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CULT Food Science Portfolio Series: Developing Structured Pork and Fish Products

This article was sponsored by CULT Food Science.

From Asia to North America and Europe, companies around the world are using cellular agriculture to produce the future of meat. By producing meat directly from cell cultures, startups and companies are working to make a more sustainable food system globally.

As the cell-based meat field continues to grow, it will be important to develop a wide range of food products and technologies. From scaling technologies to producing whole cuts of meat, there are many challenges that the cell-based meat field will need to address to become part of our future food system.

By investing in cell-based meat and seafood startups around the world, investment platform CULT Food Science intends to build a diverse portfolio of cellular agriculture to address those challenges. From pork loin to Japanese eel, CULT Food Science has invested in companies looking to produce a range of different products while addressing the field’s scaling challenges.

We speak to the co-founders and CEOs of two CULT Food Science portfolio companies, Nieves Martinez Marshall from Novel Farms and Mihir Pershad from Umami Meats, to hear about their breakthroughs and announcements during the summer of 2022 and how their startups are working to advance the future of food with cellular agriculture.

Novel Farms: Scaffolding for Complex Cell-Based Meat Products

Novel Farms CEO and co-founder Nieves Martinez Marshall

Based in California, Novel Farms is a cellular agriculture startup developing an edible scaffolding to advance the development of complex cell-based meat products.

While many companies are initially looking to produce a minced meat product, Novel Farms CEO and co-founder Nieves Martinez Marshall saw an opportunity to harness its scaffolding technology to develop its own type of meat products. “Novel Farms is a cultivated meat company that focuses on producing whole cuts of meat.”

According to Martinez Marshall, Novel Farms’ scaffolding technology is based on microbial fermentation and can help address one of the key challenges in the field: developing whole cuts in a cost-efficient and scalable manner.

“Our focus has been developing a scaffolding technology that allows us to produce tri-dimensional products. That's one of the biggest challenges in the field right now. Our proprietary technologies are based on microbial fermentation, and we use microorganisms commonly used in foods to create a structure that serves as the platform for the cells to grow.”

Scaffolding and Cell-based Meat: “Without that…you cannot have a steak.”

Similar to scaffolding around a building under construction, Martinez Marshall explains that cell-based meat scaffolding is critical in providing structural support for producing complex cell-based meat products.

“Scaffolding is the word we use to describe what connective tissue is. In animals and our bodies, we have muscles, we have fats, and then we also have connective tissues.

“These connective tissues are made from a lot of macromolecules or proteins. These are structural proteins that act like the scaffolding of a building. They mimic that function, and they are very large."

“For instance, collagen is the most important protein in connective tissue, and collagen is necessary for muscle cells to attach to a surface. If they do not, they die.

“So, the connective tissue is very important in the muscle. Without that, you only have cells floating around with no structure, and you cannot have a steak.”

To validate its technology platform, Martinez Marshall shared that Novel Farms looked at how its cells grew with its scaffolding and without the scaffolding in a negative control experiment.

“Under the microscope, we see the whole scaffold covered in cells, and they are strongly attached to it. Not only that, but we've also been able to add things to the scaffold that encourages muscle formation.

“This is a strong focus for us – we don’t want to just have cells on the scaffold. We want the cells to become muscle and have the same structure.

“In the negative control, the cells were all over the place. With our scaffold modified to encourage muscle fiber formation, we see braids [of muscle] starting to form that shrink the scaffolding because of the tension of the muscle fiber formation process.

“And that's what we now need to scale to have in the final product.”

Cell-based Pork Loin: “It’s not something many people have achieved, especially for their first prototype.”

Novel Farms' cell-based pork loin prototype

In August 2022, Martinez Marshall shared that Novel Farms achieved a major milestone in developing cell-based meat with its scaffolding technology. “We made a pork loin prototype with marbling.

“We call it a pork loin because it has marbling, and the marbling has fat cells around it. It's a big chunk of meat. It's something not many people in the world have achieved, especially for their first prototype.”

As the company’s first prototype, Martinez Marshall emphasized Novel Farms’ achievement by pointing out that only a handful of companies were working on developing structured cell-based pork products.

“There are only a handful of companies specifically working on pork. Within meat, chicken is easier to replicate. That’s why there are a lot of plant-based alternatives out there, because chicken has an easier structure to replicate.

“But for pork and beef, it's much more complicated. Players like Higher Steaks have produced a pork belly prototype, and both Joes Future Food and CellX have showcased pork products in China.

“This is a global selection of other companies working on structured products. We are not that many, and we each focus on different animals.”

Following its pork loin prototype, Martinez Marshall shared that Novel Farms initially plans to produce two types of cell-based pork products. “Even though our scaffolding technology is species agnostic, we have decided to start with pork.

“We will develop both a standard pork meat product and a premium pork called Iberico pork. It comes from my home country, Spain. It's a higher-priced breed that produces extremely flavorful pork meat.

“We will have those two products for launch.”

Scaling Production: “We need a bioreactor that can make whole cuts.”

Following the first cell-based pork loin prototype, Martinez Marshall shared that Novel Farms plans raise its next funding round to hire a team in order to scale production, such as developing its own bioreactors.

“The first step is closing our seed round. We’re raising $5 million so that we can hire a time. The first hire will be a bioprocess engineer because we have a couple of bioreactor designs we need to build. Every cell-based meat company needs a bioreactor for its specific process, and we need a bioreactor that can make whole cuts.

“We are now researching different bioreactor types. We know some like hollow fiber bioreactors are very compact, and that’s going to be one of our goals – to build a bioreactor that is extremely efficient and doesn’t need that much [cell culture] media.”

By designing their own, Martinez Marshall believes Novel Farms can develop more efficient bioreactors. “We believe the bioreactors nowadays are designed for pharma, and the price of their products is so high that they may not want to make something more compact and efficient.

“If you think about a pregnant mother, they’re making a baby inside their womb – you don’t need liters and liters of media! So that’s the vision of where we are – create a bioreactor mimicking a woman's womb in which we will save more costs in media.

“So that would be the big goal – hiring a bioprocess engineer, cell line development team, and media team. And together, develop this scale-up process from bench to the first bioreactor, and then move on to Series A and build a pilot plant.”


Umami Meats: “We’re trying to build the OS for cultivating fish”

Umami Meats CEO and co-founder Mihir Pershad

While Novel Farms explores how to leverage its scaffolding technology to produce cell-based pork loin, Umami Meats aims to develop cell-cultured seafood products using its proprietary technology platform in Singapore.

According to CEO and co-founder Mihir Pershad, the company aims to develop a platform to produce a wide range of seafood products. “Umami Meats is a Singapore-based company that is focusing on enabling the cellular revolution by cultivating ‘not caught’ seafood.

“Basically, we're trying to build the OS (operating system) for cultivating fish and enabling traditional foods players to take on cultivated seafood as part of their production process so that we can scale this transition as quickly as possible.

“We're prioritizing the development of proprietary inputs as well as process optimization for production and scale up around these species.”

To begin, Pershad shared that the company is looking at species that are endangered, cannot be easily farmed, and are already at a premium price point.

“[Our first species] is eel because it's critically endangered across almost every species that we eat. And the sub-species that aren't critically endangered are trending toward an endangered designation. So that's [our] number one.

“Number two would be the northern red snapper, and the third is in tuna. We're looking at bigeye tuna because we think it's a more versatile and a larger opportunity compared to bluefin tuna.”

While some of the seafood species are popular in Southeast Asia, Pershad shared that the Singapore-based company wants to make cell-cultured seafood products that appeal to consumers globally.

“For eel, 70% of the market is in Japan and Korea. But tuna is a globally consumed fish at this point, and Northern red snapper is a fish native to the Atlantic and Caribbean. The Northern red snapper is most prized in the US, but there are variations of snapper eaten all around the world, including a Japanese snapper that's quite popular in sushi.

“The goal is to develop these products to be broadly useful across multiple markets to appeal to consumers that eat everything from sushi to a grilled filet.”

Partnership to produce 3D-printed seafood: “Most of what is eaten in the way of premium fish is a whole filet.”

As the company began to explore partnerships, Pershad shared that Umami Meats made a major announcement over the summer to accelerate its product development with another cell-based meat company.

“A recent big announcement was our partnership with Steakholder Foods, which we've established to enable us to produce highly structured premium fish products at high throughput.”

With the company’s expertise in developing inputs to optimize cell-cultured seafood production, Pershad noted that Umami Meats was looking to form partnerships to develop different products.

“We have been exploring a variety of different forming technologies. We think our core expertise lies in inputs through to harvesting our cell mass from bioreactors.

“So, we looked at partnerships downstream around structuring and product formation as enabling us to then extend to a variety of different product formats that we otherwise wouldn't be able to reach and develop all at once.

“With Steakholder Foods, the priority is really fillets and steaks, with sashimi down the road.”

According to Pershad, Umami Meats needs to develop whole cuts of seafood to reach both the premium and broader seafood market.

“If you think about North America and Europe, most of what is eaten in the way of fish is a whole filet. It's either grilled, pan-cooked, or baked, but the format is almost always a portion of a fillet.

“To reach premium markets in the US and Europe, it's going to be critical to get that whole cut. Even more broadly, when you look at premium seafood in Asia, a lot of chefs prefer preparing that from larger cuts.

“So even if you're doing [cell-cultured] sashimi and developing a nigiri, you're not selling portions. You're selling a piece of fish that's getting portioned by the chef in real time to the consumer.

“In order to be a one-to-one drop-in for the traditional wild caught product, the whole cut is what we’re aiming for.”

“There are a few other projects in the pipeline”

In October 2022, Umami Meats showcased a range of cell-cultured seafood prototypes, including fish cakes and fish fillet

Moving forward, Pershad shared that Umami Meats plans to finalize product development plans with Stakeholder Foods. “We’re working toward a more concrete arrangement [with Stakeholder Foods] to develop multiple products over the next couple of years.

“We'll be developing our first prototypes through that partnership which should be launched early next year for the first demo. We're actively moving full steam ahead on this project along with a few others.

“There are a few other projects in the pipeline that will be announced in the near future in a similar vein around product formation.”

In addition to product development, Umami Meats is exploring tastings to receive feedback for its cell-cultured products as well as look into scaling its production platform.

“We've received our first exemption from the Singapore Food Agency to do tastings here in Singapore. We're really excited about the ability to start product testing with consumers, restaurants, and chefs, especially to help develop the product that will meet the market the right way.

“Beyond that, we're really looking to expand our partnerships around industrialization and start looking toward what factory design and a pilot plant will look like.

“Even though we're not ready to break ground on that yet, we need to start planning [the pilot plant] because all the processes are built around how those facilities look and the end product formats.”

Structured Meats for the Future of Food

Creating structured and complex cell-based meat products is a challenge for the cellular agriculture field, and it is promising to see two companies within CULT Food Science’s portfolio working to address these challenges.

From developing in-house scaffolding technologies to partnering with other companies, Novel Farms and Umami Meats demonstrate how startups can leverage their proprietary technologies to develop structured meat products.

According to Martinez Marshall, addressing the challenge of scaling complex cell-based meat products is why she and her co-founder began Novel Farms. “Creating structured [meat] is one of the reasons why we started this company. My co-founder and I are academics, and we never thought about founding a company before.

“The reason we started Novel Farms is that we saw the problem, and we came out with the solution. And now we are focused on making it.”

Pershad agreed, arguing that partnerships will be critical for companies to accelerate the development of a wide range of products to meet consumer demand for structured meat and seafood products.

“Whole cuts are largely where the premium is broadly derived for seafood and meat.

“We think collaborations are critical because no one company can do everything that's needed in the time that we need to do it to save these [marine] species. We think it's critical that we tap into expertise wherever we can find it.”

Photographs of products and teams by Novel Farms and Umami Meats.

This article was sponsored by CULT Food Science. For more information about CULT Food Science, please visit their website to learn more.

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