Founded in 2018, Future Meat stayed under the radar until last fall when their Series A funding round raised $14 million—including a sizable investment from Tyson Ventures. Now, just two years in, the Israeli start-up is expecting a major scale up in early 2021 and is optimistic about being among the first to gain FDA approval thanks to an uncommon cellular approach.
Commercial scale has been Future Meat’s priority from the start. “We know we can [culture meat]. The question is how much will it cost,” said Yaakov Nahmias, Future Meat Chief Scientific Officer told me in an interview earlier this month. “Do you really want to make a $25,000 steak?”
Key to its plan to ramp up biomass and cut costs, is a unique choice of starter cells. While most cultured meat start-ups rely on some form of stem or muscle cell, the basic building block of Future Meat’s products is the cell-type that makes up your connective tissue: fibroblasts.
“These are the cells that every time you get cut, they close that cut very fast,” according to Nahmias, who developed the fibroblast technology in his university lab.
Stem cells are a popular candidate for cell culture because they can become any type of cell, but growing and maintaining them is very expensive, Nahimas said. “They’re what we call phenotypically unstable.” Meaning, stem cells don’t stay stem cells for long. In nature, they’re meant to be stem cells for a day or less before transforming into another cell type. To harness their potential or stabilize stem cells, many start-ups rely on gene editing, a method that Future Meat is avoiding.
Fibroblasts, on the other hand, are phenotypically stable making them less volatile and easier to grow in mass quantities. And Future Meat has an extensive patent portfolio protecting the way they grow and direct these fibroblasts. They can accelerate a natural process called spontaneous immortalization where the cells DNA rearranges so that it can divide forever. And “by adding some food grade molecules” to the cellular medium they can pressure “the fibroblast to become fat cells or muscle cells,” Nahmias said.
Another key advantage of these connective tissue cells is that Future Meat can grow them in suspension, they don’t require surfaces to cling to. Many other mammalian cells, like muscle cells (myocytes), need something to hold on to, a sort of scaffolding, when cultured. Culturing in suspension means no need for scaffolding and it significantly increases the biomass that can be cultivated in a single bioreactor. According to Kate Krueger, alternative protein consultant at Helikon Consulting, “Suspension cell culture has a lot of promise in reducing cost of manufacture.”
Today, Future Meat bioreactor systems can reach yields of 33 percent, converting a third of their volume to mass every two weeks. “It’s possible to grow the mass of 100 chickens every two weeks in a bioreactor the size of a standard refrigerator,” Nahmias said. They’re also working on a hybrid product, a combination of plant protein and bioreactor-grown fat cells that they can produce at two tons per week. By the second quarter of next year they expect peak capacity to increase to half a ton every two weeks and for that to triple again by the end of 2021.
For now Future Meat is all about getting to scale, market and a reasonable price point to validate their process and prove their tech. But the end-game for Future Meat is about developing a platform—think of it as the AWS of cultured meat. And the target customer isn’t just a new meat industry, it’s the old one.
The idea is to integrate their technology into the existing supply chain. Even individual farmers looking to diversify could include a bioreactor as part of their operations, Nahmias said. But he expects involvement from meat and ingredient giants like Tyson and Cargill will be what finally catapults cultured meat into the mainstream. Future Meats’ game plan is to have the approved and affordable tech ready and waiting. “Because once it happens,” he said, “it’s going to move quickly.”