BOSTON — Cultivated meat has come a long way in the past decade, but significant challenges remain as the industry carves a path toward large scale commercialization, according to experts who spoke at Tufts University’s first Cellular Agriculture Innovation Day.
Mark Post, chief science officer at Mosa Meat, is credited with creating the first hamburger patty made from tissue grown outside of an animal in 2013. The widely publicized prototype cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and took several years to produce.
Now, cultivated meat is sold in Singapore in the form of chicken products produced by Eat Just Inc. Upside Foods in November 2022 received the industry’s first “No Questions” letter from the US Food and Drug Administration, indicating the agency accepts the company’s conclusion that its cultured chicken is safe to consume.
Held in late January, the Cellular Agriculture Innovation Day saw more than 100 researchers, business leaders, investors and other stakeholders gather in Boston to discuss the state of the industry.
“We’re all here today because we see that cellular agriculture is an important core platform for creating a more just and sustainable food system,” said Anthony P. Monaco, president of Tufts University. “We understand the urgency for sustainably created food that meets the nutrition and safety needs of the world’s growing population as it faces increasingly limited access to land, water, energy and other resources.”
Cellular agriculture’s potential to reduce the environmental impact of meat production and improve food security has spurred a decade of momentum. More than 150 companies have entered the space since 2013. Investors have poured more than $1 billion into the industry. An influx of academic funding has enabled advancements in areas spanning sourcing and scalability to taste and nutrition.
“Ten years ago, you could count the number of people dedicated to cellular agriculture on one or two hands,” said Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit supporting research into cultured animal products. “To see 150 companies pop up, to see so much private investment pop up and to see more people in the academic space pop up, it feels like, ‘Okay, the party has started.’”
Improving quality, cutting costs
The event highlighted a variety of challenges facing the nascent industry. At the top of the list are product quality, cost and scalability.
Pathways to enhancing product quality include ensuring cultivated meat products are nutritionally equivalent to their conventional counterparts. Researchers also are working to identify the genetic features that indicate which cells create the best-tasting products. Differentiating between muscle tissues and fat tissues is another area of focus.
“I’m a big proponent of improving the differentiation of the tissues, both the muscle tissues and the fat tissues and maybe eventually fibrous tissues,” said Uma Valeti, founder and chief executive officer of Berkeley, Calif.-based Upside Foods. “That is still in its infancy. A lot of us come from the medical tissue engineering field, so we know how hard it is to get a tissue that looks and feels — and in our case tastes — exactly the same.”
Culture media, the nutrient-dense material that helps cells grow, remains a primary cost driver. The industry has chipped away at the cost of some key elements of culture media, including growth factors, said David Block, chair of the Cultivated Meat Consortium at the University of California Davis. He predicted the next wave of research will tackle costs associated with other components, such as amino acids and vitamins.
“To be cost effective, the scale of production fermenters is going to have to be on the order of a couple 100,000 liters,” Mr. Block said. “When you get to that point … something like two-thirds of the cost of the product is going to be the cost of the media … and something like two-thirds of the cost of the media is actually amino acids and not the growth factors. So, getting to much less expensive ingredients is going to be really important.”
Hardware and infrastructure
With cultivated meat makers setting their sights on commercial scale production facilities, the industry is entering a period of “semi-industrialization,” said Mr. Post.
“There was a lot of skepticism about whether this would ever happen at scale,” he said. “We’re on the verge of getting regulatory approval in a couple of geographies, some already have regulatory approval, and factories are being built. It will take a long time before it becomes a substantial part of the market, where eventually we can make an impact on the environment, which is the root of all of this.”
A key challenge is the availability of bioreactors. The industry doesn’t just need more of them. It needs bioreactors that are larger, cheaper and designed specifically for cultured meat, said Natalie Rubio, head of process science at Ark Biotech. The Boston-based startup creates industrial scale bioreactors and operating systems for the cultivated meat industry.
“If we add up all of the bioreactor capacity that exists worldwide … and if we started using all of them to make cultured meat … it wouldn’t be enough to feed 1% of the United States population,” Ms. Rubio said.
Speakers agreed that the costs and challenges associated with infrastructure and hardware will make collaboration increasingly important going forward. As an example, they pointed to shared facilities like The Cultured Food Innovation Hub in Switzerland. The facility was designed as a space where startups can access shared equipment and accelerate product development and innovation at a lower cost.
Speakers throughout the event stressed the importance of funding for academic research and consumer-facing companies. Investors also are turning their attention toward businesses developing enabling technologies that will support the industry as a whole.
From an investor’s perspective, another company focusing on cultivated meat “is no longer interesting,” said Amir Zaidman, chief business officer at The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, an Israel-based venture capital firm and food technology incubator.
“What we’re looking at right now is the next generation of companies that will create the tools that will bring those companies to where they need to be,” he said.
Private capital alone can’t propel cellular agriculture to its full potential. Public funding has accelerated from “almost zero to hundreds of millions of dollars” in recent years, but ongoing support will be critical going forward, said Bruce Friedrich, founder and president of the Good Food Institute.
He envisioned a future where government support for cellular agriculture matches the level of investment in renewable energy and electric vehicles.
“This is the one solution that recognizes that more (animal) products are going to be consumed, just like the success of renewable energy recognizes that more energy will be consumed and the success of electric vehicles recognizes that more cars will be sold,” Mr. Friedrich said. “We need to figure out how to bring prices down and we need to figure out how to scale up these technologies, and that’s going to be a function of governments helping us build the ecosystem. Our global battle cry is that government should be funding the science, and governments should be incentivizing private sector activity, so that Mark with Mosa and Uma with Upside don’t have to shell out $500 million in venture capital money for a factory.”