Something was bothering Yaakov Nahmias.
The longtime bioengineer had been sitting alongside the Charles River near MIT drinking coffee when he got a call from an investor in Israel who wanted to know what he thought about Mark Post’s famous quarter-million euro hamburger.
“I told him, it’s probably the silliest idea I’ve ever heard,” said Nahmias, who also goes by Koby, in an interview with The Spoon.
It wasn’t the science itself Nahmias thought was silly – the longtime bioengineer knew making a burger in a lab was an impressive scientific feat – but rather the idea that consumers would pay hundreds of dollars, let alone hundreds of thousands, for a burger no matter how science-forward meat the meat is.
Sitting there, Nahmias began to think about what it would take to bring down the cost of growing meat in a bioreactor to result in prices approachable enough for the average consumer.
It wouldn’t be easy. As the founding director of the Alexander Grass Center for Bioengineering at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a longtime consultant to the pharma industry, Nahmias knew that this type of complicated biotech cell-reproduction work was hugely expensive and – the way things were structured back in 2015 – totally impractical for producing low-cost consumables.
But Nahmias also thought that maybe it didn’t need to be this way. After all, he had colleagues who ran an insect farm, which had a much lower cost per unit of biomass produced. So why, he wondered, was creating meat using cellular agriculture so much more expensive than other forms of biomass production?
One reason was that cells produced make a lots of toxins like ammonia. And, unlike insects which have livers to remove these toxins, cells produced in bioreactors “essentially grow in their own urine,” Nahmias said.
When he looked around for systems are good at ammonia removal, the obvious example was the aquarium.
“If you’re growing fish, and and you are giving them too much food, there is too much protein that breaks down into ammonia,” said Nahmias. “The only way to treat it is by adding zeolites that will bind the ammonia relatively fast. So using that type of insight, you can design a process that will do it at scale.”
Another early insight Nahmias had was that pharma bioreactors often grew one type of animal cell – hamster ovary cells – which are commonly used for vaccine development. While hamster cells grow easily in traditional bioreactors, that’s not the case with meat like beef or chicken.
But perhaps the biggest challenge Nahmias saw was the cost of growth medium used to feed the cells. After consulting to the pharma industry for the last decade, he knew it took about 10 liters of culture medium to make 1 kilogram of biomass. At what he estimated to be $20 per liter for medium at that time, he thought even with the world’s most advanced tech, they’d start hit a cost floor of around $200 per kilogram.
He would spend the next six months focused on reengineering the process of cell-based meat production. But this was only the beginning. Nahmias knew that it would take some time to commercialize his work.
So not long after, he would start a company called SuperMeat with a couple of other cofounders, where he further developed these early ideas. That company would eventually split up a year later and Nahmias would go on to found his current company, Future Meat Technologies, where he set about creating a scaled system for making low-cost cell-based meat.
Fast forward to today and he’s doing just that. Future Meat regularly makes news about reaching ever lower prices for its cell-based chicken, which is why I wanted to talk to him about how he achieved cost milestones that many have thought wouldn’t be achievable for at least half a decade.