2018 was a big year for cellular agriculture.
With record levels of investments, new startups were emerging across across the United States. Ready to build the future of food.
The start of 2019 has not been any different. Since the start of the year, two new startups in Spain and Canada announced that they were entering the field to produce healthy and sustainable animal products. Without requiring animals.
Cubiq Foods (www.cubiqfoods.com) is a new startup that uses cellular agriculture (‘cell ag’) to grow cell-based animal fats. Based in Barcelona, Spain, Cubiq Foods raised a massive $13.6 million (€12 million) to complete their round of funding in January. The round of funding was led by Moira Capital Partners, a Spanish private equity firm. Founded by Dr. Raquel Revilla and Andrés Montefeltro, Cubiq Foods aims to produce a sustainable and healthy source of cell-based animal fats through their propriety system.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Future Fields (www.futurefields.io) is a new and early-stage startup in Edmonton. Based in the cattle-heavy province of Alberta, Future Fields was founded by Dr. Matt Anderson-Baron and Lejjy Gafour to produce cell-based chicken meat to help meet the growing global demand for meat.
I had the opportunity to speak with the co-founders of Cubiq Foods and Matt Anderson-Baron of Future Fields about how they first learned about the field. And why they thought that this was the right time to enter the field.
When asked how they first heard about cellular agriculture and how they got started, Andrés Montefeltro shared that he and Raquel Revilla weren’t happy with their current food options and were looking for a solution. Enter Cubiq Foods.
“Raquel and I have been working in biotech and pharma for more than 10 years. We feel today that we are paying a high price for food and are eating worse. After your 30s, healthy foods are essential for your body to function properly and, in childhood, are also essential for the proper development of the brain and body.
“We found cellular agriculture as the next step to produce healthy, nutritional and great food in a sustainable, scalable and environmentally friendly way. The beauty of this approach is that we can help people and the environment at the same time. How we feed the people determine in which way we transform the environment.
Bringing a real solution to the environment and great food for people is what motivated us to start Cubiq Foods.”
Similarly, Matt Anderson-Baron shared how he stumbled upon cellular agriculture during his graduate studies and began to look for ways to become involved. Leading to Future Fields.
“About halfway through my graduate studies [at the University of Alberta], I stumbled across the New Harvest website. Up until that point, the field of cell ag was unbeknownst to me. It was a concept that I had flirted with in conversations with other people before. With my background in biology, it was something that I felt should be happening. I just had no idea that it actually was.
“I immediately started reading everything that I could find on cell ag, but the field was small at the time. I was looking for ways to get involved, but at the time, the only way to do that would be to relocate.
“That wasn't something that I really wanted to do, which was when the idea to start my own company began. I had discussed cell ag with some friends of mine before. One day, one of those friends, Lejjy Garfour, pitched the idea of starting our own venture. I got really excited about the idea and we just went from there.
“Once we got started, we found that we worked really well together and we each carved out our own niche for the company. Each of us brings a unique skill set to the table, which is what I think makes Future Fields work.”
When deciding on what to focus on producing, Raquel and Andrés shared that Cubiq Foods first discussed the idea of producing cell-based meat.
“At the very beginning we discussed if doing clean meat was a good idea to promote the switch from natural meat to a more environmentally friendly approach. The problem is the price. Clean meat will reach the market at premium price and it will remain there for a while.”
They then had a different idea: producing cell-based fat to provide a cleaner source of animal fat that can improve the quality of products in the food supply chain.
“We thought about a food ingredient that can impact the food chain faster. Fat cells can be grown in culture and scale-up in an easier way than muscle cells. The final product, fat tissue, is rendered like animal fat and can be used in food like salad dressings, baked goods, plant-based, and processed foods as we did with butter, duck or pork fat since our childhood.
“Today, vegetable oils have limitations in their use for baked good, processed foods and plant-based products. It is very difficult to provide an animal flavour with a vegetable oil.
“On the other hand, animal fats are a by-product of the meat industry today. Besides the safety control that follows all the regulations, it is very difficult to guarantee the same flavour and fatty acid profile all year round.
“Animal fat reflects animal feeding and the temperature. It changes with the seasons and the origin. Pork fat from Spain is quite different than pork fat from Netherlands. Culturing fat following a clean, controlled and scalable process, will guarantee the same fat quality always.”
Andrés also adds that Cubiq Foods can actually make animal fats healthier. “We can enrich the [cell-cultured] fat with omega-3 (DHA+EPA) and we can enhance the animal flavour (chicken, cattle, pork) to produce healthier and full-bodied flavour products.
“We can also produce custom fat for different clients in order to co-develop a great product and become integrated in the current food chain.”
Matt shared that Future Fields is aiming at addressing one of the issues in scaling cellular agriculture before focussing on their product.
“Our long-term goal is to produce a cultured chicken meat product. Our current aim is to develop a serum-free media for culturing avian muscle cells. We feel that it's important to establish strong scientific foundations before we try to rush a food product to the market.
“In addition, we feel that we are most equipped to tackle that hurdle first, without having to source outside talent. Based on my background, and another biologist's that has recently joined us, we feel that we are well-positioned to tackle this problem before we move on to anything else.”
With most companies located in the United States, Spain and Canada are unchartered grounds to build a cellular agriculture startup to revolutionize the future of food.
Andrés and Raquel insist there are many benefits to being based in Barcelona, particularly the access to different types of animal cell lines to produce local products based on regional taste.
“Spain has a recent history with biotech startups. Barcelona is one of the best places to start a food company in Spain. As soon as we show that clean fat is less risky than other biotech developments, more capital will come to this sector and other companies could follow us.
“In the future we envision some regional advantages for food production, like Iberic pork products from southern Spain, or cattle products from northern Spain.
“Next generation cultured foods will look into the origin of the cells and this can bring business opportunities to some regions. For example, Just is working with a leading brand in Japan to produce cell-cultured wagyu beef. This product will be differentiated from others because the original cell material.”
With less support in Canada, Matt felt it was important for Future Fields to start a movement about the future of food in Canada, particularly in a province like Alberta.
“The field is relatively unknown in Canada, which can be good because we have more space. However, it can also make garnering support cumbersome. I was very fortunate to get support from the people around me at the University - namely, my PhD supervisor, Dr. Andrew Simmonds. In addition, I received financial support from New Harvest in the form of a Seed Grant, which I was very grateful for. New Harvest has been really supportive of what we're trying to do up here in Canada.”
Matt does acknowledge, however, that starting in Canada will have its difficulties and challenges.
“I think that there needs to be more conversations around cell ag happening in Canada in order to catch up to some of the other leading countries. This includes media coverage, as well as conversations with legislative bodies.
“It will be important to push for conversations on how cell ag products are going to be regulated in Canada so that market penetration is expedited. I think if we wait until a product is ready, it's going to really slow things down and it will get caught up in all kinds of regulatory issues.
“I think that Canada, and Alberta more specifically, may prove a bit more challenging because we have such a prominent meat and agriculture industry. In particular, the cattle industry in Alberta is a huge presence, so it'll depend on they receive the idea.
“I imagine there will be some push back, but we have always tried to communicate that we want to integrate into the existing industries as seamlessly as possible.”
After raising €12 million earlier this year, Andrés and Raquel have big plans for Cubiq Foods and their cell-cultured fats.
“2019 is the pilot phase year; we expect to have our pilot plant running after the summer and great food prototypes to discuss with potential customers by the end of the year.”
“In 1 year, we plan to be prototyping the first Healthy Muffin (high in omega-3) with amazing flavour and also supporting, a great healthy chicken nugget (a plant-based one high in omega-3) for kids.”
Future Fields, according to Matt, is aiming to raise their seed round.
“We are really hoping to raise some initial seed funding so we can begin our work on the serum-free media. We are currently well-positioned to pursue that project. Up until now, we have worked on Future Fields part-time, so we expect that we can make some really good progress once we're able to dedicate all of our efforts towards it.”