Teaching consumers and investors alike about the long-term potential of cultivated meat is just one of the jobs Shir Friedman holds at Israel-based SuperMeat, a company she co-founded with Ido Savir and Koby Barak in 2015.
SuperMeat’s main focus is cultivating chicken in fermentors to provide consumers with a more sustainable way to eat poultry. The company hasn’t yet gotten regulatory approval to sell its products (more on that below). But in the meantime, it operates a hybrid test kitchen and restaurant, The Chicken, where consumers can try out SuperMeat’s chicken, see how it’s made, and offer feedback.
“When we founded SuperMeat, we always knew a key asset of ours is transparency — to always communicate with consumers about what we’re doing and about cultivated meet and educate them all the way through,” Friedman tells AFN.
Read on for more on the latest developments for SuperMeat and Friedman’s thoughts on the long-term potential of cultivated meat for the food system.
AFN: How did you wind up working in food tech and founding a cultivated meat company?
SF: It goes way back to when I was in high school and was involved with ecological activism. I was in parallel reducing my meat intake for animal welfare causes.
Back then, there wasn’t a lot of awareness of how our diet influences sustainability. When I realized how crucial [our diets are] to climate change, I realized this is a huge issue that we need to solve.
Back then there were rumors about this guy from the Netherlands, Professor Mark Post, who was trying to make a burger outside of an animal’s body. I remember thinking, it’s so much easier to change a production process than to convince people to reduce or completely not consume something [that has] been a part of their culture for years. If you could go behind the scenes and just improve on the production process by removing the animal from the equation — and hence make it more efficient — that it’s a win-win situation for the planet, the consumers, and also the animals.
Everybody thought [cultivated meat] was completely crazy. But I thought, if I’m going to do something about it or know if it’s even possible, I have to get familiar with the language in the field. So I signed up to get a degree in biology just to understand what a cell is, what tissue is and how these thingswork. One thing led to another: I got my degree in biology and around that time I met the other two co-founders of SuperMeat.
AFN: What are SuperMeat’s latest developments?
SF: [Our] pilot plant is able to produce about 1,000 pounds of chicken meat per week. We are planning to launch an industrial production plant in the US in a year. We’ve recently partnered with Ajinomoto, which is a one of the largest suppliers in the world for a food ingredients and amino acids. We’ve also signed an memorandum of understanding with PHW-Group, one of Europe’s largest poultry producers. All of that is building a network that we’re going to build upon in order to reach commercialization and the target audience.
AFN: Where did the idea for The Chicken come from?
We always knew that a key asset of ours is transparency, to always communicate with with the target consumers about what we’re doing and about cultivated meat.
About two years ago, we noticed a void when speaking to our target audience. The questions they were asking showed us that they lacked understanding of the process and what it looks like, and also that they were curious about the product. So we thought, okay, let’s let’s bring them in, have them come into into to our a test kitchen where we are developing our dishes.
We completely renovated it to make it feel like a restaurant. We have them experience the product restaurant-style, with waiters and drinks and desserts, all while looking through the glass window and seeing the production process.
Combined — the production process and the experience of actually dining on the products — made the fog around cultivated meat disappear.
AFN: Where is SuperMeat at in terms of seeking / getting regulatory approval to sell cultivated meat?
SF: It will probably be a regulatory-approved in the US first, in about a year. When it comes to Europe, it’s going to take a little longer — we believe about two years from now.
AFN: What do you say to critics of cultivated meat?
SF: Should investors put their money into this field? I don’t want to speak for them, [but cultivated meat] has enormous potential.
It’s not a secret anymore that using animals to make protein is a very inefficient process — for nine calories in you get one calorie out; for five units of protein [put in] you get one unit of protein out; [it takes] 4,500 liters of water per one kilogram of chicken, and so on. Eventually, we will not have enough land for all these animals, we will have to find another solution. If we don’t start developing cultivated meat technologies now, it’s going to be too late to start when we hit the wall with water or space for all these animals.
[Cultivated meat] is not going to happen next year on a huge scale. But I don’t agree that [cultivated meat] is not scalable. It definitely is scalable. At SuperMeat, we’ve scaled our production to several hundred liters of production. [Our] 20,000-liter fermenter is the largest fermenter a to grow to the animal cells to date. So we have proven scalability to that scale. We had no reason so far to reach that size, since we are not selling yet, but we’ve definitely showed that it is possible.
There’s a huge advantage in relying on a fermenter that is completely independent of weather. Here in Israel, for example, we import 70% of our beef since we don’t have enough space [for many] cattle. But with cultivated meat, you harvest half of your fermenter one day, come back the next day and have a full fermenter again. And you can set the fermenter anywhere on the globe.
AFN: And what about your experience as a woman in food tech?
SF: I’m just one co-founder, and our CEO [Ido Savir] is male. A lot of times when we both go into a room — it could be a meeting about projects that I’m in charge of — immediately everybody [turns] to my partner and asks him all the questions. I think that is something every woman without even realizing it goes through — to walk into a room and be completely ignored or treated as this “nice girl” over here that that “might” know a thing or two.
At the same time, if you understand that you don’t deserve this treatment, you can just open your mouth and answer the question, even if it was [directed at] a male partner. “I know the answer to this question. I know that I’m in charge of this project, and I know that I deserve to own the room right now.” Immediately everybody’s attitude changes.
And yes, we do have to work a bit harder — or much harder depending on the circumstances — than our male counterparts. But if we do even the smallest things, like answer a question, we make it click in people’s minds that “Oh, I can talk to her, too.”