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The CulNet system. Photo credit: IntegriCulture

IntegriCulture raises $7.4m at Series A from AgFunder, others to ‘democratize’ cell ag

May 26, 2020

Japan’s IntegriCulture has raised ¥800 million ($7.4 million) in Series A funding to help push its low-cost cellular agriculture platform to enterprise customers.

Investors in the round include AgFunder, Beyond Next Ventures, Hiroshima Venture Capital, NH Foods, Real Tech Fund, and VU Venture Partners. [Disclosure: AgFunder is AFN‘s parent company.] Several other investors participated, including Caygan Capital‘s CEO Naruhisa Nakagawa.

IntegriCulture founder and CEO Yuki Hanyu tells AFN that the Series A capital will be used to fund further research and development around cell-based meat. It will also go towards the construction of the startup’s first commercial-scale bioreactor, which will be instrumental in the projected launch of its first publicly-available products next year, he adds.

“I don’t think anyone else on the planet has given more thought to how to solve the problems of cultivated meat than Yuki,” says Rob Leclerc, founding partner at AgFunder. “Bringing down the cost of cell culture media is the central challenge for all cultivated meat companies and IntegriCulture has the most elegant solution we’ve seen to solve this problem. IntegriCulture has the potential to be one of the leading global companies producing cultivated meat.”

Alt foie gras

Tokyo-based IntegriCulture plans to introduce ‘lab-grown’ foie gras as its first food offering. As a product that already sells at a high price point – and with significant controversy attached to the traditionally produced version – Hanyu feels it’s a good fit while cultured meat production remains an expensive affair.

“It is technologically easier to produce and makes business sense, at least for now. In the future, as we scale, more products will be added to this ‘business sense’ category. Foie gras also carries the somewhat strong message of how cell ag can change the conventional method [of producing foie gras for the better],” he says. 

Alongside that, IntegriCulture will unveil an anti-aging skincare product. “We are repurposing our cultured serum for cosmetic applications. Because CulNet can culture any type of [animal] cells, we can generate ingredients beneficial for cosmetics applications,” he says.

According to Hanyu, the startup’s CulNet platform is what makes it stand out from the growing field of competitors in the alt-protein space.

CulNet is a “large-scale cell culture system” which “emulates natural animal body endocrine systems to produce cultured serum,” negating the need for externally sourced growth factor – one of the biggest hurdles in terms of expense for lab-grown meat startups.

The IntegriCulture team is counting on the system to be able to culture any type of animal cell, eventually at a lower cost than competitors. In addition to foie gras, they’re looking at beef, pork, and seafood production. Moreover, CulNet also has applications beyond food, including medical, biochemical, and other materials – hence IntegriCulture’s foray into skincare.

“We are not a vertically integrated cell ag company that does everything down to consumer marketing,” Hanyu says. “We are more like a tech company that offers cell ag culture tech to any other companies. This is partly because our tech is so versatile that it can take on a wide variety of clients and products.”

He says that IntegriCulture will initially sell some products under its own brand, though only through a limited number of restaurants which may decide to sell in their own name rather than the startup’s. “We will do some [of our own] products and tech demonstrations, but we will be licensing our tech to food companies, and they will produce the actual meat while we look after the bioreactor.” 

Setting the standard

Earlier this month, the startup launched Uni-CulNet – its attempt to create a “standardized infrastructure” for cellular agriculture.

Uni-CulNet incorporates a B2B package called CulNet Pipeline, under which IntegriCulture will effectively rent out the CulNet system to third parties so that they can develop their own products. The other piece of the puzzle is the CulNet Consortium, which aims to bring clients and other organizations together to jointly develop products and create technical standards for the nascent cell ag industry.

This all harkens back to the original mission statement of the Shojinmeat Project – the not-for-profit initiative that IntegriCulture spun out of in 2015. Hanyu founded the Shojinmeat Project with the aim of “democratizing cellular agriculture.” His original vision was ‘DIY protein’: that every family could have the ability to grow cultured meat in their home.

The Shojinmeat Project still runs alongside IntegriCulture with a focus on consumer education around cell ag and alt-proteins. But Hanyu and his co-founder, chief technology officer Ikko Kawashima, raised seed funding separately for IntegriCulture in 2018 to take it in a more commercial direction.

Nonetheless, Hanyu still sees it as pursuing the same objective.

“What we are aiming to achieve is to democratize cell ag, rather than monopolize it. And our business model and technology are both aligned to that common goal,” he says, in reference to the startup’s Uni-CulNet ecosystem.

Aiming for the stars

Hanyu still envisions a future where we can each culture our own protein needs at home. But he doesn’t see this as replacing industrial agriculture, or the food production companies that IntegriCulture’s trying to bring on board as partners with Uni-CulNet.

Rather, there can be a multitude of different protein producers using low-cost, accessible cell ag technology. This could lead to a market where mass-produced cultured meat sits alongside ‘artisanal’ cellular foods grown at the local level.

“What I think will happen is there will be a variety of business models,” he says. “I think it will be kind of like the beer industry today: there are some mega-companies like Heineken, but also people brewing at home with kits, and microbreweries on your street corner. What we are trying to do is basically be the number one company on the technology provider side.” 

Peering even further into the future, Hanyu sees another, far bigger market for cultured proteins: outer space. Food production is one of the biggest problems that needs solving if humans are to live on spacecraft long term, or colonize other parts of the Solar System and beyond. Cellular agriculture could be the answer.

“Space was always part of the vision of Shojinmeat,” he says. IntegriCulture is member of Space Food X, a group of companies, entrepreneurs, scientists, and other organizations brainstorming how humans can eventually produce an adequate amount of food off-planet. The startup’s Series A investor Real Tech Fund and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency – Japan’s counterpart to NASA – are also members. “Space is definitely on our agenda,” Hanyu says.

Got news or views on Japan’s agrifoodtech scene? Email me at [email protected]

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