Pioneers in cellular agriculture came together in Boston last week to discuss the state of the industry – and what it will take to take cell-cultivated products to the next level.
Tufts University’s inaugural Cellular Agriculture Innovation Day featured panel discussions with industry leaders, researchers, and other experts. The panelists reflected on how far the technology to grow meat and other products has come over the last decade, and shared their visions of how that momentum will continue over the next few years.
A decade ago, “you could count the number of people dedicated to cellular agriculture on one hand,” said Isha Datar, executive director of the research nonprofit New Harvest, in a panel discussion at the event.
“To see 10 years go by, and to see 150 companies pop up, so much private investment pop up, lots more people in the academic space – to me, it’s like, ‘okay, the party has been started,’” Datar said.
All eyes on cell culture media
Cellular agriculture has many research and development hurdles to clear in coming years, said Mark Post, chief scientific officer at Mosa Meats, in a panel discussion.
In particular, the industry still needs to work “quite extensively” on the cost-effectiveness – and in particular, the resource efficiency – of its manufacturing processes, Post said.
The biggest cost driver for cell-cultivated products today is culture media: the nutrient-rich material that supports the growth of cells.
According to Andrew Stout, a PhD student focusing on cultivated cell lines and culture media at Tufts University, the cellular agriculture field has already seen success in cutting costs for some culture media components, such as growth factors.
Those components were the “low-hanging fruit” of culture media, Stout said at the event.
Moving forward, researchers in the field will likely address “the next lowest fruit,” such as amino acids and vitamins, he said.
Collaborating to solve key questions
Datar, the executive director at New Harvest, forecast that industry players will increasingly find answers to their questions by working together.
Much of the news from the industry in recent years has concerned individual companies and products – but over the next decade, we’ll hear more about how different companies and other players are working together to “solve [the] puzzle,” Datar said.
In particular, companies collaboratively address the challenge of scaling up using shared facilities, she said.
In 2021, we saw an announcement for one such facility in Europe: the Cultured Food Innovation Hub planned by Swiss flavor manufacturer Givaudan and other partners. The companies planned the Innovation Hub as a space for startups to access shared equipment, enabling more players to innovate in the field at lower cost.
Securing public funding
Bruce Friedrich, president and co-founder of the Good Food Institute, forecast that public funding will play an increasingly important role in helping the industry to address challenges of cost and scale.
In the last three years, governments around the world have already “gone from almost zero to hundreds of millions of dollars” in funding, Friedrich said.
Friedrich laid out a vision of government funding for cellular agriculture that would mirror investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles.
In the U.S., there could be bipartisan support for spending to support the industry, he said – pointing to efforts by the Good Food Institute to communicate with Republican lawmakers about the potential employment and economic benefits of such spending.
Introducing cell-cultivated products to the public
The speakers at the Tufts event also addressed the need to continue improving cell-cultivated products themselves before introducing them to consumers.
For Post, the chief scientific officer at Mosa Meats, one step to improve product quality could be improving the differentiation of muscle and fat tissues.
Academia can help to improve the quality of cell-cultivated products by identifying which genetic features can identify cells that will produce tasty end-products, according to Stout, the PhD student at Tufts University.
According to David Block, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Davis, another task for academia will be to ensure that cell-cultivated products are nutritionally equivalent to their conventional equivalents.
But the industry also has “an opportunity” to take more control over the nutritional quality and safety of its products than conventional agriculture, because cell-cultivated products are grown in much more controlled environments, Block said in a panel discussion at the event.
Moving toward semi-industrialization
The industry has begun to receive its first regulatory stamps of approval, and is “at the verge of getting regulatory approval in a lot of geographies,” according to Post.
In November, UPSIDE Foods became the first company to receive a “no questions” letter from the FDA – meaning the agency determined that the company’s cell-cultivated chicken is safe for consumers.
Eat Just, a San-Francisco startup, became the first company to receive regulatory approval for cell-cultivated meat when the Singapore Food Agency green-lit its cell-cultivated chicken in 2020.
With regulatory clearance in the works, and factories beginning to be built, “we are really getting to the level where [the industry] becomes sort of semi-industrial,” Post said.
But he added: “It will take a long time before [cell-cultivated products] will be a substantial part of markets where eventually we can make an impact on the environment, which is the root of all this.”
Uma Valeti, chief executive officer of UPSIDE Foods, said that it could be between 10 and 30 years before cultivated meat “takes off.”