How patents unlock trends in the alternative protein market

The global patent landscape reveals insight into the type of innovation happening in the market and the companies and individuals leading the way. Writes Alec Griffiths from Patent Seekers

It’s safe to say that patents can be one of a company’s most valuable assets, largely because they protect innovation – and innovation has been crucial in accelerating changes in the meat industry, paving the way for the rise of plant-based alternatives. Increasing consumer awareness of health, sustainability and animal welfare issues have played their part in the revolution we’ve seen in the animal protein sector over the past few years, with plant-based protein companies having emerged with cleaner and more sustainable manufacturing processes.

The global plant-based meat market size was estimated at $3.3 billion in 2019 and is predicted to rise to nearly $14 billion in 2027 at a compound annual growth rate of 19.4%, according to data by market research firm Million Insights.

Start-ups and SMEs are attempting to take this newly established facet of the food industry by storm and cut out a share for themselves. However, with well-established and recognised companies, such as Nestlé and Mars, already embedded within the industry, these businesses have their work cut out for them.

Patents, being fundamental drivers of innovation and therefore the market, can be paramount to the success of these companies. In this fast-paced, rapidly growing facet of the food industry, patents could be the means by which a company is able to secure its share.

Patents overview

The global distribution of plant-based protein patents is illustrated in Figure 1. China is a clear leader with almost triple the number of patent filings than the US, which is the second highest. Given the stark difference in filings it would be unlikely that other territories will close the gap in the short term.

Figure 1. Global distribution of plant-based meat related patents. Click to enlarge image

There are also several other factors that may have led to China’s dominance, which is likely to continue. These factors can be split into patent and non-patent related.

In terms of patent related factors, China offers several governmental incentives for domestic filings and offers utility patents, which are a type of patent that provides a much shorter protection term and has much looser criterion for what is eligible for protection.

In terms of non-patent related factors, China suffered a significant blow to its pork production capabilities when African swine fever (ASF) wiped out approximately half of the country’s hogs between 2018-2019, with outbreaks of ASF still plaguing pig farmers throughout the country, as reported by Time magazine.

The coronavirus outbreak has also led to an increase in plant-based meat consumption, with fears of possible links between meat and viral outbreaks exacerbated. It is important to note that this map does not show EPO (European) or WO/PCT (Worldwide) patents, which could total a significant amount.

Global league of innovation

The top 20 Cooperative Patent Classifications (CPC), as shown in Figure 2, provides insight into the type of organisations filing patents.

Figure 2. Most active assignees in the top 20 Cooperative Patent Classifications. Click to enlarge image

Interestingly, although Figure 1 shows that China is leading in filings by a significant margin, there do not appear to be any Chinese based companies listed in Figure 2. This could be indicative of several underlying considerations, for example:

  • A portion of the Chinese filings could be made by foreign companies, who are looking to capitalise on what we have established is a very lucrative market.
  • A large number of Chinese filings could be attributed to small entities, including individual inventors.
  • Figure 2 shows the top assignees in relation to the top CPCs, meaning that some of the Chinese filings may not have been assigned these classifications.

Nestlé and Mars show almost exclusive activity in nearly a third of the classifications shown, of which, the group is concentrated around A23K, which is centred around non-human food. This would indicate a relatively large number of filings around Nestlé’s and Mars’ meat free pet food brands.

Several individuals are listed in Figure 2, some of which currently or have previously worked for at least one of the companies in the list. This could indicate that said company has, at least in the past, filed patents in the names of these individuals, either in place of, or concurrently with the company name. 

Technology landscape

The patent map shown in Figure 3 illustrates a set of documents clustered according to their semantic proximity where a point corresponds to a patent family. The most active nine companies shown are each represented by a different colour according to an assignee key.

The map provides a visualisation of the technology clusters prevalent within the plant-based meat industry and reveals a diverse set of interests.

Figure 3. Plant-based meat patent family map. Click to enlarge image

There are several clusters relating to specific meat types, such as beef and chicken, in addition to synthetic casings for sausages, etc. Other clusters appear to pertain to preparation, processing, packaging, and cooking technologies, as well as efforts to mimic animal meat aesthetics.

Interestingly, a large proportion of the top assignee filings appear to lie outside of the peaks, suggesting that there is significant activity from numerous other players in these clusters. This also could signal that while the top players do share some space with a multitude of potential competitors, they also have significant innovation occurring in areas where competition is little or non-existent.

There is extensive activity from most of the assignees among the cluster relating to mimicking meat appearance, which is unsurprising considering the efforts that have gone into making vegan and vegetarian products as similar to animal meat as possible.

Foshan Jucheng Biochem Tech R&D (black dots) and Guizhou Bezon Food Industry (yellow dots) are almost exclusively active in a single cluster, in which no other assignee appears to be active, wherein said cluster in centred around plant-based meat processing technology.

None of the top players appear to be active in the vegetarian chicken/poultry space and show very little activity around the vegetarian beef cluster. This data indicates either that this sector is dominated by smaller players, or that top players creating products that mimic beef and/or chicken, are not patenting the specific products themselves, more so the process. The latter point is supported by the heavy concentration of assignee patents in the ‘meat appearance’ cluster.

While there are clearly dominating entities at play within the plant-based meat space, there are still a multitude of other, smaller entities carving out their own niche.

Looking ahead

The patent data has uncovered some interesting findings; however, it is important to remember that the plant-based meat space still operates under the larger umbrella that is the food industry.

Certain caveats must be acknowledged before drawing conclusions from the patent data. Firstly, a specific criterion must be met in order to be patent eligible. Depending on if protection is sought after, a patent may be unobtainable. For example, a recipe cannot be patented in the standard format.

Secondly, a significant amount of prior art already exists in the food space, creating issues around ‘obviousness’ and potentially rendering a patent unobtainable. Finally, patents are not the only form of IP protection involved, with many other forms employed in the food industry, partly due to the first and second points.

Though in its relative infancy, the burgeoning industry that is plant-based meat has made clear in-roads into the wider food trade. With countries as large a consumer market as China and the US already deep into the IP filings, and dominating players such as Nestlé attempting to curtail large swathes of the market, it could be an uphill battle for newer players in the game.

One could possibly expect a divergence to occur in terms of IP in the market, eventually, once the new technology has been established, where patents become less sought after. However, given the current ever-growing awareness of health and environmental welfare, the industry will undoubtably continue to boom, and thus, for now, the patents will continue to represent and foster the innovation so readily needed to support this growth.

About the author

Alec Griffiths
As an IP Manager for Patent Seekers, Alec Griffiths specialises in leveraging IP analytics to derive a wide range of actionable insights, helping clients identify opportunities and mitigate threats by data-supported decision making.
He has overseen a wide range of complex patent search cases for some of the world’s largest organisations, published a number of IP related articles and regularly participates in webinars sharing his insights and knowledge of patent searching.