- UK-based Higher Steaks has rebranded as Uncommon and raised $30 million in a series A round to scale production of cultivated pork using patent-pending technology it claims gives it a competitive edge by speeding up the cell differentiation process.
- The funding round was led by Balderton Capital and Lowercarbon Capital, with participation from Red Alpine, East Alpha, Max and Sam Altman, Miray Zaki, and Sebastiano Castiglioni.
- The capital will be used to scale up production at the firm’s headquarters at Cambridge Technopark and begin the regulatory approvals process.
Uncommon uses induced pluripotent stem cells (iPScs), which can replicate/proliferate indefinitely without having to keep going back to the original [animal] source. They can also differentiate into multiple cell types such as muscle and fat.
It has not shared many details about its approach, although a patent filed by the company in 2021 describes a process using RNA—molecules that contain the chemical instructions that direct cells to produce proteins—to trigger stem cells to differentiate into fat and muscle cells.
According to the patent, Uncommon has developed a method for “delivering nucleic acid molecules comprising one or more RNA molecules into said cells; modulating gene expression of said cells with aid of said nucleic acid molecules or expression products thereof, to differentiate or transdifferentiate at least a subset of said cells to generate one or more target cells [eg. fat, muscle, connective tissue etc].
“Upon said modulating, said nucleic acid molecules are not integrated into a genome of said cells.”
The approach could speed up the differentiation process and lower media costs by lowering the amount of costly proteins needed to trigger stem cells to differentiate, suggests the patent filing: “Owing to poor cellular uptake and weak effect size, some differentiation factors require frequent dosing and high concentrations to affect cell differentiation. RNA transfection may lower the dosing requirements for cell differentiation.
“RNA transfection may also facilitate rapid differentiation and cell development.”
‘We can get mature muscle markers in three days without using gene editing’
Cofounder Benjamina Bollag told AgFunder News (AFN): “We can get from pluripotent stem cells to mature muscle markers and multi-nucleation in three days without using gene editing. And the beauty is that you can do this without integrating the RNA into the genome.”
She explained: “We use different types of RNA, but it works in the same way as messenger RNA (mRNA). So in layman’s terms, if you’re the cell and I’m the RNA and we’re both in a room, and I come over to you and say, ‘Become a muscle,’ you essentially become a muscle directly.
“With other approaches that don’t involve gene editing, it’s more like, I come to you and say, ‘How do you feel about maybe being elongated and looking different?’ so it’s not such a direct instruction. Gene editing can direct cells to differentiate, but we didn’t want to use that [as it could slow down the regulatory process in some markets].”
She added: “The market is tougher now for deep tech companies that aren’t making any revenue to raise money, but what really made investors invest in us is how differentiated our technology is. We’re applying it throughout the process: from how we guide our cells to become pluripotent, to improving the flavor of our muscle. By using RNA, we can move down the cost curve faster than our competition and without gene editing.”
“Uncommon’s completely novel approach holds immense potential to revolutionize the cultivated meat industry and overcome the notorious scalability and pricing obstacles that companies in this field face. What sets Uncommon apart is their ability to achieve this feat without using genetic modification, offering a smoother path through regulatory hurdles in Europe and further enhancing their position as true game changers in food production.” Michael Sidler, partner, Red Alpine
At what scale does it make sense to launch?
Right now, Uncommon is still operating at a small scale, and aims to get up “to the 200-liter scale” by the end of the year, said Bollag.
Markets of interest include Singapore (where cultivated meat is already available from Eat Just subsidiary Good Meat), the UK and the EU. However, the company is also keeping an eye on developments in the US, said Bollag, who acknowledged that the regulatory process in Europe is especially challenging for cultivated meat startups, none of which have yet filed a Novel Foods dossier with the European Food Safety Authority.
The plan is to start small with restaurants before moving to retail, added Bollag, although the exact scale at which it makes sense to launch is “still something we’re discussing internally,” she said.
“Launching at the [very small] scale that for example, GOOD Meat has [in Singapore], is more of a marketing exercise [to test consumer reactions to cultivated meat] than a revenue play.”
Hybrid products first
Like most players in the nascent space, Uncommon plans to launch with hybrid products combining plant-based meat with cell-cultured fat and muscle, with precise ratios still to be determined. While the company has explored making more structured, tissue engineered products with scaffolding, this is not going to be utilized in its first products, said Bollag.
“So at the moment we’re harvesting muscle and fat cells, and mixing them [with plant-based material] to create hybrid products using extrusion. We have researched some other technologies, but for now the main method is [growing cultivated meat] without scaffolding.”
Why begin with pork?
The decision to focus on pork was made for multiple reasons, said Bollag: “The pork supply is under significant threat because of African swine fever and on top of that, a lot of antibiotics used [in meat production] are used in pork and poultry, and one of the main challenges we are trying to address is antibiotic resistance.
“Pork is also the most widely consumed meat in the world and used in a ton of processed products such as sausages that are easier to create [in bioreactors] than something like a [beef] steak. It’s also genetically similar to humans, so it’s easier to adapt the work that has been done [in medicine] to cultivated meat production.”
What is the consumer attraction of cultivated meat?
But what gives her the confidence that consumers will embrace cultivated meat, given that initially, at least, it will be more expensive, and arguments about animal welfare or sustainability are not primary purchase drivers for most consumers?
There is a health angle for cultivated meat with a high-quality, cleaner, antibiotic-free positioning, claimed Bollag. However, like most other players in the space, her contention is that the ‘real meat without compromise’ angle will be the biggest draw.
“With plant-based meat we saw real momentum starting, but the products over-promised and under-delivered, so people tried them, but the repeat rates weren’t there.”
If cultivated meat companies can drive trial, and the products really deliver, repeat rates could be far higher, she argued.
Asked why the company had changed its name, Bollag said: “First, we felt that Higher Steaks didn’t fit our brand strategy, and second, it’s potentially confusing given that we’re not making steak. Our first products will be pork belly and bacon.
“We also have to create a brand that gets people interested. How can we launch a meat brand that stands out on its own if cultivated meat becomes a more commoditized product?”
GFI principal scientist, cultivated meat: If it’s scalable, it ‘could be a real competitive advantage’
Dr. Elliot Swartz, principal scientist, cultivated meat at the Good Food Institute, told AFN that “RNA is affordable to produce but it’s an unstable molecule so most of the innovation around RNA technologies, including mRNA vaccines, is focused on enhancing stability and increasing the efficiency of delivery.”
He added: “It is certainly challenging to efficiently deliver RNA equally and efficiently to potentially trillions of cells that will be in a single cultivated meat bioreactor. If they have the technology and data that demonstrates this in millions or billions of cells in bioreactor conditions relevant to scaled cultivated meat production, then it could be a real competitive advantage and something that other companies might also be interested in licensing.”