It’s not even to market yet, and Israeli-based startup Aleph Farms already wants to shake up the cultured meat industry. They’re developing a new way to grow clean meat; one that will (hopefully) give it the same texture, taste, and eating experience as its traditional counterparts.
Co-founders Didier Toubia (CEO) and Professor Shulamit Levenberg (CSO) started Aleph Farms in 2017. Levenburg had been researching tissue engineering for medical purposes for 15 years, but turned her attention to growing complex-textured meats in 2016. Today Aleph Farms’ scientists work out of a lab in the Weizmann Institute of Science just south of Tel Aviv.
What sets Aleph Farms apart from other cultured meat companies is their focus on two things: structure and texture. They want to go way beyond ground meat, which is what other companies like Memphis Meats and Mosa Meats have been able to make so far — Aleph hopes to produce something that has the same complex texture and mouthfeel as, say, grass-fed steak. They’re also focusing strictly on beef, partially because of its disproportionately high environmental footprint, but also because it’s much more challenging to replicate than chicken or duck.
Of course, all cultured meat companies hope to eventually make a product that replicates the texture and shape of traditional meat. But Aleph Farms is unique on how single-mindedly they approach the problem. Instead of starting with a simpler ground “meat” product and later developing 3D tissue-growing technology, they’re hoping to skip ahead and bring a fully developed product — one with the same texture, structure, and taste as beef — to market.
To do that, their scientists are working on growing four types of cells: muscle, fat, blood vessels, and connective tissue. While those last two might not sound very appetizing, Toubia said that they’re critical to replicating the texture of meat. Once they cultivate the various types of cells, they place them on scaffolds which act as a framework for the cells to cling onto. That way, the four types of cells can grow together into a finished product with the shape of steak — not just blobs of separate cell types in petri dishes that have to be manually combined.
According to Toubia, Aleph Farms is the only company developing this technology for beef.
But they’re is still a ways away from making a steak that would fool anyone. Toubia said that they’re still in the R&D phase, and probably wouldn’t finish developing their first product for a few years. After that, they’ll still have to scale up production and make their “meat” affordable.
With JUST Foods aiming to make the first sale of a cultured meat product by the end of 2018, and Finless Foods and Memphis Meats not far behind (2019 and 2021, respectively), Aleph Farms won’t win the race to bring clean meat to market. But if they can achieve their goal of growing meat outside a cow that’s indistinguishable from “the real thing,” the startup might be able to convert the more hardcore carnivores who won’t be swayed by reasonable meat approximations. Slow(er) and steady might not be such a bad thing.
If cultured meat ever hopes to disrupt — or even replace — the meat industry, it has to mimic meat exactly. Mark Post, who made the first lab-grown burger in 2013 and started the company Mosa Meats, wrote that it has to “recreate conventional meat in all of its physical sensations, such as visual appearance, smell, texture and of course, taste.”
That means that a cultured steak not only has to look and taste like a steak, it also has to have the same texture, the same mouthfeel, and the react the same way as it’s cooked. And, considering that the only lab-grown meat we’ve seen so far has been made of thousands of muscle strands smushed together with added fat, flavor, and coloring, we’ve got a long way to go.
But Aleph Farms has a leg up on the competition in a few ways.
First and foremost, according to Toubia, are their connections. Specifically Professor Levenberg’s extensive experience in tissue engineering, which informs the core of Aleph Farms’ production methods.
They also have friends in quite high places. The startup partnered with Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, and participated in Israeli food-tech incubator The Kitchen, which is owned by food product manufacturing giant Strauss Group. That means that Strauss Group invested in, and has a direct stake (steak?) in Aleph.
Aleph Farms is also in a promising area for cultured meat. They’re based in Israel, along with other clean cultured meat companies Supermeat and Future Meat. Toubia guessed that this concentration was probably thanks to a few factors: Israel’s friendliness towards entrepreneurs, their expertise in and open laws about stem cells; and their large vegan community.
Talk of Israel brought our conversation to a question that often comes up when discussing the implications of cultured meat: will lab-grown pork be kosher? According to Toubia, the answer will depend on whether or not clean meat is considered “meat” from a religious perspective. If it is, cultured pork will not be kosher; but if it’s not, it would be. Which could radically change the diet of Jews that keep kosher, or Muslims who keep Halal, or Hindus who abstain from beef, etc.
As with most labeling issues around lab-grown meat, there’s no consensus on this issue yet. But Toubia likes this question because it gives him an opportunity to clarify what the cultured meat he’s working on actually is: “It’s really meat,” he said. “The end product is real meat cells which are not modified, just grown outside the animal.” So while the production method might differ, the end result is the same.
Though we may call what they make lab-grown meat, at least for now, Aleph Farms’ finished product will not be grown in a lab. “The cultured meat that people buy in grocery stores will not be grown in a lab,” said Toubia. Instead, he said it will be grown in a facility similar to a brewery — though he views it more like a farm. “I like to think of those facilities as ‘biofarms,’ places to farm animal tissue,” Toubia said. Which is why they decided to include “farms” in the name of their company.
Aleph Farms is currently venture backed; they raised a seed round for an undisclosed amount in 2017, and are starting the process for a Series A round this year. Which puts them quite a bit behind other cultured meat companies who have already raised millions of dollars from high-profile investors like Bill Gates, Cargill, and Richard Branson.
However, if they can nail the texture of a steak, Aleph Farms has a real shot at converting even the most hardcore of carnivores. And that, we’re happy to wait for.