This article was sponsored by CULT Food Science.
With more startups and companies entering the field, the cellular agriculture industry is growing globally. As more players look to transform the future of food with cell-culture technology, it will be important for the field to address the challenges around scaling production, particularly for cell-based meat.
To address these challenges, startups have emerged globally focusing on the critical pain points to develop a supply chain and ecosystem around the cell-based meat field.
From developing cell lines and cell culture media formulations to bioreactor development, these key parts of the future cell-based meat supply chain will be important for developing and scaling the field from lab bench to commercial production.
Along with supply chain development, other considerations that companies will explore include expanding production without the large amounts of capital required to do so.
By investing in startups focusing on developing cell-based meat and vital supply chain components, CULT Food Science intends to build an entire ecosystem around the future of food with cellular agriculture. CULT Food Science CEO Lejjy Gafour stated, “Every component of the production chain matters when building an ecosystem. So, we have deployed strategic investments all the way from growth media supplementation, to bioreactors, to consumer-facing ingredients and products.”
We speak to the co-founders and CEOs of three CULT Food Science portfolio companies to hear about their breakthroughs and announcements to start 2023 and how they are developing and supporting the scale-up of cell-based meat production.
Based in Turkey and incorporated in the US, Biftek focuses on designing cell culture media components to increase the efficiency of and reduce the cost of producing cell-based meat. From growth factors and vitamins to supplements, the cell culture media, or growth media, is the nutritious mixture that provides all the nutrients and ingredients cells may need to replicate or differentiate to produce cell-based meat.
While many companies initially looked to produce a meat product, Biftek CEO and co-founder Kerem Erikçi saw an opportunity to harness its technology platform to help support other companies. “We are producing growth media supplements in order to increase the efficiency of the [cell culture] growth medium our partners are using during cell cultivation.”
Erikçi shared that Biftek chose to use microorganisms as a novel platform to produce its growth media supplements. “Our source microorganisms are from the guts of different mammalians, and those microorganisms output a supernatant that can be used for cell proliferation and cell division. We noticed that, when using our supernatant with growth factors, we can increase the efficiency of production.
“That means we can decrease the cost [of producing cell-based meat] tremendously, like twofold or threefold. That is a cost reduction initiative by our company, and we would like to extend this for many other cell lines.”
Erikçi clarified that, at the moment, Biftek’s growth media supplements currently work on certain types of cell lines. “We’re specialized in bovine cell lines right now, but we noticed that it is good for fish, chicken, and other cell lines as well.”
According to Erikçi, reducing the cost of the cell culture media formulation is one of the most critical scaling points the field will need to address, mainly due to its price. “90% of the cost related with the cell division and proliferation is due to the growth medium.
“For instance, nowadays, if you would like to manufacture one kilogram of meat, you have to spend more than $3,000 per kilo. 90% of this price tag is because of the growth medium and its ingredients.”
Erikçi shared that the advantages of Biftek’s solution include its speed of production and its consistent quality. “Since we are not doing gene modifications or gene editing, we do not need a cultivation period to produce our growth media supplements. Our microorganisms can divide very fast, given suitable conditions like temperature, carbon dioxide levels, etc.
“Another benefit of our technology is that we don't have batch-to-batch variation, which is key in industrial manufacturing. Since we are starting with the original microorganisms, we can create copies of those microorganisms many times theoretically.
“So, creating our supernatant is easy and scalable, and we can provide lots of material to our clients. That's why we are introducing this methodology. Our main aim is to take over [and reduce] the cost of the growth media, which is 90% of the overall [cell-cultured meat production] cost.”
Interestingly, Erikçi shared that the metabolites of its microorganisms, also called postbiotics, have applications in industries beyond cell-cultured meat. “Not only in the cultivated meat industry, but we can harness the metabolites of our microorganisms in many areas like pharmaceuticals, natural drug development, or cosmetics.
“For example, people with diabetes can have problems with some wounds on their skin. It is not easy for them to heal those wounds in their skin. When we apply our postbiotics to the skin, we solve that. They can heal those wounds properly.
“We are not producing meat there, but we can heal the skin using the microorganism metabolites.”
With applications in various industries, Erikçi clarified that Biftek is still focusing on developing growth media supplements for cell-based meat production. “We don’t want to lose our focus on cultivated meat. Instead, we are focused on bovine cell line proliferation. That’s why we are doing only side experiments with other applications.
“After a while, like in a year or two, we would like to explore more on the other applications as well.”
Moving forward, Erikçi shared that Biftek aims to open a pilot plant to scale its production platform. “We manufactured our own in-house meat recently. We now understand how we can increase the efficiency of whatever growth factors you are using with our supplement.
“Now, we are raising our pre-Series A funding. We would like to open a pilot facility with a number of fermenters so we can produce our metabolite to sell to clients and make some partnerships with large corporations.”
While Biftek explores how to develop cell culture media supplements to support the cell-based meat industry, Unicorn Biotechnologies aims to develop bioproduction equipment like bioreactors for the same purpose.
According to co-founder Jack Reid, the company aims to help the entire industry succeed through its biomanufacturing technologies. “We are a B2B bioproduction and biomanufacturing technology developer and supplier. Simply put, we are a picks and shovels company.
“Our aim is to develop the technologies that mammalian cell culture production, particularly cultivated meat and seafood, need to scale from lab bench and pilot to commercial manufacturing to get to as many people as possible.”
Compared to readily available commercial bioreactors, Reid found that the current options were unsuitable for producing cell-cultured meat or seafood. “A bioreactor, or a bioproduction system, is the machine you use to produce a lot of cells. If you're making a product like cultivated meat or seafood, you need to make quite a lot of cells.
“The term bioreactor is used to describe a large pressure vessel. Most of these systems were adapted from fermentation or chemical engineering to cell biology applications in the mid-to-late 20th century. Essentially, we are trying to put a square peg into a round hole.
“If you want to optimize your production processes and drive down your costs, which is needed to make cultivated meat and seafood economically viable, you need to reinvent your manufacturing method from the ground up for a specific purpose.
“On a technical side, that’s what we do at Unicorn Bio. We develop new sensors and analytics systems, new bioreactor designs, and a whole suite of manufacturing technologies to scale cultivated meat and seafood production.”
Along with focusing on bioreactor development for the cell-based meat ecosystem, Reid shared a major announcement about how the company plans to venture into a new part of the supply chain: cell line development.
“We’re really excited to have officially launched Dragon Bio a few weeks ago. In addition to bioreactors being a major pain point for cultivated meat and seafood, an equally large pain point is cell lines, or the starting material that one uses for basic R&D and product development in this space.
“There are just not a lot of cell line suppliers on planet Earth. When we first launched Unicorn Bio, we tried most cell line suppliers and had good results, but we couldn't find the cells we needed to build and test our own bioreactors.
“So, necessity meant that we built our own and went through the process of making our own manufacturer-grade cultivated meat and seafood cell lines. After several months, we realized that what started out as an internal R&D tool actually could provide quite a lot of value to the whole ecosystem.”
Reid shared that Dragon Bio will focus on certain cell lines. “The first product is pig (porcine) cells. We've got a range of cell products for both R&D applications and commercial product development.
“Moving forward, there's quite a lot of market need around bovine and seafood species cell line development. Ultimately, the sky is the limit.
“We launched Dragon Bio in February and are officially open for business. If you are doing cultivated meat research or product development and you're looking for a cell line, I would love to hear from you.”
By looking at cell line and bioreactor development, Unicorn Biotechnologies aims to address two key puzzle pieces that need to come together to scale up the industry.
Reid notes that the company is designing its products to work across various production methods. “We’ve designed our bioreactors to be compatible with a range of cell lines. And conversely, we've made high-quality cell lines that should be compatible with a wide range of bioproduction and bioreactor systems.
“The aim here is not to create a product or a puzzle piece that can only be used with one other puzzle piece, but rather, it's to create good technologies that can be used in a wide variety of scenarios.”
According to Reid, the effort to design promising technologies is why he and co-founder Adam Glen first brought their team together. “Far too often, we have seen scientists, biologists, and engineers not be in the same room while developing new technology and products.
“The bioreactors developers don't talk to biologists. The biologists don't talk to the engineers, and you end up oftentimes with puzzle pieces that don't fit that well together. So our aim, and it's an ambitious one here, is to change that dynamic, to bring everyone together under one roof.
“That way, we have the knowledge, expertise, and capability to build machines that work well with biology, and biological systems that work well with our machines. And ultimately, we use that as a springboard to develop what we think is the next generation and, frankly, the future of bioproduction.”
Moving forward, Reid shared that the company is focusing on developing its technology platforms. “Our long-term aim is to be supportive of this entire ecosystem. We've just launched our first cell line product. On the bioreactor side, we are open to conversations with cultivated meat and seafood players around some of the projects we're working on.”
Compared to Biftek and Unicorn Biotechnologies, Mogale Meat aims to produce its own cell-based game meat in South Africa. At the same time, Mogale Meat is exploring ways to scale its production process while minimizing the capital costs required and, potentially, opening the door to decentralized production.
According to CEO and founder Paul Bartels, Mogale Meat was founded to focus on how cell-based meat can be used to conserve biodiversity and wildlife. “Being a veterinarian, I've been working with wildlife and in the conservation field for a number of years. I built up South Africa's National Wildlife Tissue Bank, and it includes, for instance, ear notches from rhinoceros, elephants, and lions.
“I then read about Mark Post in 2017 or 2018, and that’s when the light went on for me about cultivated meat. It was a massive opportunity to produce meat in the lab and, from a conservation point of view, give people what they really want. And that's meat.”
Following initial investments from investors CULT Food Science, Big Idea Ventures, and Sustainable Food Ventures, Bartels shared that Mogale Meat also received investments from a South African university and another company.
Following the investments, Bartels shared Mogale Meat had an idea of how to reduce the cost of scaling to the next stage. “Over the last year, it became apparent that we are going to have to build certain infrastructure [to scale]. The Capex, as we all know, is very expensive. And that’s when we got the idea – what about shipping containers?”
Bartels shared the company that invested in Mogale Meat develops clean rooms in shipping containers and wanted to explore how that could be applied to scaling cell-based meat production.
“I did a presentation to the one company that invested in us and said, ‘Hey, you build these shipping containers as clean rooms with biosafety levels 2 and 3 for countries like Nigeria and the Congo where you have outbreaks for some serious diseases, for instance, Ebola. As one of the companies that provide these kinds of labs, have you thought about what about mini labs, or shall we say mini plants for cultivated meat?’”
Bartels described how shipping containers could allow companies to customize and modularize mini plants to fit their production process before developing a larger pilot plant.
“The idea was that, before you have a brick-and-mortar pilot plant, you could have a mini plant. By putting together a couple of shipping containers, let’s say six or eight containers, you could have some of them producing your cells. Some could be producing mycelia to create a hybrid [meat] product. And then you could have, for instance, an analytics lab, water purification plant, and recycling container.
“You can modularize it and, in that way, place it anywhere where people are. That would have a dramatic effect on supply chains.”
To explore the idea, Bartels shared that Mogale Meat recently began working on its first few shipping containers to explore using them as an alternative to capital-heavy infrastructure. “We've got the first three converted shipping containers. They’re beautiful, besides the fact that two of them are painted with zebra stripes!
“The idea is to use them as demonstration mini plants. It’s the idea that one can approach different organizations and say it’s possible to get production into an area sooner rather than later through a massive Capex route. Because you could build these [shipping container mini plants] at a central facility and then drop them wherever you need them.”
While many cell-based meat companies are looking to scale and commercialize through developing large centralized production facilities, Mogale Meat’s initiative opens the door to local, decentralized systems of cell-based meat production.
Bartels highlights how decentralized production through mini plants and shipping containers could support local farmers. “There’s an opportunity through cultivated meat to uplift some of your small-scale farmers.
“We could bring a whole bunch of farmers together and help them develop a supply chain [for cultivated meat]. They could produce the product you want, whether it’s mung bean, wheat, or whatever will be part of your hybrid [meat product].”
Moving forward, Mogale Meat plans to expand its team and develop new cell lines for its cell-based wildlife game meats. “The idea is to have at least five or six cell lines going by the end of this year. So we are working on that quite intensely at this moment.”
Interestingly, by cultivating wildlife meat products, Mogale Meats believe it can help revive the South African wildlife game meat trade. “We think we can really make a difference here in Africa. But, at the same time, there's a massive export market to explore as well.
“For instance, Europe used to import a lot of fresh wildlife game meat from South Africa. That stopped in 2011 because of the outbreak of a disease called Foot and Mouth. We believe through cultivated meat, specifically through the cultivation of wildlife game meat, we'll be able to get that market back.
“South Africa used to be part of that market, but now we can't because of that disease outbreak. We think we'll be able to engage the regulatory authorities to say, ‘You've banned fresh carcasses, but here's cultivated meat.’”
While Biftek, Unicorn Biotechnologies, and Mogale Meat all have different focuses, all the startups shared the same sentiment that the industry is working to address the various scaling up challenges.
By addressing these scaling pain points through their products, the startups aim to develop a whole ecosystem and value chain around the future of food with cellular agriculture. In that effort, all the company founders emphasized the importance of being innovative and try new things.
For example, beyond Biftek’s growth media supplement, Erikçi highlighted that there may be more solutions and innovations to bring down the cost of production. “One of the biggest challenges in the cultivated meat industry is the cost issue. People are trying to find new ways [to reduce costs] because most of the startups have problems with it.
“As a result, people are trying new methods. Our approach is a novel one. I hope there will be many others. There should be many methods for the industry to go forward.”
By exploring shipping containers as cell-based meat mini plants, Bartels agrees and highlights the need for both innovative and pragmatic solutions. “The mini plants are how to make it practical. Obviously, we know there’s a lot of challenges, but we think we are on the right track in getting there, especially if we can partner with somebody.”
In addition, Reid highlights that, despite the economic downturn, there has never been a better time for people interested in science and engineering to start their own company and try to bring new ideas to the future of food field.
“The internet has made the world a much smaller place, and now we are an example of an unlikely group of people coming together to try and develop new technologies to make a real impact in the world.
“We can put it another way: we only win if this industry succeeds, and everyone wins.”
Photographs provided by Biftek, Unicorn Biotechnologies, and Mogale Meat.
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