In September, rumors were rocketing round Israel’s AgriFood Week that Aleph Farms — a startup designing bio-reactor grown and 3D-printable beef steaks — had been busily turning the International Space Station into, well, an International ‘Space Steak’ Station.
Speaking to AFN by phone early this Monday from the ifood conference in Cologne, Germany, Aleph cofounder and CEO Didier Toubia at last confirmed the truth of these extraterrestrial rumors: “It is,” he declared, “a critical step towards proving that cultured meat can be produced any time, anywhere.”
One small steak for man, and a “bullseye landing” in Kazakhstan
His company’s space steak breakthrough came on Sept. 26, roughly 248 miles from the earth’s surface. Perhaps tantalizingly, astronauts at the station did not get to taste it. On his return to earth, the UAE’s first-ever astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri brought the steak down with him. On October 3, Al Mansouri — and a space steak roughly 1.5 milimeters long — touched down safely in a Soyuz MS-12 descent module during a “bullseye landing” in Kazakhstan. The tiny piece of steak, Toubia says, is being spirited back to their labs back in Rehovot, Israel for further analysis; that valuable little morsel should arrive “in the next few weeks.” Check out the video here and below.
The whole act of extraterrestrial cultivation was rendered possible thanks to a spirit of internationalist idealism that would probably be unthinkable back on Earth. Relations between Russia and America are at some of their worst since the end of the Cold War; yet up in space, international astronauts all worked closely together in the Russian segment of the station. Russia’s 3D Bioprinting Solutions collaborated closely with America’s Meal Source Technologies and Finless Foods. Even the safe return of the steak thanks to a UAE astronaut to Israel shows a remarkable ability to defy the gravity of geopolitics.
Back on earth, Aleph Farms’ production method of cultivated beef steaks relies on mimicking a natural process of muscle-tissue regeneration occurring inside the cow’s body, but under controlled conditions. This part was actually done on earth before being sent up to space for its assemblage with 3D printing. Within the framework of this experiment, a proof of concept has been established assembling a small-scale muscle tissue in a 3D bioprinter developed by 3D Bioprinting Solutions, under micro-gravity conditions, according to Toubia and his 25-strong team.
This cutting-edge research in some of the most extreme environments imaginable, the company says, serves as an essential growth indicator of sustainable food production methods that do not exacerbate land, food or water waste. These methods are aimed at feeding the world’s rapidly growing population; some predict this could reach 10 billion individuals by 2050. In a report published last month, the IPCC emphasized the adverse effect of conventional animal farming methods on climate change. If global temperatures rise further, the report warns, the world runs the risk of desertification, land degradation, and diminishing availability of food supplies.
Co-founded with the food-tech incubator The Kitchen, and Prof. Shulamit Levenberg of the Technion university, Aleph remains grounded in the earthly challenges of climate change despite its latest space adventure. “The mission of providing access to high-quality nutrition anytime, anywhere in a sustainable way is an increasing challenge for all humans,” said Jonathan Berger, CEO of The Kitchen, in a note sent to AFN. “On Earth, or up above, we count on innovators like Aleph Farms to take the initiative to provide solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as the climate crisis.”
That said, the Aleph team believes its tech one day will hold clear and stellar possibilities to national and private space programs. The revived interest of space activity is taking hold among new space powers like India, along with seasoned space racers like the US, China or Russia; private ventures like Space X are also getting in on the act. All this means the ability to provide protein to people living on Mars or the Moon is going to be a high priority. Toubia noted that he has received a lot of interest already in the experiment from a wide and international range of scientists working on space programs.
$12 million in Series A is helping to fund these starry steaks
Back in May, Aleph raised $12 million in Series A funding led by Singaporean investor VisVires New Protein. Commodities trading and ag products group Cargill participated too — a rare venture capital outing for the Minnesota-headquartered behemoth. As my colleague Lauren Stine reported at the time, plant-based proteins “have been snagging the spotlight lately, particularly after Beyond Meat’s recent blockbuster IPO, but that doesn’t mean that cultivated protein products are lagging. In fact, these lab-based innovations that are grown from animal cells may offer conscious consumers the perfect compromise: they get to have their cake — or, in this case, beef — and eat it, too.”
Aleph Farms plans to begin building bio-farms and move toward a limited consumer product launch with steak grown under controlled conditions within three-to-five years. “Aleph Farms is the third company to have successfully raised Series A funding. It stands out in a number of respects,” Kenneth Lee, senior Partner of VisVires New Protein, told AFN in May. “First, it has the ability to grow multiple cell types simultaneously in a 3D structure, thereby recreating the structure of meat and its texture/mouthfeel. Second, it doesn’t rely on genetic engineering or modification. Third, its strategy and progress towards diminishing the cost of production.”Cargill was joined by another new investor M-Industry, the industrial group of Swiss retailer Migros. Existing investors renewing their support included The Kitchen FoodTech Hub and its backer Israeli food manufacturer Strauss Group, Peregrine Ventures (Israel), CPT Capital (UK), Jays Third Eight (Israel), and protein alternative-focused investors New Crop Capital (USA).
An increasingly astro-alt-protein debate
As Stine wrote in May, many backers of cultivated meat products claim that producing more protein through this method will help alleviate some of the pressure that conventional beef production has put on the environment will mitigating some of the animal welfare concerns that consumers have with how cattle are treated in feedlots. The big red flag looming above every advancement in cultivated protein to date, however, has been whether the technology can ever achieve scale at a price that’s affordable to a broad enough demographic of consumers. Another major concern is whether meat that’s grown in a lab will ever match the texture, mouthfeel, and flavor of beef from cattle. As a testament to the difficulty of cultivated meat companies’ task, startups dabbling in the space have largely focused on developing ground meat, which poses fewer challenges than recreating the sinew-like texture of steak cuts.
“Making a patty or sausage from cells cultured outside the animal is challenging enough, imagine how difficult it is to create a whole-muscle steak,” Berger of the Kitchen told AFN back in May. Aleph Farms claimed in December 2018 that it was the first company to demonstrate that it can grow steak directly from bovine cells without harming the cow. Now cell-cultured startups are racing to beat each other to the supermarket. The three best-funded cultured meat startups — Memphis Meats, CUBIQ Foods, and Mosa Meat — have all announced that they expect to start selling products in 2021, an earlier date than Aleph, regulations permitting. “There are probably 25 to 30 teams working on cultured meat around the world compared to the hundreds working on plant-based alternatives,” Berger said. “Relatively speaking, the cultured meat space is fairly open. Also, the companies are working on different species of products, i.e., poultry, pork, beef, and fish, and have different product strategy. approaches ranging from growing a whole steak like Aleph Farms to providing ingredients to the plant-based industry. As a result, there is little competition between companies that are active in this field.”
As AFN uncovered, venture capitalists are providing them with plenty of financial fuel to reach those targets. In 2018, cell-based meat companies raised $50 million in capital across 14 deals. This was double the capital invested in 2015, 2016, and 2017 combined. Memphis Meats also counts Cargill among its investors, along with Tyson Ventures, suggesting that Cargill is trying to double down on reaching the market with a cultured meat product regardless of which startup gets there first.
JUST (formerly Hampton Creek) has also claimed that it will have a cultured meat product on the market next year, but we do not know how much of the company’s $220 million in total funding is going toward this end. Mosa Meat hosted the first tasting of a lab-grown burger in 2013. Memphis Meats revealed the world’s first cultured meatball in February 2016 and the world’s first cultured poultry in March 2017.
A Star Trek to social licence
Will consumers embrace this, or find it all a little eery? Social license refers to the general public’s willingness to accept a new technology. The best example of social license gone wrong is the public’s response to GMO technology, culminating in the passage of a federal law requiring food companies to label products that were produced with bioengineering. Consumer interest in cell-based meat shows some promise that social license won’t be a dealbreaker, with a 2018 survey of 3,030 consumers finding that 30% of US consumers, 59% of Chinese consumers, and 50% of Indian consumers were very or extremely likely to purchase cell-based meat regularly.
But poor marketing or messy messaging could deter the remaining skeptics from trying cell-cultured meat products. It may also hinge on which products are offered at commercial scale first. A disappointing debut could seriously deflate the ever-increasing anticipation that consumers and foodies are cultivating around these products.
“Aleph’s first products will be beef steak slices. We will start building bio-farms and work toward a limited launch within three to four years. At Aleph Farms, this is not science fiction. We’ve transformed the vision into reality by growing a steak under controlled conditions,” Berger says. “Aleph Farms is focusing first on beef meat, because cattle are the most pressing environmental issue in terms of water, land usage, and GHG emission. From there, we’ll expand quickly to other mammalian meat, like lamb and pork. Then, we’ll adapt our technology platform to poultry and fish.”