Scaffolding is a critical component in cultivated meat, responsible for elements like texture and structure. But it’s still a fairly under-researched area and new developments in scaffolding tech remain few and far between, as many companies focus more on growth media or bioreactors.
Toronto, Canada-based Evolved Meats has a solution: bypass scaffolding altogether by leveraging a process akin to the structural developments that happen inside the animal to enable cell growth.
The concept is garnering investor interest. Evolved recently announced a $2 million seed round led by Maple Leaf Foods and Big Idea Ventures, and plans to showcase one of its cultivated meat products later this year.
Read on to learn more from Evolved’s co-founders, CEO Alireza Shahin (AS) and chief operating officer John Cappuccitti (JC), about the science and process behind the startup’s meat analogs and where it’s headed next.
AFN: What’s your backstory?
JC: Everything actually started from Ali’s [Alireza Shahin’s] work in his postdoctoral process in the regenerative medicine space with cell sheet engineering. We recognized that there is an applicability for cultivated meat using the exact same techniques. I was managing the venture capital funds for the University of Waterloo [in Ontario, Canada] when he applied for funding, and I really liked the pitch and the IP was in place, so I decided to join him.
The key differentiator for us is that instead of just creating meat, we recreate the muscle tissue and then do the muscle tissue transition. That’s all the chemical changes that occur after slaughter in the muscle tissue. By muscle tissue, we mean the muscle, the fat and the connective tissue.
Our products are going to be structurally equivalent or identical to meat because we use no plant proteins, no other fillers. It’s 100% cells and their ECM. And it’s also going to be biochemically identical [to meat]. We do proteomics, genomics, lipidomics, and keep comparing our samples against what exactly is produced in nature. Also, we think there’s only so many chicken nuggets and sausages people want to eat.
By creating that functional tissue, we’re also able to create some of the conditions for scale up. So we can recreate the liver, kidney, spleen, etc., and have them secrete their own natural growth factors all within our own closed loop system.
AFN: Can you tell us how your production process removes the need for scaffolding or binding?
JC: If you look in the body, cells actually produce their own scaffolding. It’s called the extracellular matrix. So one of the unique things that we can do — that we don’t think anyone else is able to — is we can have cells create their own extracellular matrix and it’s preserved. So it’s all the proteins that bind together to keep the cells in place. So whereas everybody else is using plant based or synthetic scaffolds, and then they have these hybrid products, our products are actually 100% animal cell based, and so much so that the tissues we’re creating could even be used for drug discovery. And stuff. That’s why [our cultivated meat is] completely scaffold free.
AS: In our bodies, we have that extracellular matrix that is produced by the cells, and then cells adhere to those networks of proteins that they produce. When you take these cells out of the body and grow them in the lab environment, because the environment is so different for them, they are not getting the signals that they normally receive from other tissues or from physical activities that we have in the body. Because of that, they’re going to lose their ability to produce the ECM or it’s going to be a lot lower.
We have found a way to [create] the right environment and the right signals so cells can start reproducing that ECM again, and then we are going to preserve it. We are making these sheets that are exactly like a sheet of paper, but then we have cells and the ECM that you have in that sheet. When you stack these sheets, they’re going to fuse to each other and create that coherent structure. In that way, we don’t really need to use any [external] scaffolding that mimics the features of ECM but is not ECM.
AFN: Has anyone else been able to achieve this? And if not, why?
AS: We break down the problem of creating cultivated meat into two categories. The first part is to grow the cells and to make sure that we have enough of those cells for making cultivated meat. A lot of other groups have been focusing on that part of the problem. It’s basically their bioreactor and media formulation problem.
We are focused on how to get those cells and turn them into a product that has this structure. So our background is tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. That’s why we can actually recreate the structures and functions of the tissues, while others are just focusing on the first part of the problem. And they haven’t really considered it and probably that’s one of the reasons they have to mix their products with plant proteins or binders because they need to create the texture of it somehow.
AFN: Which meats have you worked on so far?
JC: The first product for us is going to be pork belly. We’re gonna showcase something later this year. In North America, pigs are only used for ham and bacon. So recreating pork belly, you can actually have an impact on the supply chain. Also, pork belly from an operational perspective is actually challenging to work with because there’s so much variability. It’s non-standard cuts. The cut is a triangle, not a slab. By the time they’re trimmed, the variability in size is within 65% to 85% of the original piece, and it creates a constant bottleneck in the process.
By recreating [pork belly], if we can standardize the process, we almost offset some of the cultivated meat costs on the engineering side and on the production side to help get towards parity. It also gives us an [opening] into Asia, because pork belly underscores so many different Asian dishes.
AFN: What’s next for Evolved?
JC: Showcasing that piece of pork belly by end of year and completing the automation work around creating and assembling pieces of meat so that we can start going into co-development. The only public thing [this year] will probably be the pork sample.
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