Two years ago, chemical engineer and engineering consultant Dr. Dave Humbird published a techno-economic analysis concluding that cultivated meat faced “intractable” challenges at food scale. While critics say technical advances in the field have rendered his analysis moot, Humbird remains skeptical.
While work is progressing on replacing pharma-grade inputs in cell culture media with cheaper food-grade inputs, the numbers still don’t add up, Humbird told AFN on the sidelines of the SynBioBeta conference in Oakland, California, last week.
“The price of individual amino acids and growth factors is going to be a strict function of the market volume. None of this stuff makes any commercial sense until everyone’s eating it. The emperor has no clothes. Even the biggest advocates of the technology are not talking about [cultivated meat making a dent in the market by] 2030 anymore.”
Orbillion Bio: ‘We should be honest as an industry about what cultivated meat is not’
So how do startups in the nascent field respond to commentators that question the viability of their technology?
Speaking at a panel debate moderated by AFN at SynBioBeta, three high-profile cultivated meat startups acknowledged that the media narrative around the technology has changed, with optimistic articles about innovations in the space competing with headlines about cancerous cells, greenwashing, vaporware, and business failures.
However, the panelists said they remained confident that processed meats combining cultivated and plant-based meat will be commercially viable, although scaling up more structured products such as steak still presents significant challenges.
“Will your [cultivated] burger taste great?” asked Patricia Bubner, cofounder at cultivated meat startup Orbillion Bio. “Yes, it will. But I think we should be honest as an industry about what cultivated meat is not. And right now, it is not the perfect steak. We can’t do that at scale at a price point that makes sense.”
Meatable: ‘Solid meat is something for the future’
Meatable cofounder Kijn de Nood added: “The hybrid approach [combining plant-based and cell-cultured meat] makes a lot of sense for the first generation of products. Even with an inclusion rate of 10% cultivated meat [and 90% plant-based meat], we do internal tasting panels and we see it’s already much better than the plant-based product because the off-tastes go away. And 50:50 products are indistinguishable from traditional meat.
“But I completely agree that solid meat is something for the future because there, you actually do need fundamental breakthroughs, although we still have a small team working on that.”
Joshua March, cofounder at startup SCiFi Foods, said his cultivated cells should be “seen as an ingredient” that can be added to plant-based products at relatively low inclusion rates to deliver a meaty experience in processed products from burgers to meatballs.
“If you take wild type animal cells and today’s manufacturing technology, nothing is possible at any meaningful scale,” said March. “But I do strongly believe that if you use a synthetic biology approach and your first products are blended, then cultivated meat is commercially viable with today’s technology.”
He added: “There is a lot of exciting innovation happening in bioreactor technologies that will eventually make 100% cultivated meat possible as well, but that’s more of a decade-long timeframe than in the near future.”
SciFi Foods: ‘It’s risky to rely on too many miracles’
March added: “At SCiFi, we really wanted to design a strategy that didn’t require innovation from anyone else in order to be commercially viable, although there is a lot of innovation happening with major players such as Merck working on food grade basal media. There are also startups working on novel bioreactor technologies that could change the economics of cultivated meat.
“But we think it’s risky to rely on too many miracles. We wanted to design a techno-economic model that allowed us to get to a commercially viable price point using existing hardware such as stirred tank bioreactors with a fed-batch process and a blended approach.”
Bioreactors: Does size matter?
Meatable cofounder Krijn de Nood added: “We have done a techno-economic analysis and we see a sweet spot with a continuous perfusion process at 10 cubic meters (10,000-L) with upside for 50 cubic meters (50,000-L).”
Bubner at Orbillion Bio said: “For our process, we think 10,000 liters, maybe 20,000 liters is a great scale, and really nothing has been done above 24,000 liters in mammalian cell culture at scale successfully.
“It’s important to develop your process and scale it to extremely high densities, to have cells that are high performing, to have a very lean media and that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Cell lines: ‘All of those behaviors can be changed using genetic engineering and synthetic biology’
Meatable is using pluripotent stem cells, which have certain advantages including rapid division (they can proliferate rapidly and indefinitely without having to be ‘immortalized’) and versatility (they can differentiate or transform into multiple different cell types such as fat or muscle), said de Nood.
“They are basically very early-stage stem cells that can become any cell type. We like them because they divide very fast and grow in aggregates. The challenge with using that cell type is that if you want a hundred cells to become muscle cells, only 30 or 40 actually do. But we have a patented technology that, in a couple of days, can steer all of the cells in the direction we want them to go.”
SCiFi Foods is “taking satellite cells from cow muscle and using CRISPR gene editing to immortalize those cells, to get them to grow in single cell suspension, and to make sure they have all the performance characteristics necessary so we can scale them,” said March.
“The cost of animal cell culture is primarily driven by cell behavior. If you take a cell from animal muscle, it has all kinds of behaviors that don’t have anything to do with how it tastes, but which make it really expensive and complicated to grow.
“So they’re generally adherent cells that want to grow attached to other cells or a surface. The metabolism of the cell limits the density that will grow in a bioreactor. They’ll generally only grow in the presence of signaling molecules or expensive growth factors.
“But all of those behaviors can be changed using genetic engineering and synthetic biology. And so we see that as the fastest and most reliable way to solve those problems, and get to cost-effective products that can be scaled up relatively easily.”
The GM factor: ‘We’re not going to be selling in Europe anytime soon’
From a regulatory perspective, March claimed, the use of gene editing doesn’t present major barriers. “We’re not putting in foreign DNA, there’s no new DNA, no new proteins, so that makes it easier. UPSIDE Foods used genetic engineering to immortalize one of its cell lines, which was approved by the FDA.
“As half the world follows the FDA, we think [the regulatory attitude towards genetic engineering in cultivated meat in many other markets] will be pretty similar. The other half follows the European route, which is more challenging, so we’re not going to be selling in Europe anytime soon.”
De Nood at Meatable added: “We’re focusing our first launch in Singapore and the second launch in the US, which for me as a European is sad. But it is what it is. You would think, as the whole climate change agenda in Europe is much bigger [that the regulatory pathway for cultivated meat would be easier], but you just see that with all the bureaucracy in the European Union, things don’t get done.”
Sustainability and cultivated meat
Asked about a recent (not yet peer-reviewed) UC Davis study claiming that greenhouse gas emissions from cultivated beef could be up to 25% higher than regular beef, March said: “That study makes some pretty big assumptions around [using] pharmaceutical grade amino acids [in the basal media], which the industry pretty strongly disagrees with, as we think we can just use food grade amino acids.”
De Nood added: “We have done our own life cycle assessment and on greenhouse gas emissions we are more than 95% better for beef and 80% better for pork. The UC Davis study assumes pharma-grade media, whereas more than two-thirds of the ingredients we source are food-grade. But also, the media consumption they showed was extremely high. Ours is much lower. The process they assume is very long and inefficient.”
While some critics will attempt to position cultivated meat as ‘Frankenmeat,’ said Bubner, “It’s a lot cleaner than growing an animal, killing it, and having all the fecal contamination and whatnot. We work with a farmer, we know the animals, we know where our cells come from, which breed they come from… it’s a true farm-to-table story.
“And the important thing is that nutritionally, we can get not only to the same [as conventional meat] but to something that’s better.”
Collaboration in cultivated meat
Asked about the extent to which collaboration within the cultivated meat industry is possible without compromising IP, Bubner said: “There is collaboration in this space, although a lot of it is probably unseen.”
March at SCiFi Foods agreed that many startups are working with third parties to reduce the cost of cell media components, but said he doesn’t see any real collaboration between startups “because ultimately, everyone’s trying to create a startup that survives and can raise funding and has its own IP and trade secrets. There’s a lot of intractable knowledge; it’s not like clean APIs in software where you can work together without sharing any IP.”
De Nood added: “We are at a very early stage of this industry and we all have a conviction about which technology is going to win. But where we do see collaboration is with infrastructure partners. For example, we have a project with DSM to reduce the cost of media and we’ve already brought costs down by 99% for one of the growth factors we use. It’s also fascinating to see what companies such as ORF Genetics are doing [producing growth factors in plants].”
The consumer proposition for cultivated meat
But what is the appeal of cultivated meat?
“For me, it’s very simple,” said de Nood. “What we can offer is real meat with no compromise. And if we are able to scale it to get to cost [parity with conventional meat], I don’t see a reason why you wouldn’t buy it. You’d be crazy to say ‘I want that dead animal.’”
Bubner added: “The food industry wants a stable, predictable supply of meat, of protein. A lot of countries really need to establish their food independence.”