Jack Reid believes that the cell-based meat industry could move a lot faster if it just used manufacturing equipment made for the job.
According to the CEO of a new Cambridge-based startup called Unicorn Biotechnologies, companies trying to make meat without the animal today are mostly using large metal vats built for making something other than meat.
“Existing bioreactor systems haven’t been and weren’t developed specifically for the cell ag industry,” said Reid.
That’s right. In an industry where hundreds of millions of dollars in venture funding has flowed into companies that are predicted to be someday worth billions of dollars, startups are using equipment ill-suited for the task at hand. Instead of using machines made to replicate animal cells at scale, these companies are using bioreactors optimized to create products already produced in large volumes and have established markets.
“We’re talking about large fermenting systems that are for brewing beer,” said Reid. “Or even pharmaceutical grade bioreactors that are designed for vaccine manufacturing and recombinant protein production.”
By using equipment that is not purpose-fit for replicating animal cells for cultured meat products, Reid thinks a massive amount of inefficiency and cost is added to the process. Pharma bioreactors don’t have the right sensors and are built to make a smaller amount of product at a much higher cost. Beer fermenters are built, well, to make beer. But the biggest problem in Reid’s mind is using systems that aren’t built for cell-based meat means you ultimately have unhappy cells.
“Most bioreactors have a long period optimization period where you have to figure out how to make the conditions just right to make the cells happy and to allow them to proliferate, differentiate and turn into the fat, muscle,” said Reid.
And making the cells happy is a challenge cell-based meat makers need to address at each phase of the process. This can mean optimizing the process on the research bench, during pilot production, and ultimately for fully scaled manufacturing.
If this sounds like a problem for an industry hoping to make enough product to account for a significant percentage of the overall meat market by the end of the decade, it is. But Reid and his co-founder Dr. Adam Glen think they have a solution: a modular manufacturing system built for cell-based meat production.
Why modular? Because as Reid describes it, with a modular bioreactor system, the transfer of the highly technical process for making a cell-based meat product would only need to happen once, from the lab bench to their bioreactor. After that, a company could scale up production by simply adding more modules.
“The path to scaling up your production capacity is going from one module to two, ten, one hundred, and so on until you reach your desired output.”
How would it all work? According to Reid, like a bunch of robots working together.
“A good parallel might be swarm robotics,” said Reid, who pointed to the example of robotic systems used in large grocery warehouses. “In those, we’re not looking at 100 different robots acting together. We’re looking at one system with 100 different ways to interact with the warehouse. That is the principle that underpins our technology and our modular system.”
By having a highly flexible system that can fit various sizes of producers, Reid thinks his systems could bring cell-based meat-making to a more widely distributed group of future meat manufacturers.
“We’d like it to be a reality where smaller manufacturing systems are a realistic possibility,” said Reid. “To bring to individual farms, to bring to communities, and really to spread the manufacturing of these products away from the highly centralized production model that has dominated protein manufacturing for the last few decades.”
But before all this happens, Reid and his team need to build the product and get it ready for manufacturing. The company, which took on a pre-seed funding round from SOSV/HAX and Entrepreneur First, is currently building its product prototype in the labs.
“Once we’ve hit a few more of our milestones, we’re looking to go out and do our next round of fundraising, scale up the team, and transform our prototype it into the first generation of our product.”
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