This guest post originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted here with permission.
It’s easy to think that there’s hype in lab-grown meat. Just another Silicon Valley utopian tech. The idea of growing meat without animals is everywhere and very distant at the same time. Now a global trend, 80 startups work on lab-grown meat worldwide in one way or another… Four years ago there were two. Consumer interest is also evolving rapidly — the #plantbased market is growing quickly, soon it will be 10% of the meat market. Lab-grown meat has been thoroughly covered in the news, on magazine covers and in books.
Let’s take a look at decoding some questions from the news and announcements. As novelty or mainstream product, when will this meat come to market? Will it ever reach its promise of selling as cheaply as other meat in the deli case?
Look at the forces driving Cellular Agriculture (cellAg) and we will see that lab-grown meat will be a part of everyday life in a surprisingly short time.
Last fall I plotted some of the lab-grown meat stories onto a pricing plot since the dawn of time (2013):
The red dots are pricing statements and estimates for a serving of lab-grown meat through last summer. The slope shows a price drop that is faster than some of the most powerful technologies that we have seen.
The blue line is the famed Moore’s Law , the cost of a transistor over a period of 12 years, — the classic impactful technology. Moore’s Law unleashed infoTech and the internet, e-commerce, facial recognition, smart phones, Amazon, Netflix, targeted advertising, the efficient and global dissemination of cat pictures.
The Green line is the cost of sequencing a human genome over the same period of time, compiled by the National Institutes of Health. The first human genome sequence was perhaps $300M. Last year I bought my own 20x covered genome sequence for $800 (it was on holiday special). Billions are being spent on mobilizing sequencing for personal healthcare, monitoring the environment, testing food safety and detecting COVID-19. Although not a consumer product by and large, sequencing is so cheap as to be just under the surface of our daily lives.
This curve is why Memphis Meats was an easy investment for me four years ago and why investors often jump in since. There is sixty-five years of cell culture research by a few million researchers worldwide as well as a global network of manufacturing experience all ready to jump in. Cell Science has spring loaded lab-grown meat. Overall, most biotech products have economics that start slow for each product but drop by log pricing over time. This is a fundamental upon which analysts at McKinsey have dubbed The Bio Revolution.
The slope of the pricing curve is steeper than transistors: cost has dropped 6000 times since Mark Post’s burger reveal 7 years ago. The red line fitting lab-grown meat cost crosses the $50/serving mark in 2021. This curve is not scientific and each company has its own internal pricing curve; the cost may already have dropped below $50/serving in some companies.
This year, just on time, a flurry announcements of product releases have come out. The biggest fans will be able to go out and buy lab-grown meat:
- Mission Barnes Launches Bacon sampling in Bay Area restaurants.
- Blue Nalu promises release on 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s Essay.
- Future Meat Tech’s latest round of investment commits to product release in 2021.
- Memphis Meats has been making milestone announcements and plans to build a production plant for a product release next year.
This first round of product releases wont be replacing the deli cut chicken breast and hot dogs in your grocery. Impossible Burgers were made with a simpler process but the first release in a few restaurants and were said to cost the company $100 a patty. These product releases will not be profitable, but today a pound pack of Impossible Burger costs $9.99 at Safeway. At the current rate of innovation, the next future of meat could be here in the next few years.
Moore’s Law is not a law. Each step along the curve will require new insights and new discovery. Like Moore’s Law, the “Shigeta’s Law” price of lab-grown meat will hit a physical law — how fast or how many times a cell can divide — how small a space can they grow in? How quickly can manufacturing and infrastructure be built out? How pure does the sugar in the media have to be to grow the cells? We aren’t there yet and the next innovations will be about manufacturing at very high scale and some of the unplumbed depths of cell biology.
To date, a lot of the drop has been in reagents and simple scaling tech. Today most meat is grown without Fetal Bovine Serum, but still relies on growth factors which are isolated from fermentation. Mosa Meats recently announced drastically lowering the cost of FBS free media. Other efforts around the globe will have to pursue scaling manufacturing and processing the cells.
And what about the hype? Not all of these companies will be around to see the public take their first bite of cellAg Burger. The Clean Meat startup explosion is a lot like the emergence of car companies. In 1900 the first American combustion engine automobile companies appeared. By 1910 the count had exploded to 266. Most of the companies were merged or died off until 3 companies dominated the market by the 1960s.
There was little first mover advantage: Ford was an early entrant (1903), General Motors (1908), and Chrysler was decades past the startup peak. (1928).
So yes there is hype — the same sort of hype that the automobile created. Small companies claiming too much and flaming out. But make no mistake, Animal Free, lab-grown, Cultured Meat is coming sooner than you think.