At the start of May 2018, Israeli startup Aleph Farms announced an incredible technological breakthrough: they are one step closer to making structured and complex meat. But this is not just any kind of meat. This is cultured meat via cellular agriculture. Cellular agriculture (“cell ag”) is the process of making animal products, like meat, from cell cultures and eliminates the need to use animals to get meat. Compared to the current livestock agricultural system, cell ag provides an alternative and sustainable way to produce meat and other animal products.
Incorporated in 2017, Aleph Farms is among the few startups in the world focusing on using cellular agriculture to produce meat from animal cells. This reduces the environmental burden of animal agriculture while still producing enough meat to sustainably supply the growing global demand. I had the opportunity to speak to Aleph Farms CEO and co-founder Didier Toubia about Aleph Farms’ advancements and how his journey brought him to the cutting edge of sustainable food technology.
Agriculture, particularly animal agriculture, is one of the largest consumers of natural resources like land and water. About 1/3 of all grain produced feed animals and not people. That’s a lot of land and food. It also takes approximately 38 pounds of food to produce 1 pound of beef. That same pound of beef requires about 1,799 gallons of water to produce. These are just the numbers for 1 pound of beef. Didier Toubia further notes that it takes approximately 9 grams of plant protein to produce 1 gram of beef protein. Considering these shocking numbers, it is not surprising that Aleph Farms is focusing on producing cultured beef first.
Interestingly, Toubia also explains how cultured meat would increase the safety and traceability of food. By cutting out livestock in cell ag, there will be no bacterial contamination from livestock that could contaminate the meat or other products if produced in a sterile environment. On top of that, by growing the meat in a controlled environment, Toubia explained that cultured meat presents the unique opportunity of tracing food so that consumers can know exactly where their meat is coming from and increase accountability and trace-ability in the food supply chain.
Aleph Farms is one of the only startups to use cellular agriculture to focus entirely on beef production. To grow cultured meat, cells are taken from the animal of interest (in this case, cow) and grown in a cell culture media to become meat. The cell culture media and the way the cells are grown are important in this process, because they help the animal cells develop into the same meat that comes directly from cows. Presently, all of the startups working to produce cultured meat are focusing primarily on making cultured ground meat. While a popular meat, this is more due to technological barriers that prevent them from working to produce more complex meat tissues (like steak and chicken breast) from cell cultures.
Aleph Farms say they have found a way around that. Dr. Shulamit Levenberg is the co-founder and CSO of Aleph Farms, and her lab at the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) in northern Israel has found a way to make more structured and complex meat products using a proprietary tissue engineering platform. While other cultured meat startups typically use 1 or 2 cell types to make cultured ground meat, Aleph Farms can now produce cultured meat that contains up to 4 cell types, including vasculature and connective tissue. In addition to the expanded composition of the meat, Aleph Farm’s proprietary platform enables them to use the 4 cell types to make more complex meat beyond ground meat. This is a significant breakthrough for the advancement of cultured meat to ensure that their cultured beef products have the same taste and texture of conventional beef.
When Didier Toubia graduated from university in food engineering, he recalls that he felt it was his purpose to combine his passion in food science “to do good for the planet and people”. By combining food science with a more sustainable and safer way to produce meat, Toubia found the perfect way to fulfill his purpose.
Ultimately, for cultured meat to do well and become mainstream, Toubia accepted that the environmental and sustainability message was not going to be enough. Taste matters too. “It has to be a good product,” Toubia explains. “Not just animal protein”. It’s not surprising that he and Aleph Farms are working to lead the way to make a tasty product with their technological advances with their platform. Toubia says that Aleph Farms plan to have their first edible prototype completed this year. Aleph Farms also plans to have their Series A round of financing complete by the year’s end as well.