When it rains, it pours. In 2013 Dr. Mark Post made the first ever lab-grown burger, and five years later cultured meat (also known as lab-grown or clean meat) seems to be everywhere you turn. It’s the subject of global conferences and pleas to President Trump, and there are more startups in the field every day.
Which means that people are buzzing about which company will be the first to bring cultured meat to market. Higher Steaks, the London-based startup founded in early 2018 by Benjamina Bollag and Dr. Stephanie Wallis, isn’t trying to produce a marketable clean meat product before anyone else. Instead, their focus is on making it super scalable.
To do that, they’re working to find a way to make cultured animal tissue quickly and affordably. “We’re making sure all of our innovation is working towards making the process industrial-sized,” said Bollag. Specifically, as with most cellular agriculture companies, they’re working towards optimizing production and reducing cost.
This is where the co-founders’ skill sets will come in handy. Bollag studied chemical engineering at Imperial College London before launching her own retail company. She stumbled on the concept of clean meat while part of a cohort for Entrepreneur First in London and soon afterwards met and teamed up with Wallis, who has degrees in neuroscience and stem cell regeneration. They also have help from David Hay, the Chair of Tissue Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. Together, they hope they have the scientific expertise and business strategy needed to make it in the emerging (and competitive) clean meat industry.
Originally, Higher Steaks was planning to develop a cultured foie gras as their first product to market, but decided to switch to pork. “We moved from niche to more broad,” said Bollag. Here is where Wallis’ experience in pluripotent stem cells, which can morph to become any type of cell, is critical: “Pig is the most similar to humans,” she said. “The processes that you use to create these cells from humans are more likely to be successful when you’re using pigs than other animals.”
This is helpful because there’s quite a lot of medical research (and funding) around growing human tissue through stem cell engineering, specifically for organ replacements. The theory is that this technology will apply more easily to pork, which is similar to human tissue, than it would to, say, duck or venison.
The founders of Higher Steaks told me that their first product would probably be ground pork, maybe sausage. Optimistically, they’re hoping to bring it to market by 2021 — which includes about a year and a half waiting period for food safety approval. This timing is in line with other clean meat companies like Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat.
Higher Steaks’ choice to focus on pork is unique. JUST, who claims they’ll bring a cultured meat product to company by the end of this year, is working on poultry, as is Iraeli startup Supermeat. Mosa Meat and Aleph Farms are focusing on beef. Memphis Meats made a cultured pork meatball as a proof of concept in 2016, but has since shifted its work to chiefly poultry. If Higher Steaks succeeds in creating scalable lab-grown pork, they could take a huge bite out of the meat market — not just in Europe, but globally.
Bollag recognizes the global implications of cultured meat technology. She took the podium at the FDA meeting on cultured meat earlier this month to speak about regulating this new food. When I called her to debrief about the meeting, she emphasized the need for collaboration between regulatory bodies and cellular agriculture startups around the world. “We’re global companies, and the safety standards need to be global, too.”
Once Higher Steaks and the other cellular agriculture startups racing towards making clean meat scalable and affordable can reach their goal, that is.