Cultivated meat: meat grown in space and the $50 chicken nugget

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Cultivated meat: meat grown in space and the $50 chicken nugget
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Laura Turner of Agronomics reports on the International Cultured Meat Conference in Maastricht, where industry insurgents are targeting a $7.3 trillion meat, poultry and seafood market by 2025. 

Since my last post, the cultivated meat sector has acquired a fair bit of hot press – Aleph Farms announced bovine cells grew into muscle tissue 248 miles away from natural resources in space on 26 September. This alone helps support the narrative and truth that cultivated meat requires substantially less water and energy to grow compared to raising a whole animal for slaughter in a two-year process.

The Life Cycle Analysis results from Hanna Tuomisto support this. Tuomisto concluded cultured meat requires approximately 36% less energy input and produces 53% less greenhouse gas emissions than beef. I had the pleasure of listening to Hanna’s talk on ‘sensitivity of different parameters on the environmental impacts of large-scale cultured meat production’ at the 5th International Cultured Meat Conference in Maastricht last month (debrief to follow).

Richard Branson also gave a word of support for Memphis Meat, one of the leaders in the field, based in San Francisco and working on chicken and beef so far. The British tycoon, having experienced Memphis Meats lab-grown chicken, described it as ‘a delicious dinner’. Branson invested in Memphis Meats’ $17 million Series A alongside some other big names like Bill Gates, Tyson and Cargill. There is speculation SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 also wants a bite of clean meat – for an unconfirmed $250 million.

More money has already flooded into the sector, with two companies having completed their Series A fundraising rounds last month. Future Meat Technologies raised $14 million to fund construction of a production plant to initially produce blended products of lab-grown meat and plant-based protein. Wild Type also completed their Series A round – raising the substantial sum of $12.5 million to support the development of its lab-grown fish platform. Wild Type performed a taste testing in June of its lab-grown salmon.

With this additional funding, the total money raised in the whole sector is approximately $140 million – seemingly small, especially in comparison to the total fundraising for Beyond Meat, which amounts to nearly 4x this figure at $441 million of funding. This represents an important distinction between the plant-based and cultivated meat sector: the plant-based space has had a massive head start; Beyond Meat was founded in 2009, whereas the worlds first cultivated meat company came to existence in 2013 (Mosa Meat).

By my count, there are just 31 cultivated companies in the sector to date, whereas companies that can classify themselves as producing plant-based products exceeds 300. There is a definite distinction between plant-based proteins – which are produced by a simple extrusion process of extracting the protein from a crop with water – compared to the capability of producing biologically identical meat from growing cells extracted from an animal and feeding them with a reliable source of nutrients.

Cultivated meat products are likely to be nearer to market than anticipated – 2023 is a year that keeps popping up as the year for commercial scale product launch. The location of launch and who will be responsible is yet to be determined, but demand from countries looking to increase food security could witness Oman, Saudi Arabia or Singapore be the first to have their own supply. (Note that Singapore has a goal to produce 30% of its own food by 2030.)

2023 also gives regulation enough time to complete necessary approval of novel food products. However, if cultivated meat is proven to be biologically identical on a molecular level, the pathway could be shortened. Once approved, a 2.5 mL cell sample could produce 3700kg worth of meat in just 40 days: the efficiency of exponential cell growth and a simplified supply chain.

Back to 2019 – the dwindling pork supply of China is down 45% since August 2018, when African Swine Fever – a virus that can cause death of pigs within a week after infection – first hit the country. Brazilian, European and American exports have heightened as a counter effect, but Chinese meat consumption may shift to chicken and alternative proteins in 2020 – Impossible Foods has its eye on providing plant-based pork for China, according to Bloomberg. Chicken meat production is set to increase 15% in the next year due to a jump from one meat to the next as meat demand in China increases.

I attended, the International Cultivated Meat Conference in Maastricht last month, which was held by Mosa Meat and Mark Post, the scientist responsible for the world’s first hamburger made by growing bovine cells rather than slaughtering an animal, in 2013.

The conference, more scientific focussed than commercial, provided some useful insights. There are several different components to producing cultured meat that must be considered: developing a stable cell line; media development to multiply the cells; bioreactor design for scale up; and scaffolding approaches to create dense tissue – these are probably the most important.

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The costliest, media development (the nutrient source for the cells), does not require any major technical breakthroughs to reduce the cost. Liz Specht, Senior Scientist at The Good Food Institute, conducted an analysis of culture medium costs (found here) that concluded that the two most expensive components, the growth factors TGF-β and FGF-2, which cost $80.9 million and $2.01 million a gram respectively, make up 96% of the total cost of a 20,000 L batch of Essential 8 medium, an off-the-counter media source. Insulin, also a growth factor, and a larger and more complex protein, is well-known to be expressed recombinantly from E. coli, and costs just $340 per gram – 0.0004% of the cost of TGF- β. The reason TGF-beta and FGF-2 are so expensive is because there has not been the demand to produce them on a large-scale in large quantities – but perhaps now there is.

Interestingly Thermo Fisher Scientific said it was investing $24 million in its biologics site in Scotland to boost its capabilities to manufacture cell culture media. This could be to the cultured meat sector’s benefit.

Just Inc. claims its chicken nuggets cost $50, still far too expensive for mass market, but a definite price drop. The only obstacle from this slaughter-free meat reaching our mouths is regulation.

The Good Food Institute is building its team in Europe, with managing director Richard Parr running operations, having previously been a SpAd for David Cameron. Richard also spoke at the conference. The conclusion? There needs to be action to boost public research and development funding for cultivated meat. In 2017, UK funding for R&D in general was just £2.2 billion. Public funding from the government should not necessitate a shift in government priorities, as cultivated meat already addresses priority topics including climate change, antibiotic resistance and food security.

Recognising that cultivated meat could capture the projected $7.3 trillion meat, poultry and seafood market in 2025 and that global meat demand expected to double by 2050, the opportunity for cultivated meat to excel is huge.

Meanwhile at Agronomics

Reverting back to my day job at Agronomics, we have announced three exciting additions to our portfolio since my last update. Rebellyous Foods is a plant-based chicken manufacturing company based in Seattle, founded by CEO Christie Lagally in 2017, a former engineer at Boeing who holds five patents to her name. Lagally is eager to reduce the price of plant-based protein through high-tech, automated manufacturing technology, initially targeting B2B revenues. There are nearly three times as many chicken as humans on the planet – Rebellyous is aiming to challenge the big chicken industry.

Another recent addition, VitroLabs, is using the cell culture technology as a platform to produce lab-grown leather, based in San Jose, CA. Agronomics invested $1.5 million in VitroLab’s bridge seed round. VitroLabs utilise the same technology as cultivated meat but are targeting the $400 billion leather goods market instead. With regulatory pathways much more simplistic for non-consumable products, first goods are likely to be produced before 2023.

Shiok Meats, which Agronomics announced an investment in last week, performed its second taste testing of its ‘siew mai’ dumplings earlier this month in Singapore. Shiok Meats is developing cultured shrimp, aiming to supply shrimp to the masses, a seafood most popular in China and the USA. Shrimp demand is estimated to have doubled between 2005 and 2015 in China. Due to China’s own production being curbed by strict regulation and the occurrence of Early Mortality Syndrome that destroyed shrimp supplies between 2009-2012, China has become especially reliant on imports, mainly from Ecuador. As with the depletion of pig supplies in China, reliance on imports is becoming a common theme – Chinese consumers want higher quality, more sustainable products. Cultivated meat could be one solution.

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