At SKS Japan this week, lots of speakers have been predicting what the future of food might look like: it might be cooked by robotic articulating arms, it might be carbon neutral, or it might be personalized to individuals’ specific tastes.
But the most futuristic vision of all might have come from Yuki Hanyu, CEO and founder of DIY cultured meat community Shojinmeat. He sketched out a time in which we’re all living on Mars, growing steak in bioreactors in much the same way we brew beer right now.
That reality is still a long way off. However, right now Hanyu is still working on quite a few projects pushing us towards a future in which everyone — yes, even you — can grow their own meat, and cultured meat is available in your corner supermarket.
Shojinmeat was the original enterprise, but in 2015 Hanyu spun out Integriculture, a startup creating full-stack cellular agriculture solutions. After his session at SKS Japan, Hanyu described his company’s projected timeline to me:
By the end of this year Integriculture will start selling Space Salt, a dried version of cell culture media. For those who don’t nerd out on cellular agriculture, media is the liquid “food” that allows animal cells to rapidly proliferate to form meat. Space Salt is Integriculture’s (secret) proprietary blend of salt and food safe amino acids, which, when mixed with water, forms a DIY cell culture media. Hanyu wants to sell it to home enthusiasts who can use it to grow their own meat using Shojinmeat guide.
While its focus is cultured meat, in 2020 Integriculture is also planning to sell its media for use in cosmetic applications, specifically as an anti-aging skincare product.
In 2021, Integriculture will launch its first cell-based meat product: foie gras. Hanyu said that they decided to tackle foie gras as its first product because of its creamy texture, which means that they don’t have to emulate the texture and chew of meat. Since foie gras is already quite expensive, starting with that product will also presumably give consumers less of a sticker shock when they see its high price. Accordingly they plan to launch first in high-end restaurants in Japan.
“We’re not aiming for massive revenue at first,” Hanyu told me during SKS Japan. Instead, he’s expecting that the foie gras launch will be more of a proof of concept to show that cell-based meat is feasible and delicious. He also wants it to help establish regulatory guidelines for cultured animal products in Japan.
Which brings us back to the Space Salt. Presumably, when Integriculture starts selling its cell-based foie gras, Japanese food regulatory bodies will ask the company what’s in it in order to approve it for public consumption. At that time Hanyu and his team plan to show that the only two inputs are duck liver cells and Space Salt (plus water), the latter of which contains ingredients that are already sold on the market. He’s hoping that if they prove that duck liver and Space Salt are both already available for purchase, then by the transitive property their cell-based foie gras shouldn’t pose a problem.
If the 2021 restaurant launch goes as planned, Integriculture will start selling foie gras in supermarkets in 2023.
An ambitious timeline, to be sure — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The JST (Japan Science and Technology) Agency, part of the Japanese government, is investing part of its $20 million funding in Integriculture’s research for large-scale cell-based meat. The company is also working with JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) on its Space Food X program, which is developing closed-loop food solutions for space travelers.
That’s a lot of balls to juggle for the startup, especially one with only 13 employees and ¥300 million (USD 2.7 million) in funding. There’s also relatively little local support: despite the fact that cultured meat will likely debut in Asia, Japan is still quite light on cellular agriculture startups.
Interestingly, there’s at least one other company openly working in the cell-based meat space — and it’s a big one. Nissin Foods, the instant ramen giant, is partnering with the University of Tokyo to develop their own small cultured meat cubes to include in their freeze-dried ramen packs.
However, as they’re a large company which would require billions of tiny cell-based meat cubes — and they need to make them cheaply to keep down the cost of their product — Hanyu said that they’re likely 10 years away from actually incorporating cultured pork or chicken into the ramen packs.
Maybe then highbrow consumers will be able to have instant noodles with lab-grown foie gras.