to take forward in the industry.

Alex Shirazi (27:55):

So for those investors that are listening, there’s already been a level of due diligence done by really a team of experts for those semi-finalists and finalists that are in XPRIZE. So that’s a clear benefit. I love what you said about cooperatition or <laugh>, you know, that, that word because I, I do feel like the companies that are in XPRIZE now at, in the semi-finalists, at least the ones I’m familiar with, I do feel like they are part of like you know, they’re competing, but at the same time there’s this team aspect to it as well. And, and I think that’s very unique, that’s very exciting.

Caroline Kolta (28:32):

We’re sometimes surprised by it too, because we do, you, you start the competition thinking these teams are coming in and they’re, they are at the end of the day competing for a big award. But we are constantly surprised and overwhelmed by how the competition brings them together. And some of them reach out to us and and want to speak to other teams like we, we’ve done this really well and we’d like to tell teams, other teams in the competition how we’ve went about, you know, this conversation or this collaboration. So it’s really overwhelming and it’s very rewarding as prize operators to see teams come together in that way.

Alex Shirazi (29:13):

I think maybe another thing that makes the Feed The Next Billion challenge a little bit more tight-knit is because I do know that a lot of the companies are very mission driven and we even see this outside of XPRIZE is that in the cultured meat industry, a lot of people want everyone to succeed because we are gonna need a lot of solutions to really address these global impacts. So that’s cool. I wanted to ask you for those who are listening, those who are interested in following up with XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion challenge, what’s the best way to follow the progress?

Caroline Kolta (29:51):

You can get the latest competition updates and learn how XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion is catalyzing the next proteins at, we’ll share this link of course, but on that website you can also sign up for our newsletter. We have a monthly newsletter that goes out. It talks about prize updates and also industry updates. And we sometimes through our partnership network offer discounted rates for different conferences in, in the industry. So it’s a really nice place to, to go to find out more about the prize. I do want to say for everyone listening that is involved in the industry already we’re looking for as we expand, you know, our network in planning for this finals event in 2024, we’re looking for partners and judges specifically that, you know, are, have expertise with the culinary industry, consumer testing, cost analysis, lifecycle assessment.

Caroline Kolta (30:59):

If you are involved in any of those areas, and I’m sure some of your listeners are, please reach out to me. I can also leave my email in, you know, in the links that will be provided to, to reach out directly to me. And lastly, if you’re curious about XPRIZE overall, I have a very exciting announcement. In April we will launch a new and exciting prize. It’s not about food but it’s really important, especially if you’re living in Southern California. It’s a wildfire detection and suppression XPRIZE competition. So it’s very exciting and we’ll be launching in April. So stay tuned to learn more about that in the next months.

Alex Shirazi (31:43):

Amazing. And our team is very excited to have some of the finalists on the show. Before we wrap up, I just wanted to ask you any additional insights for our listeners?

Caroline Kolta (31:53):

I think the biggest, you know, thing I have seen in this industry and I am excited about is how we talk about these products. I think the industry has really has gone through a big transition since it started in the early years in on, in getting better in how to talk about these products. I, as I mentioned earlier in, in our conversation, I come from a part of the world that is very unfamiliar with these products and I have improved how I talk about these alternative proteins by being in this industry and listening. And I, this is one area where XPRIZE is hoping to, to really create a big shift in bringing these products to a larger audience. So this is an area where like I encourage everyone in the industry to spend more time pondering this question of how do we talk about this these products in, in a way that doesn’t scare consumers away. I think this is an area that I’m interested in and, and I hope, you know, it’s, it’s something that we’ll see more development in. So I encourage you, if you’re talking to friends, go to resources. There’s a ton of resources on how to talk about these products from GFI and others that make it really consumer friendly. So this is the, I don’t know if it’s an insight, but it’s a call to action. It’s a talk about this industry with others, please <laugh>.

Alex Shirazi (33:24):

I love it. Well, Caroline, thank you so much for joining us on the Cultured Meat and Future Food Show.

Caroline Kolta (33:30):

Thank you Alex. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure

Alex Shirazi (33:33):

This is your host Alex, and we look forward to seeing you on the next episode.

This transcript has been generated by an automated system.