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GOOD MEAT chicken satay
GOOD MEAT chicken satay. Image credit: GOOD Meat

Eat Just CEO: Large-scale cultivated meat production requires a new operating model

March 6, 2024

[Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comments from Eat Just CEO Josh Tetrick]

Eat Just is working on new CRISPR-enabled cell lines for cultivated meat it claims will increase efficiencies as it refines its models for profitable large-scale production.

The firm has revised plans to build a large-scale US facility deploying ten 250,000-L bioreactors and says it is “not attempting to raise money for a large-scale cultivated meat facility right now.” Instead, it is focusing on process development at its plant in Alameda, California, and is working on new cell lines it claims will enable more efficient large-scale production.

The firm has not sold any cultivated chicken to US consumers following a small-scale test last summer at a restaurant run by Chef José Andrés, but will keep selling the product in Singapore albeit on a tiny scale, CEO Josh Tetrick told AgFunderNews: “At some point in the future, this site [in Alameda] may produce commercially to get consumer feedback, but it would be on a very small scale.”

An Eat Just spokesperson added: “In our Alameda facility, we are focused on process development, specifically increasing cell density and lowering the cost of our growth media. We’re not producing for consumers at the moment because we need to solve these challenges before larger scale production is possible.”

CRISPR-enabled cell lines

Asked what had changed since Eat Just and bioreactor partner ABEC (which is suing Eat Just over alleged non-payment of bills) announced plans to build a large US facility in 2022, Tetrick said: “Certainly the funding environment is a part of the [challenge] but even if the funding environment were perfect, we would have made that decision [to revise plans for a large-scale facility]. We just realized there’s a more efficient, a better approach. But we don’t have all the answers yet.”

For profitable large-scale production, he said, “Ultimately, you need to build such facilities for under $200 million and be able to operate at significantly less [cost] than the current operating model.  As we were working on [plans for] the [large-scale US plant], we realized that the capex costs and the operating costs were significantly higher than we felt made sense for us and also for the industry [according to court filings from ABEC, such plans were “likely to cost more than $1 billion”].

“We think it is necessary to have a large-scale facility that ultimately enables us to do tens of millions of pounds of chicken, beef and pork,” added Tetrick.”But we have to be able to construct and operate that facility at a significantly lower cost than previous assumptions.”

Large-scale production would also likely deploy more efficient CRISPR-enabled cell lines that will proliferate indefinitely and thrive with fewer, cheaper inputs, he added: “More likely than not we’ll also use another cell line [rather than the spontaneously immortalized chicken fibroblast line in the company’s initial US regulatory filings] when we’re in large-scale production.

“It is more likely than not that a CRISPR-enabled cell line will ultimately be necessary and we’ve been working on that for 3+ years and made some real advancements in cell density on those lines and being able to use fewer, less costly components. There’s a lot of R&D work that goes into it and that’ll be a part of future regulatory filings.”

A new operating model

Asked about progress Eat Just has made on developing a new operating model, he said: “Everything is being rethought from the design of the bioreactor and the supporting equipment, to the overall setup of the facility, the number of steps in the facility overall, to the piping, to the maintenance, to the drainage. You can look at this through a biopharma lens, a food lens, and an industrial fermentation lens, and we are taking learnings from each of those areas.

“We’ve begun to see the beginnings of a path of how you can build these facilities at a much lower cost, but I’m not saying we have some perfect plan. There is still a lot of work to do and there are still a lot of uncertainties.”

‘We’re not attempting to raise money for a large-scale facility right now’

As for investment in cultivated meat, which fell 78% in 2023 versus 2022 against a backdrop of a 49% drop in agrifoodtech investment overall, he said, “We are not raising money from people who otherwise would invest in savings bonds. They know there is uncertainty, but if it ends up working out, there’s going to be a significant return on their capital. That’s why you invest in any early-stage technology company, and cultivated meat is no different.”

But he added, “We’re not attempting to raise money for a large-scale facility right now, so whatever the [funding] environment is right now is not particularly relevant.”

Right now, he said, “The most important activity of the overall company is generating sufficient gross margin dollars to cover the work that we need to do both on the [plant-based] egg and the [cultivated] meat side, so we are not reliant on external capital to function as a company, knowing that at some point in the future, certainly to build a large-scale facility, we’ll need to bring in additional capital.

“We’re focused on continuing to drive down the costs of producing protein, creating more efficiencies in our downstream production, our warehousing, our logistics, the unsexy work of optimizing a food company that does tens of millions of dollars in sales and the most critical work of the company is to put our heads down across initiatives related to no burn and execute on them.”

‘We plan to produce more in Singapore this year than any previous year’

Responding to an article in The Straits Times claiming Eat Just had paused operations in Singapore, the company said it would be stepping up production with local partners this year, albeit on a very small scale.

A spokesperson explained: “We plan to produce more in Singapore this year than any previous year. Our regular cadence since we began production in 2020 has been to produce and pause, produce and pause. We plan to resume production and service to consumers in partnership with [Singapore-based butcher] Huber’s Butchery very soon.”

The company confirmed that its GOOD Meat production facility in Bedok, Singapore (which was originally scheduled to open in Q1, 2023) is not yet operational, and said plans for a $120 million facility in Pioneer, Singapore to make plant-based Just Egg products were ditched over a year ago.

“We decided to halt the Pioneer site over a year ago and instead focus on increasing capacity in the US. We do plan for the Bedok facility to be operational soon but I don’t have a firm timeline.”

Eat Just ‘on track to break even by the end of 2024’

Eat Just, which has sold the equivalent of 500 million eggs made from plants via its ‘Just Egg’ business, has raised more than $850 million since 2011, inclusive of about $270 million for its GOOD Meat subsidiary, but is not yet profitable.

The firm is on track to achieve break even by the end of 2024, said Tetrick, who said the Just Egg business continues to gain traction.

“We’re expanding our presence in foodservice, particularly with colleges and university accounts and we’re launching new products. But we’re also beginning to focus a bit more on selling our [mung bean] protein as an ingredient, so we’ve started conversations with larger CPG companies about utilizing the protein in products that are non-competitive.”

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