- A new lab-grown meat startup is taking on the industry’s key hurdle by coming up with a way to make truly slaughter-free meat without relying on cow fetus blood (also known as fetal bovine serum).
- Called Meatable, the Dutch startup was born out of a partnership with Cambridge and uses proprietary stem cell technology to make faster, cheaper lab-grown meat.
- Meatable claims its technology eliminates the need to remove any tissue from an animal – a development that would make it the least invasive method for sourcing cells yet.
A handful of startups around the world are racing to make real meat in facilities that look more like breweries than farms.
In giant steel containers akin to brewer’s vats, cells from pigs, cows, and chickens will be carefully monitored and multiplied. Then, they’ll be formed into burgers, sausages, and meatballs – all without a single animal being slaughtered. At least, that’s the vision.
Until now, lab-grown meat startups have faced a key barrier that’s something of deal-breaker for the industry: the food for the cells comes from slaughtered cows. Called fetal bovine serum, or simply “serum,” the liquid remains the standard means of coaxing animal cells to proliferate.
The founders of a new startup called Meatable think they’ve found a way around the serum problem.
Rather than relying on cells that can’t grow without a serum-like food source, Meatable’s founders use pluripotent stem cells, which possess the unique ability to turn into any type of cell – from muscle to fat – without serum. Other lab-grown meat startups have avoided using pluripotent stem cells because they are notoriously hard to control in a lab environment.
Yet the Meatable team claims they’ve developed the secret sauce to making them behave. It involves proprietary technology created in partnership with Roger Pedersen, a stem cell biologist and founder of the University of Cambridge’s Stem Cell Institute, and Mark Kotter, a Cambridge neurosurgery clinician scientist.
“Serum is out the door for us. We don’t need it in any way,” Daan Luining, Meatable’s chief technology officer, told Business Insider.
A team of heavy-hitters in medicine and meat
- Meatable CTO Daan Luining (let) and CEO Krijn De Nood.
- Courtesy Meatable
Based in the Netherlands, where Dutch researcher Mark Post made history by creating the first beef burger from cow cells, Meatable is stacked with a team of heavy-hitters in medicine and cell-based meat.
Luining previously worked as a research strategist for the nonprofit cell-based agriculture foundation New Harvest; Pedersen founded the first institute for stem cell science at the University of Cambridge; and Kotter founded Elpis Biomed, a British biotech startup that specializes in making cells for research.
“What I saw was too good to be real,” Luining said of his first meeting with Kotter, when he demonstrated his approach to working with stem cells. “Then I saw that is was real.”
The company has raised $3.5 million from three venture capital firms – BlueYard Capital, Atlantic Food Labs, and Backed VC – and several angel investors, including former Microsoft strategist Charlie Songhurst and Jörg Mohaupt, who founded global payment company and Stripe competitor Adyen.
Faster and cheaper slaughter-free meat?
- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
Many cell-based meat companies get the stem cells for their products from a small piece of tissue taken from a live animal.
Meatable claims it avoids this procedure entirely by sourcing stem cells from animals’ umbilical cords. This is the same process that people use to bank a baby’s stem cells at birth. So-called “cord blood” is collected because the stem cells it contains can be used to treat a variety of disorders and conditions ranging from leukemia to sickle cell disease.
“This way, we don’t harm the animals at all, and it’s material that would otherwise get thrown away,” Krijn De Nood, Meatable’s CEO, told Business Insider.
The key to Meatable’s approach isn’t merely the way they source the cells. Instead, it’s how the startup coaxes them into the right kind of cells – the cells that together makeup the kinds of tissues that people eat.
“When you have a stem cell, it doesn’t know which program to run,” Luining said. “Our technology turns on the right program at the right time.”
For example, if Luining wanted a stem cell to turn into a fat cell or a muscle cell – two types of cells that are found in every meat product – he and his team could direct it to do so using their proprietary technique.
“You can think of it like running a muscle application or a fat application,” Luining said.
Meatable plans to start with beef burgers and sausages and then expand to chicken and pork products. Luining said the technology will lend itself to scaling up to more complex products like steak within a few years.
Luining hopes to see those beef products in restaurants in four years. The startup will likely launch products first in the Netherlands, where he said the regulatory environment is more friendly to cell-based products.
“We’re coming back to where it all started,” said Luining.
- Reuters/Lisa Hornak
- While companies race to turn animal cells into restaurant-grade burgers that eschew the environmental and ethical baggage of traditional meat, a battle is brewing over who gets to police them.
- On one side is the the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has the bulk of participation from most of the leading Silicon Valley startups in the space.
- On the other is the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is represented by the majority of traditional American meat producers, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
- Now, the old guard of meat makers is going directly to President Trump to ask that the USDA – and not the FDA – is the one to oversee cultured meat.
The fight among startups to create the first slaughter-free meat needs a referee – badly.
While companies around the world race to turn animal cells into restaurant-grade products that eschew the environmental and ethical baggage of traditional meat, a battle is brewing over who gets to police them.
On one side is the the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has the bulk of participation from most of the leading Silicon Valley startups in the space. On the other is the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is represented by the majority of traditional American meat producers, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Of the two agencies who could regulate the brave new world of cultured meat, the FDA appeared – at least at first – to be leading the charge. Earlier this month, it hosted the first cultured meat meeting to start the discussion on the subject. A handful of leading startups and scientific groups in the space attended.
Notably, the USDA was not invited, despite asking to be included in a letter sent to the White House budget office the day before the meeting.
Now, the old guard of meat makers is going directly to President Trump to ask that the USDA – and not the FDA – is appointed to be the agency that oversees cultured meat.
In a letter sent to Trump on Thursday, groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, and National Turkey Federation wrote that the USDA is “uniquely equipped” to ensure that cultured meat products are labeled, tested, and marketed “in a manner that provides a level playing field in the marketplace.”
After calling out the FDA meeting as a “power grab,” they said cultured meat producers should be subject to the same regulatory rules as they are – rules that currently come from the USDA.
“If cell-cultured protein companies want the privilege of marketing their products as meat … they should be happy to follow the same rules as everyone else,” the letter read.
But cultured meat startups and nonprofit groups who support their work say the FDA should be the ones in charge, citing the fact that traditional meat regulators wouldn’t have a great deal of expertise in overseeing their products.
“My favorite question,” Matt Ball, a senior media relations specialist with the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the development of cultured meat, told Business Insider, “What would a USDA inspector do? Stand there and stare at a clean meat cultivator?”
- An animal-free pet food startup called Wild Earth recently scored $450,000 from tech mogul Peter Thiel and backing from Mars Veterinary, the world’s biggest pet food maker.
- The company’s current products are made with koji, a type of fungus, but Wild Earth has plans to make pet food from cultured mouse meat.
- That idea worries the founders of other cultured meat startups, who say marketing cultured meat as dog food could destroy its appeal for human consumers.
Entrepreneur and scientist Ryan Bethencourt doesn’t like the idea of feeding his foster dogs ingredients that he wouldn’t eat himself. So the long-time vegan, who previously founded the Silicon Valley biotech startup hub IndieBio, created a startup called Wild Earth that’s making animal-free pet food using koji, the same organism that gives miso soup and sake their pungent kick.
The company attracted the attention of tech mogul Peter Thiel, who last week announced he is investing just under half a million dollars in Wild Earth. On Thursday, Wild Earth announced it will also get support from Mars Veterinary, the world’s largest pet food manufacturer and the company behind brands like Pedigree and Iams, as part of a new pet product incubator.
Bethencourt claims Wild Earth is also working on making pet food from cultured meat – the same kind of meat that half a dozen Silicon Valley startups are betting on to save the meat industry and protect the planet. At its most basic, cultured (or “lab-grown”) meat involves making meat – real meat – from animal cells. Only instead of brewing up flesh from the cells of cows or chickens, Bethencourt wants to use mice.
“People who don’t have cats think this is crazy, but cat parents think it’s super cool,” Bethencourt told Business Insider.
Other startups in the cultured meat space aren’t thrilled about Bethencourt’s stated aims. Marketing cultured meat as dog food could destroy its appeal for human consumers, executives from two leading startups in the food tech space told Business Insider.
“Would this jeopardize clean meat or make people associate it with lower quality food? Possibly,” Didier Toubia, the co-founder and CEO of an Israeli clean meat startup called Aleph Farms, told Business Insider. “People won’t want to eat food that’s for pets.”
Bethencourt disagrees, noting that he thinks clean meat for humans will arrive first. He believes that part of the transition to eating more sustainable food includes making sure pets are eating more sustainably too. And that includes cultured meat.
“In the same way there’s plant-based protein for humans and cultured meat for humans we want to make sure that’s also the case for our pets,” Bethencourt said. “We will do koji; that’s one of our primary protein sources, but we want to have other proteins available for our customers too.”
- Kimberlie Le
- Fish-less “salmon” burgers may be the next frontier in the future of alternative meat products.
- Kimberlie Le, the 23-year-old founder of a startup called Terramino Foods, is crafting burgers that taste like salmon using ingredients found in other foods.
- Le was recently named a Peter Thiel Fellow and received $100,000 to pursue her idea.
“Salmon” burgers without any fish may be the next frontier for the future of meat alternatives.
Instead of smashing together beans and tofu or trying to coax animal cells to form edible tissues, Kimberlie Le, the founder of a startup called Terramino Foods, is taking an approach that draws inspiration from soy and sake.
Le was recently named a Peter Thiel Fellow and received $100,000 from the venture capitalist to work on her “salmon” burger concept. The goal is to brew burgers that taste like salmon using things we already eat, such as a mushroom-like ingredient called koji that’s currently used in miso soup and soy sauce.
With the funding, Le hopes to finalize the company’s recipe and double the size of Terramino Foods, which currently has four employees. Support from other Thiel Fellows will also play a key role in helping her hit these goals, she said.
Burgers a’ brewing
There’s a race among startups to create alternatives to meat and fish that don’t require killing animals.
Besides the ethical concerns of farming and slaughtering livestock, the business of meat production is often wasteful and resource-intensive.
Most meatless meat startups are approaching the problem in one of two ways. Some are trying to make meat-like burgers and meatballs from plant ingredients; others are brewing up animal cells in giant vats to create real cow, chicken, or fish flesh without any killing.
But both of those approaches involve some pretty big hurdles.
Products made from animal cells, like the ones that startups such as Just and Memphis Meats are exploring, require significant scientific expertise and government oversight to create. So far, no such product has been brought to consumer plates. And recipes for meat alternatives made from plants – such as plant-based burgers like the Impossible Burger – can be tough to nail down without a significant amount of time and money.
So Le’s company is pursuing a different strategy: using the fungus koji to make a product that tastes like seafood.
- Miso soup requires sake.
Somewhat similar in meaty texture and taste to mushrooms, koji has a long culinary history. People have eaten it for thousands of years in foods like miso soup and soy sauce; it’s also the fungus that feeds the fermantable sugars required to make sake.
Koji’s history, taste, and texture make it simpler for Terramino Foods to nail down a recipe and scale up production, since koji already provides a chewiness and bite that resembles something you’d expect from a burger. So Le doesn’t have to worry about creating a brand new texture.
“The advantage is we have naturally occurring texture which is very similar to meat,” she told Business Insider.
Le also loves koji’s taste. She said that after tasting a real salmon burger recently, she could barely distinguish it from her own salmon-less recipe.
“I was like, this tastes like our burger!” Le said.
The importance of a supportive community
A former student at the University of California Berkeley, Le dropped out to focus on her company. Last year, she and her co-founder completed a 4-month biotech accelerator program offered by IndieBio, which gave them $250,000 in seed funding and access to some of the resources they needed to get Terramino Foods off the ground.
That financial backing supplements the funding from the Thiel Fellowship, which will also provide Le and Terramino Foods with a network of support from other fellows. Every Thiel fellow dropped out of college to pursue their ideas at age 22 or younger.
Boyan Slat, the Dutch innovator behind the Ocean Cleanup plan to clear plastic from the ocean, is also a Thiel Fellow, as is Vitalik Buterin, the co-creator of digital currency Ethereum.
Le said it’s nice to be part of a network of people who didn’t necessarily follow the conventional route to success.
“Just having that support really helps – being a founder is a lonely job sometimes,” she said. “It’s cool to be in a community that values hard work and innovation and bucks the trend of getting a standard nine-to-five job.”
Le hopes that by asking people in the Thiel Fellowship network about their startup experiences, she’ll be able to start bringing her product to the masses in the next few years.
“What we’re doing isn’t rocket science – it’s growing fungi,” Le said.
- The race among startups to create the first meat without slaughter needs a referee – and right now, there’s a battle raging over who it will be.
- In a letter sent Wednesday to the White House budget office, congressmembers said they were upset and disappointed that the USDA was not included in an FDA public meeting to discuss cultured meat.
- The controversy could prove too inconvenient for startups working on cultured (or “clean”) meat. Some have suggested they might take their products to other countries instead.
The race among startups to create the first meat without slaughter needs a referee – and right now, there’s a battle raging over who it will be.
Clean or cultured meat, which is made using animal cells instead of the flesh of slaughtered animals, could decrease waste, lessen the environmental footprint of meat production, and provide a more ethical way to eat meat. While a number of startups are working on creating the first clean meat products, none has yet succeeded in bringing one to market. The technology is early and the products are still too expensive to create something that’s viable for retail.
Two main federal agencies oversee the world of meat production: the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But it’s unclear which one has jurisdiction of clean or cultured meat, which is continuing to inch closer to our plates.
That could prove to be inconvenient for startups, who may take their products to other countries instead of wading into a federal turf war here in the US. The governments of Israel and Japan, for example, have each recently announced investments in startups working on clean meat and fish.
The battle began earlier this month when, shortly after the FDA announced it was planning to hold a public meeting on the topic of cultured meat, the White House Domestic Policy Council asked members of both the USDA and the FDA to sit down and discuss it.
After that meeting, the USDA expected to be invited to the FDA’s public cultured meat meeting (or have the event called off), according to a letter sent Wednesday to the White House budget office by members of two congressional groups overseeing topics related to the USDA and FDA. But that’s not what happened, the authors of the letter wrote.
“Our expectation was that the White House meeting would direct USDA and FDA to coordinate on this issue, including the July 12 meeting. However, that was not the result based upon FDA’s published agenda,” the letter said.
It’s unclear what will happen next.
The USDA clearly wants a more prominent seat at the table and a more direct role in the work the FDA is doing on cultured meat.
“While we appreciate the FDA’s interest in overseeing aspects of the regulation of these innovative products, the US Department of Agriculture also has an obvious role in ensuring their safety and accurate labeling,” the authors of the letter wrote, adding that they felt that the USDA “should be included in the meeting Thursday,” but “if that is not possible … there should be a follow up meeting with both agencies as equal participants.”
Thursday’s meeting agenda did not include any participation from the USDA.
It did, however, include presentations from several startups working in the space, including two San Francisco-based startups: Just (formerly Hampton Creek), which is known for its vegan mayo and egg scramble and claims to be near finalizing a turkey or chicken-based cultured meat product, and Finless Foods, which is creating fish meat from fish cells.
“We believe we can produce meat that is infinitely more efficient than conventional approaches with a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions and water use,” Peter Licari, Just’s Chief Technology Officer, said during a presentation at the meeting. “Despite the challenges ahead … that’s where we’re headed.”
The USDA and FDA appear to agree. Now they just need to figure out how to oversee it.
“Both agencies should be working collaboratively on a scientific approach towards a framework to regulate these products,” the letter read.