What’s next for lab-grown meat? Brisket and jerky, apparently. Thanks to an Austin, Texas-based company called BioBQ, cell-based versions of both those meats are in the works, furthering the possibilities of the kinds of proteins that can be grown in a lab versus slaughtering an animal.
Those meat choices, says cofounder and CEO Katie Kam, make sense because of her company’s location, Texas being something of a superpower when it comes to brisket. Over a recent Zoom chat, Kam and fellow cofounder Janet Zoldan said they aim to have a brisket prototype in two years. The company is actively seeking funding right now.
Kam founded BioBQ at the end of 2018. In the fall of 2019, she brought Zoldan onboard as cofounder. “I thought her research in biomedical engineering could be applied to help with the development of cell-based meat,” Kam said.
Like other lab-grown meats, BioBQ uses cells rather than the actual animal to create meat alternatives. It grows the fat, muscle and collagen cells — all components that make up a brisket — using scaffolding technology to create the layers and marbling we associate with brisket.
What makes something like brisket potentially more challenging that other types of lab-grown meat is achieving that layered structure. For that, Kam says they use a patented technology to produce prototypes of intact sheets of cells that can be stacked together. “With each sheet about two to four cell layers thick, they are working on obtaining the thickness and layered structure consumers expect for jerky and brisket,” she says.
The other major challenge for BioBQ is finding a media for growing the cells that does not use fetal bovine serum (FBS) or anything else that comes from an animal. Since FBS is harvested from bovine fetuses in pregnant cows, its use as a medium for cell-based proteins is extremely controversial (not to mention, expensive). Kam, a longtime vegan, emphasized that BioBQ does not use FBS and that the company is looking for an alternative.
Finding that alternative will help BioBQ drive down the cost of producing cell-based meat as well as make the overall process for creating protein more efficient. Bigger picture, Kam imagines a food industry that relies less on the lengthy and expensive process of raising an animal, slaughtering it, and shipping it to cities. Instead, much of our protein will be produced in labs in cities and therefore much closer to the consumer.
Plenty of others share that vision, if recent activity in the cell-based protein space is any indication. Cellular agriculture startup IntegriCulture, in particular, is working to eliminate animal-based serums like FBS through its CultNet system. Elsewhere, Mosa Meat, known for creating the world’s first lab-grown hamburger, just raised $55 million. Mission Barns is making cell-based bacon, and in Australia, a company called Vow is taste-testing cultured kangaroo and other less-common meats.
Excepting, perhaps, the kangaroo, many of these cell-based meats are easier to produce than brisket, but Kam and Zoldan welcome the challenge.
“Everybody’s telling us we chose the more difficult avenue to tackle,” Zoldan said during our chat. “But I feel that our technology is more uniquely posed to answer [that] specific challenge.”
Zoldan adds that while the pandemic may have impacted BioBQ’s ability to get back into the lab, it has also highlighted why we need alternative sources of protein and “how important it is to control what we eat.” Stories of COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-packing facilities as well as other ethical issues at those facilities has called into question our reliance on traditional protein sources. “If we really can engineer the food that we eat, we can make it healthier,” said Zoldan.
BioBQ is still a ways off from getting its product onto consumers’ plates. A major priority for the company right now is getting funding to further develop its prototype, which the company hopes to have in the next couple of years.