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Aleph Cuts cultivated meat
Aleph Farms has just had the green light from regulators to market its thin cut beef steaks Israel. Image credit: Aleph Farms

Cultivated meat in the spotlight at Tufts cellular ag day: ‘Focusing on science experiments that cannot scale is misleading people’

January 22, 2024

Views about the current status of cultivated meat technology varied sharply at this year’s cellular ag innovation day at Tufts University, with industry skeptic Dr. Dave Humbird claiming it’s stuck at technology readiness level 3 and Ark Biotech founder Yossi Quint suggesting it’s “a lot further ahead than people think.”

While scores of companies have proved they can make cultivated meat in the lab, only a handful have progressed to pilot scale, where they are producing it at a loss. No one has yet produced it at large scale, and a shakeout is expected over the next 12 months as startups run out of money.

Bringing down the cost of goods (COGS) will require optimizing cell culture media formulations, improving biomass yields, optimizing the bioprocess, and larger, but more affordable, bioreactors, Quint told delegates at the Jan. 11 event.

“But I think in many ways, we’re a lot further ahead than people think,” he said. “When I started Ark, my dream was $2 per liter of media. Today, there are seven companies that I know of that are south of $2 a liter and there’s at least one coming up south of $1/liter. And all that innovation has just happened in the last couple of years.

“Every time I check in with companies, they come up with a new innovation and a new way to bring down that cost. And so whether the floor is 80 cents or 50 cents or 25 cents, I don’t know, but at $1 a liter of media, you could be producing commodity scale cultivated meat at 10 or so dollars a pound. If you blend that [with plant-based meat], suddenly you’re super competitive, and you could be at Walmart prices.”

Dr. Dave Humbird at Tufts University
Dr. Dave Humbird (center): ‘I’ve never seen a sector or startup trying to wish cast their way to a future TRL end up successful…’ Image credit: Paul Rutherford for Tufts University)

Dave Humbird: I have not changed my opinion

However, chemical engineer and engineering consultant Dr. Dave Humbird—author of a 2021 techno-economic analysis concluding that cultivated meat faced intractable challenges—claimed the tech was still barely out of the starting blocks (although critics say technical advances in the field have rendered his analysis moot).

“I think a lot about the technology readiness level [a system first developed by NASA to assess the maturity of a given technology],” said Dr. Humbird. “So 1 to 3 is considered lab, 4-6 is pilot, 7-9 is commercial. And cultivated meat, in my opinion, from my analysis, is not out of TRL 3, because it has not yet confirmed its value proposition, and we don’t know what it will cost.

“When you see the announcements of a restaurant tasting [for cultivated meat], that telegraphs TRL 5. But I’ve never seen a sector or startup trying to wish cast their way to a future TRL end up successful. So no, I have not changed my analysis or my opinion [since 2021].”

“We will need cellular agriculture driving us forward to develop more novel protein sources that use less of our precious natural resources. USDA prioritized novel foods and alternative proteins and R&D in particular in our new science and research strategy. We specifically call out the need to expand protein sources and nutrients beyond traditional ag commodities to diversify our future food systems, so developments and innovations in cellular agriculture will be critical to USDA achieving its broad goals and realizing our vision for agriculture.” Sanah Baig, USDA deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics

Ark Biotech: ‘Continuing to focus on science experiments that cannot scale is misleading people’

Yossi Quint, founder and CEO, Ark Biotech Image credit Ark Biotech
Yossi Quint: ‘You just cannot get your unit economics to make any sense at small scale.’ Image credit: Ark Biotech

While some players in the space claim they can see a path to profitability with bioreactors as small as 2,000-liters, Quint at Ark Biotech believes that with the right design (not a stirred tank), bigger is better, and that contamination concerns [it costs significantly more to write off the contents of a 1m-liter reactor versus a 10,000-liter vessel] can be addressed.

“The largest cell culture facility in the world is Samsung Biologics in South Korea,” he observed. “If Samsung Biologics were to be running every single minute of every single day for an entire year, they would produce less cultivated meat than the average Tyson facility produces in one day.

“So what we’re talking about, it’s not a 10x increase or an 100x increase, maybe not even 1,000x increase. What we’re talking about is a 5,000 to 10,000x increase in what’s needed. It’s not about incremental change. We’re talking about a revolution, and that means reimagining what infrastructure looks like.”

So what is required? According to Quint, “It starts with the bioreactor becoming much, much, much larger because you need economies of scale, both on the capital equipment, but also on the operating side,” he claimed. “You need extreme automation, and you need a much more robust media supply chain.”

He added: “We’ve got to start focusing on scale up. Our 10-liter bioreactor has $30,000 worth of probes, our 1,000-liter bioreactor has $30,000 worth of probes. Our 10-liter bioreactor has $20,000 worth of controls, our 1,000-liter bioreactor has $20,000 worth of controls. You just cannot get your unit economics to make any sense at small scale.

“We are offering the path for industry to succeed. Continuing to focus on science experiments that cannot scale is misleading people.”

Novel airlift technology

Speaking to AgFunderNews after the event, Quint noted that high-value products such as cell-cultured caviar, wagyu beef or Bluefin tuna could likely sustain a higher COGS and lower volume than chicken. “But for companies to reach commodity price and scale, we expect they will need bioreactors that are hundreds of thousands of liters.”

He added: “We’ve systematically rethought the bioreactor and invented a bio manufacturing platform capable of scaling to very large sizes while maintaining peak performance. The bioreactor vessel leverages novel airlift technology that uses fluid flow to create uniform mixing with high mass transfer.”

Asked how Ark could manufacture large-scale vessels (Ark envisages vessels of up to 1m liters) without breaking the bank, he said: “We’ve been able to reduce cost through a wide range of measures. The single biggest lever is scale given the high fixed costs with bioreactors and the variable costs scaling at a factory below one. We have also rethought the skid, cleaning systems, sterilization systems, and the use of consumables to ruthlessly cut out cost wherever possible.”

In late 2023, Ark “successfully ran a 1,250-L bioreactor with a cultivated meat company and has multiple trials ongoing and planned with cultivated meat companies around the world” using avian, mammalian, fish, and insect cells, added Quint.

“If you look at the lessons from the first wave of bio-industrial manufacturing, it wasn’t the folks who put all the steel in the ground first that survived. Those were the folks who got crushed. In the long term, the folks who relied on solid science and a moderate level of execution, who followed a more wise path and had a longer investment horizon than a seven year VC fund are the ones that survived.” John Ellersick, Next Rung Technology

Investing in cultivated meat: ‘There’s just a general risk aversion’

In a panel session on investing in cultivated meat at the Tufts event, Harris Komishane, general partner at agrifoodtech investor Meach Cove Capital acknowledged that the current funding environment for cellular ag is not favorable. “It is pretty bad although in the last month or so we have started to see some positive signs. There are issues at the macro level affecting all industries with the exception of AI, which is particularly hot right now. The high interest rates are really a challenge.

“The IPO market has also been locked up and there’s just a general risk aversion amongst companies, among VCs, to invest money. The good news is that these are largely cyclical issues. But at the sector level, there are other issues. There is a proliferation of companies doing the same or similar things, and many of these companies probably would not have gotten funded if funding wasn’t so available when interest rates were near zero.

“So there’s clearly going to be a shakeout from that, although that is also a cyclical thing that will pass.”

He added: “There are also a lot of challenges about scalability and getting to cost parity, which seems to be taking a lot longer than the VC world was hoping and expecting. There’s also an underdeveloped ecosystem, so a lot of the earliest startups in this space had to basically do everything soup to nuts because there was nobody to outsource things to.

Dr. Nicole Tichenor Blackstone
Dr. Nicole Tichenor Blackstone: ‘Cultivated meat] will not be sustainable unless we are powering facilities with renewable and green electricity.’ Image credit: Dr. Nicole Tichenor Blackstone

As an example, he said, precision fermentation startup Perfect Day, a pioneer in the ‘animal-free dairy’ space, “basically had to build everything [itself], and that’s just not a sustainable way for this industry to evolve. It just costs too much money and expertise. But the good news there is that we’re starting to see the industry specialization that we really need and the build out of the ecosystem.”

Private investor Davide Dukcevich added: “I think that the cycle being at a low in this industry right now is actually a positive thing. Some startups will go bankrupt so that there can be consolidation. It’s the natural progression of any industry.”

“50% of farmers [in the US] are in the red. The model of agricultural production that was really set into motion in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s valued hyper efficiency over competition, over resiliency, and in many cases over safety, and we know that the resulting system is unsustainable.  Global demand for meat is at an all-time high and production will need to be doubled by 2050. We simply cannot meet these [demands] by maintaining our status quo systems.” Sanah Baig, USDA deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics

Cultivated meat sustainability   

When it comes to the sustainability credentials of cultivated meat, there’s relatively little data because no one has yet got a large-scale plant up and running, said speakers during a panel session on LCAs.

However, asked about a well-publicized UC Davis study claiming that greenhouse gas emissions from cultivated beef could be up to 25% higher than regular beef, which prompted a flurry of negative headlines last spring, Dr. Nicole Tichenor Blackstone, assistant professor at Tufts, said it was “irresponsible” to release a paper that had not been peer-reviewed.

The assumptions in the paper around media components, the level of purification required for some of those components, the amount of media needed, and the productivity of the process, were not representative of where the industry is now, she claimed. “We will not be making assumptions like this in our models.”

But she stressed: “It [cultivated meat] will not be sustainable unless we are powering facilities with renewable and green electricity.”

Bruce Friedrich GFI at Tufts University
Bruce Friedrich: ‘Elon Musk says they would have failed twice, if not for long term low interest government loans.’ Image credit: Paul Rutherford for Tufts University

GFI: Industry needs long-term low interest government-backed loans

Stepping back to look at the big picture, Good Food Institute founder Bruce Friedrich said government support was essential to kickstart the cultivated meat industry.

“If the government gets the industry started then the private sector can take over, just like electric vehicles,” said Friedrich. “The economic opportunity here, which is also a national security issue, is such that the US government should be prioritizing support for alternative proteins in the same way it prioritizes support for clean energy transition, the biopharma industry, and advanced chips for artificial intelligence.

“Elon Musk says they would have failed twice, if not for long term low interest government loans. There is no solar industry, there is no EV [electric vehicle] industry, there is no biopharma industry, if not for governments helping the companies that can’t qualify for standard bank loans, giving them long term low interest loans.”

Eric Schulze: ‘VCs don’t want to spend money on putting steel in the ground’

Dr. Eric Schulze, who spent seven years at cultivated meat pioneer UPSIDE Foods before starting his own consultancy in November, added: “The name of the game is price parity or slightly undercutting conventional products. If we get there, it’s on, and we really have a real new food space race, and that’s exciting.”

Eric Schulze, founder, GoodHumans Strategy & Design
Dr. Eric Schulze: ‘we need federal loan guarantees for alternative proteins.’ Image credit: Eric Schulze

“But VCs don’t want to spend money on putting steel in the ground, so we need federal loan guarantees for alternative proteins. The federal government has to form the triangle of academia, private industry, and the public sector.”

USDA undersecretary: We can’t meet demand for meat with current systems

In a keynote at the event, Sanah Baig, USDA deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, noted that USDA had invested $10 million to launch the National Institute for Cellular Agriculture at Tufts University in late 2021, and stressed both her support for cellular agriculture and USDA’s belief that we cannot meet global demand for meat production by 2050 “by maintaining our status quo systems.”

However, she did not announce any new funding or specific initiatives to support the cultivated meat sector.

While the Biden Administration’s Sept 2022 executive order on advancing biotechnology and biomanufacturing said it was government policy to “improve and expand domestic biomanufacturing production capacity and processes,” this has not yet translated into hard cash being poured into the sector, meanwhile.

That said, “multiple existing government programs could provide support to alternative protein companies,” GFI director of policy Curt Chaffin, told AgFunderNews after the event, “including those researching and producing cultivated meat. At the end of the day, most of these are at the start-up scale and useful for early-stage research. For scale-up purposes, USDA, DOE, and other agencies offer grants and loan guarantees that are available to companies across multiple sectors.”

Chaffin noted that the White House made the connection between biomanufacturing capacity and food production in its bold goals report issued March 2023, although it did not allocate hard cash to specific projects: “Neither the executive order nor the bold goals were capable of allocating funding, so the administration and Congress would need to take additional steps to implement these lofty goals.”

Regulation: ‘Europe continues to be a black hole’

Asked about the regulatory climate for cultivated meat following approvals in Singapore (GOOD Meat, 2020), the US (UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat, 2023) and Israel (Aleph Farms, 2024), Dr. Schulze said: “Europe continues to be a black hole, and they generally use a precautionary principle based approach and frankly, Asia Pacific is going to eat their lunch when it comes to innovation. And then interestingly, the UK has also taken a front running approach to this as well, not being part of the EU anymore.

“But ultimately, we’re seeing almost every company, at least the ones that I work with, wanting to come to the US to launch because the US regulatory system is still seen as the gold standard. At the end of the day, though, we’re still going to need multiple regulatory regimes and reciprocity agreements. And it all needs to happen faster.”

“You won’t be able to generate flavor during the cultivation process. What you have to ensure is that all the right precursor compounds are in the final product [so that when it’s prepared or cooked, it generates the taste and aroma we expect from meat].

“Heme iron is essential… because the iron in the heme protein is kind of a kickstarter for different types of chemical reactions that generate flavor compounds. But the most important part of meat flavor is the fatty acids. The fatty acid profile basically determines what kind of flavor a specific meat has. And these fatty acid profiles give you oxidation products during cooking and fermentation. And these eventually determine a lot of species-specific aroma compounds.” Lutz Grossman, assistant professor, Umass Amherst

Further reading:

Crunch time for cultivated meat: ‘Probably 70-90% of players will fail in the next year’

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