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CULT Food Science Portfolio Series: Moving Beyond Collagen, Chocolate, and Coffee with Cellular Agriculture

This article was sponsored by CULT Food Science.

Beyond producing meat, cellular agriculture can be used to make a wide range of products. From collagen and gelatin to chocolate and coffee, companies around the world are exploring a wide range of ways that cellular agriculture can make a more sustainable food system.

Considering how investment platform CULT Food Science is exploring broader applications of cellular agriculture, it is not surprising to see a diverse range of startups exploring the future of food. From cell-cultured meat companies to dairy and honey players, CULT Food Science has also invested in companies going beyond microorganisms and using animal cells and plant cell-culturing to produce their products.

We speak to the co-founders and CEOs of two CULT Food Science portfolio companies, Stephanie Michelsen from Jellatech and Alan Perlstein from California Cultured, to hear about their breakthroughs during the summer and how their startups are changing the future of food.

Jellatech: “We saw a huge opportunity to look beyond meat and milk.”

Jellatech CEO and co-founder Stephanie Michelsen

At the start of November 2020, the startup Jellatech announced its launch as the first cell-based collagen and gelatin company. Traditionally sourced from the bones and skin of livestock animals or fish, Jellatech’s collagen via cellular agriculture offers an alternative and more sustainable way to produce the same animal protein product directly from animal cells.

According to Jellatech’s CEO and co-founder Stephanie Michelsen, the team saw an opportunity to use cellular agriculture to create a different type of cell-based product.

“We started back in the middle of the pandemic, really working on how to replace animal agriculture and how to move away from animal-derived products and ingredients. We saw a huge opportunity to look beyond meat and milk to see a real need for sustainable collagen and gelatin.

“We use similar technologies to a cell-based meat company, in which we culture animal cells in the lab, but then we isolate protein from those cells instead of harvesting the cells. We separate the collagen protein, which can tie into different industries, like food and beverage, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, biomedical, and material applications.

“So, collagen is a huge market, and it's something where there hasn't been any kind of true up-to-par replacement that didn't rely on animals.”

The Versatility of Collagen

While many companies are exploring dairy and meat production via cellular agriculture, Michelsen shared that she wanted to explore how to produce other key products made from livestock agriculture. “Many companies in the alternative protein space start with the idea that they want to help move the world away from animal agriculture, but we looked at it differently.

“We thought, ‘Imagine waking up tomorrow, and there’s no cows, no pigs, and all livestock animals are now gone. What are some of the things that can be missing?’ That’s when we realized there are a lot of startups working on meats, milk, and cheeses, so that’s working well.

“When you think about all the by-products in the meat industry, you realize there are certain products that you cannot replace on the molecular level from plants, like collagen and the derivative gelatin.”

“Collagen and gelatin are used in so many applications, even in processes like clarification of wine and beer. Collagen for supplements and health benefits is also now a growing category. For gelatin, gummy candies in the confectionary space are huge.

“We realized that collagen is something we cannot get, right now or tomorrow, if animals suddenly were no longer on this planet.

“That’s something we need to solve because it is an important protein. It’s a huge market, and we now have the technology to make it using cellular agriculture.”

Full-Length Collagen: “What we’re making is completely the same as what you would get from an animal.”

Jellatech's cell-based collagen

In June 2022, Michelsen shared that Jellatech achieved a major milestone in developing cell-based collagen and gelatin. “We’ve spent a lot of time scaling up our production process, getting enough quantities, and figuring out how do we purify this collagen from the cells. It’s one thing to make it, and then there’s another thing to improve, extract, and purify it. This has taken us two years now, and it has beautifully come together.

“At the start of the summer, we made the big announcement that not only do we have collagen that you can see with your naked eye in high volumes, but it is also bioidentical. This means that what we’re making is completely the same as what you would get from an animal.

“In all the tests we ran, you cannot tell the difference between our collagen, which we grew in a lab in a slaughter-free way, versus what you took from the bones or hooves of a cow or pig.

“That was the major announcement that we made about creating a full-length, helical, and functional collagen protein. Now we’re moving forward from that to the pilot scale. Now it is all about scaling it up, making it more efficient.”

Cell-based Collagen Functionality: “For proteins, structure equals functionality.”

Compared to using microorganisms to produce collagen, Michelsen described how using animal cells allows Jellatech to produce collagen with a wider range of functionality.

“Animal cells are larger than microorganisms, so there are just proteins that you’ll find in the animal kingdom that you won’t find in bacteria, yeast, or other microorganisms. On top of that, animals are multicellular organisms – we have cells that come together to form tissues and organs.

“As a result, around each cell, there’s a need for structure – and that’s where collagen ties in. Animal cells make collagen, and they make it really well. Microorganisms and plants do not make collagen.

“By using animal cells, Jellatech can make a triple-helical, full-length, and bioidentical and functional collagen protein from animal cells. That has a lot to say about the applications that you can use it for. You can make parts of the collagen protein in bacteria, but that will not give you the full functionality of the collagen protein.

“If you want to use collagen for biomedical applications, for example, you need fully functional collagen. If someone needs a coating for a biomedical implant to make it better absorbed by the body, you need the collagen to be triple-helical. You need it to be full-length.

“For proteins, structure equals functionality. If you don’t have the proper structure, you will never have the same functionality. And that’s exactly why we took a cell-based approach [to producing collagen]. Because these cells make collagen, and they make it well.

“We know it’s going to be a plug-and-play product where established confectionary companies don’t need to reinvent their entire process to incorporate our new solution. It would be super easy for them because it’s literally the same thing.

“Fermentation-derived collagen may be limited in functionality in comparison to our cell-based collagen. You can use it for anything you can use conventional collagen for.”

Scaling Up Collagen Production

Jellatech team with its fully functional cell-based collagen prototype

After developing a fully functional cell-based collagen prototype, Michelsen shared that Jellatech plans to scale production and raise its next funding round to accelerate its timeline.

“The plan moving forward is scaling up. That's the next big challenge ahead of us, which a lot of other cell-based companies have also started tackling.

“We’re also raising more capital so that we can get more resources, hire more people, move into a bigger facility, and then build our pilot scale. That will allow us to get more collagen out there and start working on partnerships and see how our cell-based product fits into an already existing sector.”

According to Michelsen, scaling production will help Jellatech meet the current interest that the startup is receiving from different companies to develop partnerships.

“We have had so much interest in what we’re doing; it’s incredible how many big and small companies have reached out to us to test our collagen or to incorporate it into their products. We need to get to the scale that we can do that.

“We sent out one sample, and we have a few more coming up. We have a long list, honestly, but we had to pick and choose.

“It’s really a challenge sometimes. I want to be able to get our cell-based collagen out there so we can get as many people out there testing it and giving us good feedback. To do so, we need to scale production because we're still making smaller amounts, and we need to increase it.”


California Cultured: Plant Cell Cultures for Chocolate

California Cultured CEO and co-founder Alan Perlstein

While Jellatech is exploring how to leverage animal cells to produce collagen, California Cultured aims to go beyond animal cells and use plant cells to plant cell culture its products, starting initially with chocolate through cell-cultured cocoa.

According to CEO and co-founder Alan Perlstein, cell-cultured chocolate may address many of the problems associated with cocoa farming and production, such as deforestation and human rights issues.

“Not only is it our favorite food, but there is also going to be a radical shift in how it’s produced. There used to be easier ways to produce chocolate, but, unfortunately, it’s the story of how everything that has been manufactured has become exploitative and destructive.

“From deforestation to human health and quality issues, all of this motivated us to figure out how we could [make chocolate] a lot better than it has ever been using plant technologies.”

Scaling Plant Cells: “We have a much more viable path to market than meat cell culture.”

While explaining how plant cell-culturing differs from producing cell-based meat, Head of Commercialization Steven Stearns explained that California Cultured’s process may be easier to scale by using plant cells.

“We select rare varieties of chocolate and coffee and make them to go into the differentiated stem cell states. From there, we optimize cell lines, then take those cell lines with the flavor profiles we're looking for and scale them up in bioreactors."

California Cultured's chocolate at the New Harvest Conference 2022

Stearns also shared how plant cell culture is different from meat cell culture. “The big difference between plant cell culture versus meat cell culture is that we don't rely on any fetal bovine growth hormones.  We only use plant hormones that are found in agricultural waste. The basic input costs for media are two orders of magnitude cheaper on bench scale than meat cell culture.

“The complexity of the bioreactors needed to grow plant cells is far less than what is needed to grow meat cells. So, the Capex costs are anywhere from a fifth to a tenth of the cost, which is very important because the biggest challenge for us is scale.

“And if we can keep the Capex costs down, we have a much more viable path to market than meat cell culture. On top of that, we don't rely on scaffolding either, so our R&D costs are less than that of meat cell culture.”

From Chocolate to Coffee: “We were hitting many of our milestones earlier than we even anticipated.”

After hitting several milestones quickly, Perlstein shared that California Cultured made a major announcement over the summer to venture into a new area: coffee.

“We have been having a lot of success with our cell-cultured chocolate programs. We were hitting many of our milestones earlier than we even anticipated - everything from cell line development, speed of growth, and percent of the weight of target molecules. We also found a fantastic deal for a new headquarters and pilot plant facility.

“Seeing that we were able to move into our facility under budget and hit milestones, we thought we might not have been ambitious enough. We saw that we had some extra capacity and started to explore what that meant for cell-cultured coffee.

“Since we were able to start producing good chocolate from cells that taste like milk chocolate, there wasn't anything scientifically blocking us from attempting to do this. We decided to try it and see what the results are. And that’s where we are now.

“We recently announced a partnership with VTT, and they will be one of our outside partners helping us develop the coffee cell lines. VTT is a Finnish national research institute that developed a lot of innovative technologies, and one of their specific technologies was an engineered yeast that some precision fermentation companies have used to scale up to massive production volumes and capabilities.

“So VTT has a track record of helping companies hit very big and audacious milestones, and they are going to be a part to help us in this way as well to develop cell-cultured coffee.”

“We are the future of coffee and chocolate.”

Moving forward, Perlstein shared that California Cultured plans to expand into its new facility. “We’re going to be moving into our new facility shortly and start working on building our pilot plant. As soon as we have specific construction milestones, we’re going to be able to start producing our ingredients very quickly.”

In addition, Stearns added that California Cultured is focused on developing the best chocolate and coffee products using its plant cell cultures. “For the next three to five years, we’ll be focussing on developing these products as well as focusing on how we get the products through.

“We want to concentrate on the fact that we're not chocolate or coffee substitutes. We are the future of coffee and chocolate. Considering all the challenges with conventional chocolate and coffee production, our focus over the next three to five years is to hone in on what makes great chocolate and great coffee and become experts in both fields.

“We're very much a product-focused company. We want to develop these specific products to have a very nuanced flavor that will be able to pass a double-blind study for a real bar of chocolate or a real cup of coffee. And then go beyond that and create unique flavor profiles that you wouldn't necessarily be able to create so easily while having little control over your environment.”

Biotechnology as a Tool for the Future of Food

From cell-based collagen and gelatin to plant cell-culturing chocolate and coffee, Jellatech and California Cultured illustrate how cell culture technologies can produce a range of products beyond cell-cultured meat and dairy.

Moving forward, Michelsen explained that biotechnology may become more common in producing a range of products. “Outside of cell-based meat, biotech is just a tool. You can use it for good or bad, so I think I’m very excited to see how all that will change. I think that cell-based, fermentation, and all those technologies will become much more common.”

Perlstein agreed, arguing that plant cell culture is an area that is underexplored. “We think that plant cell culturing will play a major role with probably some flavors, nutraceuticals, and colors massively over the next three to five years.

“Eventually, we're going to have larger and larger amounts of foods and complete products made with plant cell culture technologies and ingredients.

“I see it as absolutely inevitable. The world needs double the amount of food and coffee. And there's not enough land nor people to grow it. And we honestly know that the environment and the growing conditions are going to get worst. We see an absolute demand for plant cell culture for the future of food - 100%.”

Photographs of products and teams by Jellatech and California Cultured.

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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