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A startup that turns mushrooms into IKEA packaging has introduced a new platform that could change the way lab-grown meat is made

A startup that turns mushrooms into IKEA packaging has introduced a new platform that could change the way lab-grown meat is made

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Ecovative
  • Ecovative, a startup that made a name for itself with its sustainable packing and building materials made from mushrooms, is planning a pivot into lab-grown meat and other areas.
  • The company wants its mushroom scaffolding to be a central material for startups aiming to create everything from clothing to meat without slaughter.
  • The material could have uses for plant-based “meat” companies like the Bill Gates-backed bleeding veggie burger startup Impossible Foods, too.

A startup that makes environmentally-friendly packaging for IKEA is planning a big transition into the realms of lab-grown meat and beyond.

Ecovative – which made a name for itself by inking deals with brands like IKEA and Dell to swap styrofoam containers for packaging grown from fungi – now wants to use its mushroom-growing capabilities to become the backbone of several manufacturing efforts, including plans to make meat without slaughter.

It might sound like an odd pivot. But a critical obstacle for the “cell-based” (or “clean”) meat industry is taking the raw materials for meat – lab-grown cells from the fat and muscle tissues of chickens, pigs, and cows – and crafting them into materials that mimic the complex structure and texture of a marbled steak or sinewy chicken breast.

Several startups in the space claim to have succeeded in making prototype products that take the form of sausages, burgers, and meatballs. But these products involve essentially smashing together a mix of muscle and fat tissues – not creating actual pieces of flesh that mirror the real thing. What could be missing is a good scaffold, a delicate structure on which the cells can thrive.

Ecovative wants its mushroom technology to be that scaffold.

Using a new platform which the company is calling MycoFlex, Ecovative will be able to tailor a foam-like product it makes from mushroom roots (or mycelium) and craft it into a variety of end materials, from performance foams for clothing and shoes to cellular scaffolding for lab grown meat. In April, the company worked with licensee and fellow startup Bolt Threads to make the first MycoFlex-enabled product, a leather-like bag made with material it called Mylo.

Most recently, Ecovative has also been trialling growing animal cells on the MycoFlex platform.

“The key thing mycelium does is go from a single-celled organism to a 3D structure in space,” Eben Bayer, Ecovative’s co-founder and CEO, told Business Insider. “We’ve been growing animal cells on it and they’ve been growing really well.”

If it works, the partnership could help usher in the first slaughter-free products with the texture and structure of steaks and fillets.

The mushroom’s unique structure is hard to find elsewhere in the vegetarian-friendly organism kingdom. Plants can only do so much. But fungi knows no such boundaries.

wagyu steak

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Shutterstock/hlphoto

“If you look at plant scaffolding, you’re limited to the geometry of something like a spinach leaf,” Bayer said. “With mycelium, we can make a sheet that’s many feet long and however thick. We can control the density. It’s this massive scaffold you can grow relatively inexpensively.”

Ecovative’s mushroom-powered structure could have uses beyond the cell-based meat space as well. In the plant-based food arena, for example, mycelium could be used as the foundation for new, even meatier versions of already popular vegetarian items like the Bill Gates-backed “bleeding” Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger.

Those companies could essentially “use our scaffolding and infuse it with their ingredients and flavorings,” Bayer said.

Several other startups aiming to replace animal products with vegetarian options have turned to fungi for its preferential texture and naturally neutral flavor.

Wild Earth, a startup making vegan dog treats, uses koji – the fungi that gives soy sauce and miso soup their umami kick – in its products. Similarly, startup Terramino Foods is exploring using koji as the central ingredient for its “salmon” burgers.

For now, Ecovative isn’t sure which path in the sustainable food arena – whether it’s cell-based meat or plant-based meat alternatives – the company will end up pursuing the most heavily. The company’s overarching goal is to make its mycelium design platform available to everyone, Bayer said on Tuesday at a launch event hosted by global science conference SynBioBeta.

Regardless, Bayer said he sees a place for his company at the food-of-the-future table.

“This is the next natural step in this evolution to use natural products to make things,” Bayer said. “As the biology advances and the tech advances alongside it, you’re going to see more people building on this platform.”

‘Cat parents think it’s cool’: A Peter Thiel-backed startup pursuing mouse meat for dogs has begun selling its first products

‘Cat parents think it’s cool’: A Peter Thiel-backed startup pursuing mouse meat for dogs has begun selling its first products

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Shutterstock
  • A vegan pet food startup called Wild Earth recently scored $450,000 from tech mogul Peter Thiel along with backing from Mars Veterinary, the world’s biggest pet food maker.
  • Its first products – vegan dog treats made with koji, a type of fungus similar to mushrooms – went on sale Monday.
  • Wild Earth’s CEO told Business Insider he plans to eventually get into the lab-grown meat business.
  • That would involve taking stem cells from mice and brewing them up in bioreactors to make pet chow.

Entrepreneur and scientist Ryan Bethencourt won’t feed 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, koji is the main ingredient in Wild Earth’s first products: vegan dog treats that went on sale Monday.

Wild Earth – which has been backed by tech mogul Peter Thiel and global pet food manufacturer Mars Veterinary – is not limiting itself to koji. Bethencourt told Business Insider he aims to eventually produce dog food made with meat from mouse cells. That would involve taking stem cells from mice and brewing them up in bioreactors to make pet chow.

“People who don’t have cats think this is crazy, but cat parents think it’s super cool,” Bethencourt told Business Insider in August.

The race to lab-grown sausages, burgers … and dog food?

A handful of startups around the world are racing to make lab-grown meat a reality for humans in order to protect the planet. To do it, they are taking stem cells from pigs, cows, and chickens (without killing them), multiplying the cells in labs, and stuffing them into prototype recipes for everything from sausages to burgers and meatballs.

Business Insider got its first taste of lab-grown sausage in September. (Here’s what it was like.)

Bethencourt claims Wild Earth has plans to do the same thing for pets. Instead of pork, beef, or chicken, the food would be mouse-based.

Other startups in the lab-grown 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 in August.

“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,” Toubia said.

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. That includes lab-grown 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.”

A new lab-grown meat startup may have overcome a key barrier to making meat without slaughter

A new lab-grown meat startup may have overcome a key barrier to making meat without slaughter

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Shutterstock
  • 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.

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Meatable CTO Daan Luining (let) and CEO Krijn De Nood.
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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?

Olive Garden Meatball Pizza Bowl 4

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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.

We tried the first lab-grown sausage made without killing animals. It was smoky, savory, and tasted like breakfast

We tried the first lab-grown sausage made without killing animals. It was smoky, savory, and tasted like breakfast

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Katie Canales/Business Insider
  • Silicon Valley clean meat startup New Age Meats made history on Monday by letting journalists taste the first cultured pork sausage made in a lab.
  • New Age Meats’ sausage is the first cell-based meat to be made using both fat and muscle cells, which could prove key to nailing the flavor of traditional meat.
  • Here’s what the farm-free sausage was like.

On a Monday night at a brewery in San Francisco’s hipster Mission District, the co-founders of a startup called New Age Meats helped cook up samples of pork sausage made entirely out of cells grown from a live pig named Jessie.

As scientists-turned-entrepreneurs Brian Spears and Andra Necula watched, the sausage they’d spent the past two months making at a nearby lab began to sizzle. Slowly, its sides turned brown and, as the aroma of breakfast meat filled the room, samples were doled out to taste.

New Age Meats aims to make meat from animal cells without killing any actual animals. They are one of roughly half a dozen nascent companies aiming to create an alternative to factory farming. In so doing, they hope to reduce waste, improve health, and eliminate animal suffering.

New Age Meats’ sausage was the first in history to be made with fat and muscle cells – an important combination that could prove key for nailing the taste of “cell-based” or “cultured” (meaning simply: not from slaughter) meat. Here’s what it was like.


Around 5 PM on Monday evening, a group of journalists and potential investors gathered at Standard Deviant Brewery for a taste of the first pork sausage made in a lab from the cells of a live pig.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

After filling up on vegan appetizers and snacks, New Age Meats co-founder Brian Spears told us what to expect. He also shared a photo of Jessie, whose cells — taken from a small biopsy on her side — went into the meat we’d be eating.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

Spears and co-founder Andra Necula teamed up with Matt Murphy, a butcher and sausage chef, to get their recipe just right. Because the sausage casing they used was vegan, it was extra delicate — meaning Murphy had to be careful to avoid too much blistering, which could cause the links to break apart in the pan.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

After about five minutes of cooking, the sausage was done. As the room filled with the aroma of breakfast meat, Murphy nudged the links onto a serving plate.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

Necula and Murphy sliced the sausage into bite-sized pieces. In addition to pork fat and muscle from Jessie, the links contained spices like sage, ginger, and white pepper as well as vegetable stock and soy protein.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

When I got my hands on my sample of sausage, I was ecstatic. This was the first meat made from a lab instead of on a factory farm that I’d ever tasted. After spearing it with my toothpick, I went in for a bite.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

The flavor was smoky and savory. The texture was distinctly sausage-like. It tasted like meat. Then again, it is meat.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

As we ate, Spears explained that all the material for the meat came from a single biopsy from Jessie. Spears and Necula coaxed the tiny cell sample into developing billions of fat and muscle cells in the lab, giving rise to the key ingredients in the sausage.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

A chemical engineer by training, Spears said he chose to host the tasting at a brewery because these types of facilities — with their sleek silver brewer’s vats — are the same kind of places where the meat of the future will be produced.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

Until that day arrives, New Age Meats faces several obstacles in turning its prototype sausages into a product that could be sold in restaurants. Cost is the first.

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Dutch scientist Mark Post became the first person in the world to make a beef burger from cow cells in 2013. The patty cost $330,000 to produce.
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REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Getting to a price consumers would be willing to pay at a restaurant is still at least five to 10 years away, according to several CEOs of the leading cultured meat companies.

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Flickr/Christopher Craig

Another issue is texture. Making a sausage, patty, fish cake, or any other product that combines several ingredients with ground meat is nowhere near as difficult as mimicking the intricate texture and flavor of a steak or a chicken breast. “Wagyu beef” — with its complex marbling and texture — “would be the holy grail,” said Spears.

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hlphoto/Shutterstock

Necula said she and Spears planned to continue working on products in the sausage realm, but they’re exploring options that include products made with beef and crab too. “We think we’ll be ready to go to market in a couple years,” Spears said.

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Courtesy of New Age Meats
We tasted the first lab-grown sausage made without slaughtering any animals— here’s what it was like

We tasted the first lab-grown sausage made without slaughtering any animals— here’s what it was like

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Katie Canales/Business Insider
  • Silicon Valley clean meat startup New Age Meats made history on Monday by letting journalists taste the first cultured pork sausage made in a lab.
  • Making meat without slaughter has been the primary objective of several companies since Dutch scientist Mark Post made the first “lab-grown” hamburger in 2013.
  • Here’s how the farm-free pork sausage looked, cooked, smelled, and tasted.

For the first time in the roughly five years since a smattering of researchers and companies began talking about making real meat without slaughtering animals, one startup is letting people see how its sausage gets made.

Well, almost. On Monday evening, the startup, called New Age Meats, let a handful of journalists and potential investors taste its prototype product – a pork sausage made from many of the same ingredients in the kind of breakfast sausage you’d buy at the store, such as pork muscle and fat, spices, sausage, casing, and vegetable stock.

But unlike other breakfast sausages, this meat was made from animal cells, without killing any actual animals.

Creating this kind of meat been the primary objective of several startups ever since Dutch scientist Mark Post became the first person in the world to make a beef burger from cow cells in 2013. Since then, at least six companies have emerged with the aim of slashing food waste and emissions while reducing animal suffering and improving human health. All of them are working on transforming meat or fish cells into edible flesh.

At a brewery in San Francisco, New Age Meat’s team cooked and doled out the first samples of its farm-free (also known as “cell-based” or “cultured”) meat. Here’s what it was like.

Sausage without slaughter

On Monday evening, New Age Meats co-founders Brian Spears and Andra Necula served three freshly-cooked pork sausage links made using fat and muscle cells generated from a single sample of a live pig named Jessie (after the street where their headquarters is located in San Francisco).

Pork sausage made from pork fat and muscle cells — no farm required.

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Pork sausage made from pork fat and muscle cells — no farm required.
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Katie Canales/Business Insider

The company started just two months ago with $250,000 in seed funding from IndieBio, the biotech-focused accelerator that also gave cultured meat startup Memphis Meats its start.

“We really thought: do we want to invest in another cultured meat startup?” Arvind Gupta, IndieBio’s co-founder, told Business Insider. “But after we met the team and saw what they could do, we had to.”

“This is the most product and the fastest production from any cultured meat startup we’ve seen so far,” Gupta said.

As Spears, a chemical engineer by training, and Necula, a cell biologist, watched, the sausage sizzled in a pan with a little grapeseed oil. Slowly, it began to brown on each side like conventional sausage. The room filled with the smell of breakfast meat. After a few minutes – just before the sausage casing began to blister – we dug into our bite-sized samples.

It tasted like meat. Then again, it is meat.

The texture was distinctly sausage-like. After I’d chewed my bite, I wasn’t sure I would have been able to tell the difference between this pork sausage and any other. Perhaps it was a little drier, a little more crumbly? It was hard to tell from just one bite, but I was pretty sure there were no glaring differences.

An uphill battle for the future of meat

New Age Meats co-founders Brian Spears (L) and Andra Necula.

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New Age Meats co-founders Brian Spears (L) and Andra Necula.
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Courtesy of New Age Meats

Despite their hard work, Spears and Necula face a long road ahead. Meat made in labs is coming, as most of the startups in the space continue to promise, but getting the products out of the lab and into restaurants will take time.

Back in 2013, when Dutch scientist Mark Post became the first person in the world to make a beef burger from cow cells, the patty cost $330,000 to produce. Getting that down to a price consumers would be willing to pay at a restaurant is still at least 5 to 10 years away, according to several CEOs of the leading companies in the space.

Part of the cost problem has to do with the food these startups are feeding their farm-free animal cells. Many companies still use something called fetal bovine serum (FBS), a standard and relatively inexpensive lab medium made from the blood of pregnant slaughtered cows. To live up to their goal of replacing animal slaughter, these startups will need to find something new and slaughter-free that costs the same or less.

My first bite of cell-based meat.

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My first bite of cell-based meat.
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Katie Canales/Business Insider

New Age Meats’ sausages were made using FBS, but Spears told Business Insider he and Necula were working on going serum-free within the next couple of months.

Another issue is texture.

Making a sausage, patty, fish cake, or any other product that combines several ingredients with ground meat or seafood is nowhere near as difficult as mimicking the complex texture and flavor of a steak or a chicken breast. To do that, startups will likely need to take many of their cues from regenerative medicine, where scientists strive to heal or grow real human tissues and organs. Applying those tools to the world of cultured meat could result in the first farm-free products that chew, slice, and taste like a traditional steak or thigh.

For this reason, Necula said she and Spears planned to continue working in the realm of sausage-like items, but they’re exploring options that include products made with beef, pork, and crab.

Several other startups appear to be making headway on their first cultured meat products as well.

The CEO of Just, a Silicon Valley startup formerly known as Hampton Creek, recently tweeted a photo that appeared to show a prototype of its first cultured chicken nuggets; Memphis Meats, the Silicon Valley startup that claimed it made the first lab-grown chicken and duck products in 2017, invited this reporter to a tasting of its products before the year’s end.

New Age Meats made history with the first semi-public tasting of its sausage on Monday.

“We think we’ll be ready to go to market in a couple years,” Spears said.

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