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Over the past year, more and more of those invested in the future of cultivated meat are saying price parity with traditionally farmed meat products is achievable in 5 years.
This includes Jim Mellon, who told me on a recent episode of The Food Tech Show that not only will meat derived using cellular agriculture hit price parity with traditionally produced meat in half a decade, but over time it will be more affordable than plant-based alternatives like the Impossible Burger.
This is a big deal, because while many of the earliest proponents of lab-grown meat may be motivated by environmental, food safety or animal cruelty concerns, the vast majority of consumers are much less idealistic. For most of us, the primary calculus when buying food remains a result of the same three variables: price, taste and convenience.
But can we really get to price parity in half a decade? I mean, it’s one thing to predict low-priced meat from a bioreactor, it’s another to have it widely available at the same price as farm-raised meat anywhere at anytime.
The short answer is yes, if we can build the infrastructure for the production of lab grown meat. This means moving beyond today’s bench top prototypes and pilot production facilities to fully scaled industrialized production facilities worldwide.
What will it take to get there? Experts agree there are a few major challenges to the development and industrialization of cultivated meat, including: Development of cell lines, cost and performance of growth media, bioprocess optimization and better bioreactor design, and production of complex meat cuts.
Cell Line Development
The process of manufacturing cultivated meat begins with acquiring and banking cell lines. According to Clare Trippet, the chief science officer for CPI who spoke at the Agrarian Revolution virtual event last week, finding cells that can be optimized for manufacturing is time and resource intensive, in part because these cells often times need to be adapted for growth in a biomanufacturing environment. The good news is over time many of these cell lines, once identified and developed, can be reproduced indefinitely.
In order to for cell cultures to grow and reproduce, you need to feed them energy and nutrients. In the world of biomanufacturing, the fuel for cell-cultured meat reproduction is known as growth media. One of the biggest challenges in the early stage of cultured meat production is much of the early growth media was fetal bovine serum – or FBS – which is both misaligned with the purpose of cultured meat production and is widely seen as not economically viable.
However, the industry has been working hard to move away from FBS towards more humane and scalable alternatives. Mosa Meat made news last year with an 80x reduction in the cost of its FBS-free growth media, and this week Avant said it’s achieved a 90% cost reduction in the production of its cultured fish maw using non-FBS growth media. Other potential growth media in the future could be based on innovation such as that from Solar Foods, which is creating low-cost protein out of “thin air” using gas fermentation processes.
The process of taking stem cells from animals and getting them to reproduce at a big enough scale to produce enough for human-level consumption is perhaps the biggest lift of all. According to Trippet, cultivated meat companies need to optimize their processes to produce at high-volume commercial scale production. This means a lengthy, multistage biooptimization process goes from high-throughput screening to identify optimal cell cultures for manufacturing, to lab-scale demonstration, pilot plant production and finally commercial scale production.
Much of this early work – cell line screening and benchscale demonstration and optimization – has already happened at some of the more mature cultured meat startups like BlueNalu, Mosa and Supermeat, and now these companies are moving onto pilot plant buildouts and production. These companies (and those that follow them) will utilize the learnings and processes developed during pilot production and they prepare for the move into commercial scale production.
Bigger and Better Bioreactors
A big part of this move into commercial scale production will be the transition to bigger and better bioreactors. The reality for today’s cultivated meat industry is that the currently available high-scale bioreactors for cellular agriculture were developed to produce high price-per-unit pharmaceuticals. However, since a cellag chicken burger at McDonalds will have a much lower price per unit than a vaccine, there’s a need to create better optimized high-volume bioreactors that can act as meat breweries.
The reason for optimization is pretty straightforward: replicating mammalian cells for food is immensely more difficult than replicating tissue for pharmaceuticals.
From the conclusion of Mark Post’s 2015 research paper at Maastricht University entitled “Alternatives for large-scale production of cultured beef: A review“:
Tissue engineering in large-scale is a difficult task and the scale of cell and tissue culture needed for food applications is orders of magnitude higher than for medical applications. Commercially available systems, microcarrier or cell-aggre- gate based are a good start but need to be optimized for bovine satellite cells, including but not limited to, specialized microcarriers.
Like we saw with the early days of the Internet, making the picks & shovels for the coming gold rush can be lucrative. That could mean riches for new entrants like Cellular Agriculture and for existing players like Thermofisher and Sartorius.
Interestingly, one of the industries that might move into this space is big brewing itself, as hinted at by Zoe Leavitt, an investment principal at ZX Ventures (the investment and innovation arm of brewing giant AB InBev), told The Spoon on last week’s Clubhouse live chat that the big brewing company has been evaluating how it could play in cultivated meat infrastructure.
Production of Complex Cuts
The types of cultivated meat that will likely reach price parity are unstructured meat, in other words products like ground beef. However, meat-eaters will want products like premium cuts of ribeye steak and filets of tuna to go with burgers, which means developing technology for structured cuts of meat.
One of the key technologies that will deliver structured cuts of meat is scaffolding. Scaffolding is that part of cultivated meat that allows the cells to adhere to and grow. Companies have been working to develop edible and biodegradable scaffolding technologies, including Matrix Meat which has created an edible scaffolding technology that they say will allow for a several millimeter thick cut of structured meat to grow.
Another key technology for structured meat production is 3D printing, which some companies like Aleph Farms has developed bioprinting technology to enable them to make complex cuts like ribeye. Other cultivated meat producers like BlueNalu are utilizing processing technologies like layering that have been optimized in the high-volume food production world.
These are no doubt exciting times for cultivated meat. Hundreds of millions of dollars of capital are pouring into the market, and the Good Food Institute has identified over 55 startups working in this space in Q1 2020 and some estimates have that at over 80 as of Q1 this year. Additionally, innovation visionaries like Bill Gates talk about converting nation states to cell-ag-based meat production in the future.
And while there is no doubt other hurdles outside of the technology and industrial optimization such as incumbent opposition and government regulations and policy frameworks that need to be considered, if progress continues on the pace we’ve seen over the past decade, I think a cultured meat value meal at my local fast food joint is not out of reach in few short years.