Scaling Cultivated Meat – The Companies Enabling the Industry’s Growth
By: Shruti Azad
Cultivated meat, which is genuine animal meat and seafood that is produced by cultivating animal cells directly, has immense potential. Not only does this production method eliminate the need to raise and farm animals for food, but it can replicate the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat exactly.
Scientists, entrepreneurs and investors are rightfully enthusiastic and according to GFI, last year, investment in cultivated meat companies topped $1.36 billion. In fact, 2021 also saw more than a hundred new investors enter the space.
However, this industry isn’t without certain big hurdles which need to be overcome for it to reach its true potential. There are 3 major challenges that the cultivated meat industry faces. This article aims at diving into what they are and the startups that are meeting these challenges head on.
Scalability of the Industry
Cultivated meat requires animal stem cells to be grown in a culture medium. This medium is then fed into a bioreactor that allows the cells to grow, ultimately creating meat. One of the limiting factors in this technology is the size of the bioreactors. Larger sized bioreactors have issues with homogeneity and shear forces that might result in cell damage. Another issue is that with large bioreactors, there might be a high amount of resources wasted if the production batch is compromised. In order to tackle this, companies usually scale up incrementally from lab scale to pilot and finally commercial.
Another issue, according to Will Milligan, the founder of UK-based company Extracellular, is a gap in the skills and expertise needed for the commercialisation of this industry. He says, “I believe the skillset and resources needed to effectively scale and commercialise cultivated meat exists, though the industry is incredibly fragmented. Too many companies are trying to vertically integrate their capabilities, which leads to a scarcity of talent and infrastructure, which in turn has a net negative impact on the sector.”
His company, Extracellular, aims at solving these issues by supporting companies to scale their manufacturing processes by providing the skilled people, facilities, equipment and processes needed to accelerate their development. The company has started labs with 200L bioreactors, allowing them to produce kilos of cultivated meat and seafood thereby helping companies focussed on developing great consumer products.
Other companies like Singapore-based Dynacyte are building modular bioreactors and making them accessible with better ease of use by incorporating artificial intelligence and IoT into bioreactors.
Producing cultivated meats today is expensive. One of the reasons why is the culture media required for cells to proliferate. Foetal bovine serum (FBS), the media of choice for the industry due to its nutritional value and growth factors is not only of animal origin but can cost up to $800/litre. Thankfully, many companies have already started creating their own media to use as alternatives to FBS.
However, according to Stephen Gray, Co-director and COO at Noubio, “Companies have developed serum-free alternatives but they do not fully replicate all of the 300 proteins present in FBS. This is a problem as cells need all of these components to proliferate and develop into the end product with all meat components.”
His company is producing a medium called NouMedia that aims at solving this problem. He says, “NouMedia is amongst the first FBS replacement serum that matches it at 90-95% lowered costs and is produced with no animals harmed.”
Other ways in which companies are working on low cost solutions are through the manufacturing of viable microcarriers and cell support matrices. The problem with microcarriers is that oftentimes they are not edible so it necessitates the use of a detachment media to remove the cells from the microcarriers. This adds an additional step in processing and increases costs. Australia-based Smart MCs overcomes that by creating edible microcarriers so that the cells don’t have to be detached from them.
“We believe the most critical aspect of our technology is to enable low-cost and large-scale culture muscle cells with the same texture and microenvironment as it is in the animal body. Facilitating the rapid expansion of muscle cells while using edible substrates can significantly help alleviate workflow inefficiencies and eliminate concerns around non-edible particulates (e.g. micro-plastics) found in the food product,” says Smart MCs co-founder Payar Radfar.
While technological challenges are well underway of being solved, one main challenge remains: regulatory approval around the world. Today, Singapore is the only country to have granted approval to Eat Just’s cultivated chicken back in December 2020. Other countries have yet to make similar breakthroughs and, unlike tech innovation, getting cultivated meat on the market will take the concerted efforts of the entire community.
However, startups and leading industry stakeholders are putting in efforts to change this. Last month, over 30 startups and organisations within the Asia Pacific region met at Singapore International Agri-Food Week and announced a memorandum of understanding establishing “cultivated” as the preferred descriptor for cell-based meats.
APAC Society for Cellular Agriculture President Dr. Sandhya Sriram and Program Manager Peter Yu spoke to Vegconomist and said,
“Nomenclature and regulatory harmonisation are vital for the long-term success of the cultivated foods industry and this MOU establishes a regional precedent that can be replicated in other markets around the globe.”
The growing number of cultivated meat start-ups emerging from countries like the US and China might be an indicator of governments working towards ensuring proper regulatory frameworks being drafted to ensure the safety of consumers.
The Big Idea Ventures team is always on the lookout for innovative plant-based companies. If you are an early-stage startup looking for investment and support, reach out to us here. If you are a corporate or an investor interested in investing in the space, reach out to us here.