Last June, JUST, the company formerly known as Hampton Creek, announced out of nowhere that they would bring lab-grown meat to market by 2018. If they succeed, they would be the first to do so; Finless Foods hopes their cultured fish will gain price parity with bluefin tuna by 2019, and Memphis Meats is aiming to premiere their cultured meat in 2021.
But it’ll be an uphill battle to get there. Soon after their announcement about lab-grown meat nearly all of JUST’s board resigned, leaving only Josh Tetrick, their very charismatic (and polarizing) CEO. Their former cellular agriculture director also left the company in early 2018 to start his own cultured animal product venture. (The new CTO who oversees the cellular agriculture team has been there since November.) At the same time, though, JUST has raised a total $310M in funding over the years, which is light years away from other clean meat startups (Memphis Meats has currently raised $20.1M). Can a company such high-profile turnover and drama, along with 125 employees and some pretty hefty capital, achieve its very ambitious vision of being the first to bring cultured meat to market?
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I was able to get a peek behind the heavily guarded doors of JUST (well, there was only one guard, but still) and take a tour of this buzzy startup — including their clean meat lab. I came in feeling skeptical and left much the same … but also oddly inspired.
JUST is the prototypical millennial-heavy food tech startup, complete with geometric logos, repurposed factory workspaces, and lots of robots. First I was led through the discovery platform, the part of JUST where scientists use custom-built robots to test plants from across the globe, determining their potential in vegan food products. Next, those plants go to the product development area; a fancified, high-tech kitchen staffed by chefs, many with Michelin stars.
During my tour I got to try a few flavors of JUST’s signature eggless mayo (really darn good) and their vegan cookies (tasted like normal cookies, though I suppose that was the point). But the coolest thing I sampled was their eggless scramble. Made of mung beans, the pale yellow liquid perfectly acted just like eggs, forming curds in the hot pan that were virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. The only giveaway was the beany flavor, though their VP of Product Development Ben Roche told me they’re working currently working on a new version that tastes more egg-like.
The fact that it cooks so much like regular scrambled eggs would make it an easy swap for foodservice — even easier than the real thing, since they don’t have to blend up the eggs first. Roche told me that they’re also working on pre-cooked eggless patties. I could see them putting those on the breakfast menu of a fast-food chain, following in the footsteps of partnerships like Impossible Foods and White Castle. For now, though, Just Scramble is only available in only a few restaurants in San Francisco and Hong Kong, though they’re hoping to expand it soon.
The area of JUST I had the highest expectations for was their clean meat lab. It’s also the area where I learned the least — though I suppose I wasn’t really expecting JUST to give away all their secrets so easily. (Sorry, no photos allowed in here.)
For a company that claims they’ll produce enough cultured meat to bring to market by the end of this year, the lab was surprisingly small. The room was filled with incubators growing cells cultures, bioreactors, and a small area behind a plastic curtain where a scientist was pipetting something into wells. (I was not allowed behind the curtain.)
In the corner of the room was a machine filled with shaking bottles. Vitor Espirito Santo, the Senior Scientist of Cellular Agriculture at JUST, explained to me that the bottles contained proliferating muscle cells; in order to scale up their meat production to a marketable scale, they have to grow them in suspension. Espirito Santo told me that the plan was to transfer the cells into larger and larger bioreactors (the vessels where cultured meat is grown) as their technology improved. The largest one they had in the lab was 2 liters — which is pretty small, though JUST says they want to scale up to pilot plant facilities in the near future.
Despite my skepticism, Espirito Santo was adamant that JUST’s lab-grown meat would be available by the end of 2018 as promised. When I pressed him for details but all I got was “It will be something avian.” The technology required to grow meat with the texture of a chicken breast isn’t evolved enough for mass production, so I’m predicting that their first product will be some sort of ground turkey or chicken. JUST’s press office also clarified with me that they were aiming to make the first commercial sale of clean meat by the end of 2018, subject to regulatory considerations — which, as we’ve written about before, could slow things down considerably.
Though they’re planning to be the first to bring clean meat to market, JUST’s chief focus seemed to be developing plant-based media. If they’re successful it would be a huge boon for the cultured meat industry. Many clean meat labs use fetal bovine serum (FBS) as the media in which to grow their muscle cells. FBS, however, is very expensive and also (duh) not vegan. If JUST can succeed in developing a plant-based media as effective and versatile as FBS, they have a real shot at making clean meat affordable, scalable, and 100% animal-free.
They’re not the first company to work on developing an alternative to animal-based media. In fact, Shojinmeat, a resource for people growing cultured meat at home, has found a way to do away with FBS altogether, using yeast extract as their media. Yeast extract isn’t a perfect solution — it only works with certain types of cells and doesn’t catalyze as much growth as FBS — but it is an exciting step towards inexpensive, plant-based media.
To me, the most provocative part of the clean meat lab wasn’t what Espirito Santo and his team were doing (or not doing), but what they hoped to do someday. Two drawings on the wall of the clean meat lab laid out their vision for the future of meat: a utopian architectural plan of a vertically integrated cultured meat production facility.
On one end of the property is a farm where they grow the plants for their cell media. On the other are the giant vats where the meat is grown, which lead to a factory where the meat is “assembled” on conveyor belts with 3D printing technology. The only humans involved in the process were walking between the belts doing quality control. The factory has glass walls, so the whole affair is transparent – literally and metaphorically. Consumers could come to the facility, watch their meat being printed out, and select cuts for their dinner. Sort of like a visit to one of those places you can watch cheese being made before buying a wheel, but with cultured meat.
Espirito Santo said they want that setup to be the same size as the largest slaughterhouse in the U.S. If he and his team can make plant-based media, and if 3D printing technology improves to allow for those production speeds, their goal could actually be attainable.
I couldn’t help but wonder if it might be more productive, from a price and efficiency point of view, for JUST to simply put their resources into developing plant-based meats that taste the same as the “real” thing. For example, Seattle Food Tech is developing vegan chicken nuggets — and manufacturing technology to make them scalable — which seems like a much more feasible way to take a bite out of the meat industry. Omnipork and Beyond Meat are developing plant-based pork and beef burgers, respectively. Which begs the question: If people can’t taste the difference, will they really care if their pork chop is made of muscle cells grown in a bioreactor, or plants made to have the same taste and texture as meat? This question seems especially relevant since, outside of the clean meat lab, all of JUST’s resources are focused on making plant-based versions of animal products, such as their eggless scramble.
While I think that JUST’s claim that they’ll bring lab-grown meat to market by 2018 is definitely a stretch, you have to respect their self-assuredness. The word “disrupt” gets thrown around a lot in the field of food innovation, but JUST really is trying to radically shake up the way we eat. They want to replace some of our most beloved foods — scrambled eggs, mayonnaise, and hamburgers — with vegan taste-alikes, and so far they’ve been pretty successful. We’ll have to see if their vision for cultured meat comes to pass, or if it’s just a drawing on the wall.
This article has been updated to reflect that JUST plans to be the first to make a commercial sale of cultured meat, not bring it to mass market, barring regulatory considerations. We also clarified that the CTO overseeing the cellular agriculture program has been at JUST since November.