An Interview with Dr. Phil Kerr

Dr. Kerr 's experience includes creating new ingredients with enhanced, holistic quality attributes and bringing them to global commercial status.

Dr. Phil Kerr

Chief Technology Officer, Prairie AquaTech

Phil Kerr

Dr. Phil Kerr chaired two sessions, one on human experiences with plant proteins and one on emerging technologies for plant protein quality-based supply chains focused on US soy.

View human experiences with plant proteins session

View emerging technologies for US soy session

About Dr. Phil Kerr

Dr. Phil Kerr is Chief Technology Officer of Prairie AquaTech. Prairie AquaTech discovers, develops and commercializes protein-based, value-added solutions for global aquaculture. Prior to joining Prairie AquaTech in July 2019, Phil was the Senior Director of Grain and Food Science Research and Development of Indigo Agriculture. Phil has also served in multiple leadership roles with DuPont Agricultural Products, Solae LLC and DuPont Nutrition and Health. His experience ranges from creating new ingredients with enhanced, holistic quality attributes to the formation and management of strategic private / public relationships that brought them to global commercial status. Phil serves as the Vice President of the Protein Highway Initiative, a network for facilitating cross-border collaboration for plant protein-based innovation and commercialization from the US Midwest/Great Plains and the Canadian Prairies. He is an active member of the IFT and the AOCS, where he also serves as the Vice President of its Governing Board’s Executive Committee.

Why did you decide to get involved with the Plant Protein Science and Technology Forum?

I have a long history of working in this industry, so getting involved in the Forum felt like a natural progression. Following the inaugural meeting last fall in Toronto, where the emphasis was exclusively about proteins from pulse crops, we expanded this Forum’s scope to include plant proteins more broadly. The goal is to help industry experts better provide nutritious, sustainable, economically affordable solutions for livestock, companion animal and human applications. Getting involved with the Forum gave me an opportunity to help advance and share the science and technology of plant proteins with those new to the industry as well as those working in adjacent areas. I also decided to get involved to give back to the plant protein community and to learn from my peers too, because this is a very active area for science and technology.

How does your work intersect with the session, you are chairing?

At Prairie AquaTech, a startup company out of South Dakota, US, we are working very diligently to establish “field of family” supply chains that can bring better solutions for multiple participants in those supply chains. Specifically, we take raw plant materials and use proprietary fermentation technology to both enhance protein quality and nutrient digestibility, while significantly reducing the negative environmental impact of terrestrial or aquatic animal production. This work poses a very interesting technical challenge of how to optimize these plant materials, while making compelling, affordable products and solutions.

The company’s origins lay in the fact that we realized that there were several very exciting innovations with soybeans, probably the single largest protein crop in the world, taking place right here in the United States. By putting together expertise that ranges from soybean genetics to its merchandising to manufacturing and refining, we’ve found that, along with our collaborators and customers, we help optimize delivering soybean-based solutions to our customers and consumers they serve.

I joined the company as Chief Technology Officer not long before the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a huge impact on us as a company and the global food supply system. For example, about 80% of the fish consumed in the United States happens in restaurants, not in homes. So, with the way the restaurant industry has been impacted, domestically and abroad, you can imagine ultimately it had an impact that extends all the way back to the most basic types of fish and crustacean production. In spite of that, we've been able to make steady commercial progress and while we are still a startup company going through the difficult challenges that every young company has to go through, we are quite excited – we have a commercial-scale facility and are now providing materials, and the solutions they enable, all over the world. We are getting good customer feedback about what our microbial enhancement platform can do for soy protein and other plant proteins. The opportunities to innovate across the entire supply chain is both compelling and timely; it is one where we can play a valuable and critical role. It is this work and the need for innovation that makes me so interested in the particular session that I'm hosting at this year’s Plant Protein Forum.

Have you attended a Plant Protein Science and Technology Forum before? If so, what have you enjoyed about previous forums? If this is your first forum, what are you most looking forward to?

Well, the location for the inaugural forum was outstanding. Toronto is a very interesting city, even at the time of year that we were there. Not only did I have the chance to visit with people coming in from all over the world, but I also had the opportunity to establish and enhance collaborative relationships with a number of colleagues who work in the Canadian plant protein industry. Being in Toronto gave me the opportunity for the first time in my life to go to the Hockey Hall of Fame; it just so happens that was the year that the team from my hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, was highly competitive and winning its first Stanley Cup. So, we got to see all that alongside some great presentations about the science and technology of plant proteins!

For this year, without a physical location serving as the backdrop of the meeting, the content is really the driving force and we're really excited about the roster of topics that will be presented and discussed. As I mentioned, two of the sessions will focus on different types of supply chain innovation that is happening both in the United States and globally. Our Canadian colleagues are doing some remarkable things to bring innovation to the plant protein landscape and there’s an emerging story from within the US soybean industry that is equally compelling.

Plant protein nutrition is important across the spectrum from livestock to pets to humans. To help with delivering the value of plant proteins, appealing to all those segments, we have a number of topics that will round out the roster for this year's online Forum. Included in the lineup of technical sessions will be presentations on how proteins are processed, how they are utilized in a number of food applications, and how protein quality is determined and communicated, especially to consumers. We also have a session on the sensory science of plant proteins, including how product developers and commercial product retailers both design and optimize plant protein offerings for humans and companion animals. There will even be a presentation on the utilization of protein-based materials in cosmetic and personal care applications.

One of the reasons why plant proteins are so important, not just today, but going forward is their profound effect on the ability to make delicious, nutritious offerings as environmentally and economically sustainable as possible. So, we have a great session on the sustainability aspects of plant proteins. So, when you look broadly across the topics in the Forum, we are covering every step in the plant protein value chain, from the time the crops go into the ground, all the way to the point where they're consumed by families, pets or livestock.

This Forum is a great opportunity for those interested in the space but may not have been working in the industry for long. In addition, those who are seasoned veterans of the industry will be able to use the Forum as an opportunity to stay current in this rapidly developing global industry and get a holistic view of the depth and breadth of this growing industry.

If you had one piece of advice for speakers submitting their abstract for review, what would it be?

Well, it would be two things, not one! First is to realize the intent of their presentation is to bring deep, scientific rigor to the topic that is of immediate interest to you. We always look for those who are paving the way and diving deeper and deeper into our fundamental understanding of a particular aspect of plant proteins and their applications.

My second piece of advice to consider how technologies can work together “laterally” to build useful systems and superior solutions to the global industry and the consumers we serve. In planning a forum, our challenge is finding talks that bring together the emerging facets of technology, whether it is processing technology or fundamental protein science or interactions of proteins in applications from a sensory science standpoint. So, in your presentations, drive the depth of your knowledge as deep and as appropriate as possible, but never forget that no technology exists in isolation. As a result, present ways in which technologies can work together, in new systems across adjacent aspects of the landscape. In doing so, speakers’ presentations will make for compelling sessions and the overall Forum for the global audience.

What is one unexpected fact most people who know you would never guess?

We have all been spending way too much time indoors, and at the risk of public embarrassment, I have become very invested in a video game I received as a present from my oldest son. I have always enjoyed history and this game is loosely based on things that happened back in medieval times. I hate to say this, but I have spent way too much time playing this game as a source of stress relief, but also a way to experience new things in nontraditional ways. So, that's one of the things I enjoy that is probably unique to the time of COVID. But actually, it has helped quite a bit in navigating through the frustration and the issues that we are facing during the pandemic, individually and collectively.

Another thing I really enjoy is woodworking and other do-it-yourself activities. The time I have had during COVID has given me a chance to do a lot of things that were always on the to-do list but I could never find time the time for. That has been a little more positive outlet of my energy, but I can't deny that I have more than enjoyed my time wandering around ancient lands in search of interesting things and solving problems, as a purely diversionary effort in this challenging time.