At the University of Alberta back in 2018, cell biology PhD candidate Matt Anderson-Baron had hit a brick wall.
“I went to grad school primarily as a means of increasing the odds of getting into med school, but fell in love with research and loved being in the lab,” he tells AFN.
But while he enjoyed his days working on the bench — often experimenting with that mainstay at disease research labs the world over, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster — he was feeling, in his own words, “jaded” at what he saw as academia’s prioritization of racking up publications over-delivering social impact. The pursuit of papers didn’t align well with his original ambition to help people and communities.
Back then, the world was waking up to the realization that existing methods of food production — including livestock farming in particular — would not be enough to fulfill humanity’s nutritional needs going forward. Anderson-Baron happened upon the nascent world of cell-cultured protein and saw somewhere he could put his cellular and molecular biology chops to better use.
“At the time I didn’t even know [about cell-cultured meat] but while in grad school I stumbled on the New Harvest website,” he says, referring to the Canadian nonprofit institute set up to support research into cellular agriculture.
“Right there and then I had a very profound moment where I felt I’d finally found my calling and knew that this is what I wanted to do.”
Initially, he and his co-founders — wife Jalene Anderson-Baron and friend Lejjy Gafour, who met on the Edmonton punk scene — set out to build a company creating cultivated meat products, focusing on poultry first. The team was accepted into the Singapore-based GROW Impact Accelerator program in 2019, helping them to gain further momentum.
After returning to Edmonton to complete his PhD and start a postdoctoral role in cell engineering, Matt began staying in the lab after working hours to establish a primary cell line from a broiler chicken, seeding some of these cells onto an apple flesh scaffold with the objective of growing a 20-gram chicken nugget.
But when it came to the other key ingredient, the growth media in which to grow the cells, the Future Fields team hit on a snag that all cellular meat startups have had to contend with.
Back then, it was generally accepted that the best tool for the job was fetal bovine serum (FBS) extracted from unborn cattle. Not only does the use of FBS run counter to the ‘slaughter-free’ credential that is often cited in support of cell-based meat; it’s also prohibitively expensive, making it poorly suited to the conceptual mass production of protein on a commercial scale.
Once again, Anderson-Baron had hit a brick wall.
But a conversation while queueing for coffee in a campus branch of ‘Timmies’ changed everything.
Jalene Anderson-Baron was more than used to hearing her husband talk about the wonders of fruit flies and how they were the near-perfect model organism for carrying out research into human diseases. Thinking out loud, she asked him if there wasn’t some way he could call upon these humble subjects of his day job in order to provide an alternative source of growth media.
“I’m the least scientific of the three co-founders – I just threw the idea out there!” admits Jalene, who is now the startup’s chief operating officer. “I think because I was so far removed from [the science] it didn’t seem like such a crazy idea to me.”
Sensing the opportunity, Future Fields soon pivoted from being just another cultivated meat company, to refocus its efforts on producing more affordable growth media as a B2B player.
“Ultimately, we made this decision that our innovation was pivotal enough that our ability to provide our solution to everyone, rather than keeping to ourselves, made sense in long run,” says chief product officer Gafour. “We could use it to uplift the entire industry rather than keeping it as a competitive advantage.”
Enter the EntoEngine
Until recently, the startup kept a lot of its work under wraps as it plotted out its intellectual property strategy. But with the publication of its first patent application in May, the company has been able to share a more detailed picture of its tech.
Future Fields recently unveiled what it has dubbed the ‘EntoEngine.’ It’s a biotech platform using fruit flies to produce custom growth factors — that is, substances containing ‘signaling’ molecules that cause cells to multiply and differentiate — which have the potential to be far more cost-effective and scaleable than options like FBS, yeast, or E. coli.
“Fruit flies are one of the most well-studied organisms on the planet. They’ve been used in experiments for over a century, and we know more about the fruit fly genome than we do the human,” says Matt Anderson-Baron. “So we already have a whole bunch of genetic tools we can use to produce growth factor.”
The way the EntoEngine works is by genetically modifying Drosophila at the embryo stage so that, when it reaches adulthood, it secretes the growth factor of interest from its cells.
The insect’s body effectively becomes a “standalone biofactory,” Anderson-Baron explains.
“Once we’ve developed this line [of fruit flies] we can continue breeding them to build up our stock, and we can do that in perpetuity to build this full library of stocks capable of growing any growth factor.”
The key advantage of this system over those using FBS and other growth factors is its cost.
“One of the main benefits of fruit flies is that they’re so incredibly cheap to rear. We can rear a massive amount of flies at a very low cost, so rather than trying to solve the problems of these cell-based expression systems, we circumvent them completely by using Drosophila,” he adds.
While he doesn’t disclose Future Fields’ current pricing, he claims that the startup will be “able to offer the lowest prices on the market” for its flagship offering: FGF2, which he says is the most common growth factor used in cellular ag based on the startup’s conversations with potential customers.
“At full scale we’re confident we can achieve the price point needed to make cell ag a reality, taking FGF2 down from $1,500 dollars per milligram to $5 per milligram,” he says.
“FGF2 is a huge pain point for these [cell-cultured meat] companies because they all need it and they all need a lot of it, and it costs a lot from traditional sources. So we started there because we felt it would have the biggest impact.”
Beyond cost, Future Fields also believes its platform is more sustainable. It requires much less water than all of the current feasible alternatives, and the fruit flies can be fed on a variety of agrifood waste and byproducts, creating a closed-loop system.
“We’re looking into things like spent grains from breweries,” says Anderson-Baron.
“There’s also all the waste that Drosophila produces that can be upscaled. Their frass [excreta] is a great fertilizer, and the insects’ bodies are full of a molecule called chitin which has tons of uses, including in the medical industry.”
And the fact that Drosophila are already widely used in scientific research — and don’t present any serious harm to human health, agriculture, or nature — should lead to fewer regulatory humps and bumps when compared to more novel technologies.
There is at least one criterion, however, where some will argue that Future Fields’ EntoEngine falls short. Given that it relies on breeding, farming, and processing fruit flies, it isn’t strictly ‘vegan,’ per se. Another moral dimension to the species’ usage is that the consumption of insects remains taboo in many human societies.
But Anderson-Baron believes the pros substantially outweigh the cons.
“In many parts of the world, insects are commonly food. I totally get the modern Western diet doesn’t include them, but there are a lot of precedents of insects being a source of nutrition,” he says. “And what’s the alternative? Would people rather eat cell-based meat from insect growth factors, or from E. coli? That’s not food, right? There’s certainly a need for education and transparency into the process – we want people to understand that what we are doing will be safer for humans to consume.”
$2.2 million seed round
Investors have been won over by Future Fields’ pitch. Back in February, it closed its seed round, raising $2.2 million in funding.
Through its enrolments in accelerator programs, the Canadian startup has also secured funding from GROW backer AgFunder, as well as Y Combinator.
“Right now it’s all about scaling,” Anderson-Baron says, explaining how Future Fields is deploying the seed capital.
“Our tech is well-validated at this point, and we’re already using it to produce growth factors. So [we’re using the funding] to get our first product on the market – and that means shipping FGF2 to customers all over the world.”
Some of the funds have been used to move out of the startup’s co-working space into a dedicated facility, while headcount is gradually growing too.
“We’re transitioning from an R&D company to a commercialization company,” he says.