Meatable, a new startup creating cell-based meat, claims it will be able to change the world with a single cell. It’s a tagline, sure, but it might also be true. The Netherlands-based company works with pluripotent cells to create cultured meat quickly and without a need for fetal bovine serum (FBS).
They’re not the only ones who believe in their potential. Last month the startup, which was founded in early 2018, raised a $3.5 million seed round led by BlueYard Capital, with participation from Atlantic Food Labs, Backed VC, and angel investors.
Pluripotent stem cells are superior to other stem cells (which cultured meat companies have been using up until now) for two reasons: versatility and speed.
A muscle stem cell can only ever proliferate to create muscle, and a fat stem cell can only be fat. Pluripotent cells, however, can transform into whatever type of cell the scientist chooses. “They’re very malleable, with a high proliferation capacity,” Meatable CTO Daan Luining explained to me over the phone. “Like a blank slate.” Before Meatable, Luining cut his teeth with Dr. Mark Post, creator the first cultured burger, and spent time at New Harvest, an NGO which finances research into cell-based meat.
Pluripotent cells also divide 2 to 2.5 times faster than non-pluripotent cells, proliferating to create a burger-sized amount of meat in just three weeks. “You have to wait three years to raise a cow,” said Luining.
Significantly, Pluripotent cells require minimal animal intervention. Instead of gathering a tissue sample from a living animal, which is what most cultured meat companies are doing, Meatable scientists collect blood from the clipped umbilical cord of a just-birthed calf then filter it to harvest the special cells.
Perhaps most importantly, they don’t rely on fetal bovine serum (FBS), the controversial media many startups making cell-based meat take from the necks of baby cows in slaughterhouses and use to grow their product. But FBS is expensive and, well, requires animals to be killed. “FBS defeats the purpose of cell-based meat,” said Meatable CEO Krijn De Nood.
The independence from FBS alone would be enough of a reason to get jazzed about pluripotent cells. Add in their speed and agility, however, and they’re Meatable’s ticket to culture meat a lot quicker than their competitors in a completely non-invasive, animal-free way. And make it cheaper, to boot.
So why don’t all cultured meat companies take advantage of these miracle cells, you might ask? Up until now, pluripotent cells were difficult to control. However, recently Dr. Mark Kotter, a scientist at the University of Cambridge, collaborated with Dr. Roger Pedersenat of Stanford University to develop a technology which can better manage the cells and dictate their growth. Luining told me that Meatable has an exclusive license to use this tech in cell-based meat production, which should theoretically give them a leg up on the competition.
But first, they’ll have to debut the cells in a taste test. Meatable is currently focusing on beef, but they hope to rapidly expand into pork, poultry, and even liver, for ethical foie gras. They expect to present their first burger to the public in three years, by which time they’ll already have a production process in place so they can quickly scale. Commercial sales are probably five years down the road.
This timeline puts them behind other cell-based meat companies. Memphis Meat and Mosa Meat have stated that they will bring cultured meat fully to market by 2021, and Just Inc. claims it will make the first sale of cell-based meat by the end of this year. But Meatable isn’t necessarily in a rush. “We’re not necessarily going for first; we’re going for best,” Luining told me.
Their timing might actually be an advantage. When cell-based meat products first come to market, it will no doubt take time for consumers to warm up to the idea of chowing down on a hamburger grown in a lab. By the time there’s a hungry demand for cultured meat, Meatable will be there — with cheap, scalable beef — to meet it.
“Eventually, people will choose a product that tastes the best and is the cheapest,” said Luining. “We will have the edge there.”