Picture, if you will, a piece of meat.
Most might conjure up an image of a burger, a salmon filet, maybe even a chicken nugget. But if you zoom in to the microscopic level, what you really have are a collection of cells clumped together to create muscle fibers, striations of fat and connective tissue.
What if instead of raising, slaughtering and processing animals for sale, you could use those cells as building blocks to create meat without the environmental, ethical and financial costs of traditional agriculture. Could you feed the world and build a better, more resilient, food system in the process?
That’s the overarching—if overoptimistic, according to some—promise of the cell-cultivated meat industry, which has grown rapidly in the petri dish of the Bay Area, fed by its own nutrient-rich mixture of venture capital funding, scientific talent and startup accelerators.
Signs are pointing to cell-cultured meat making its way to dinner tables by the end of the year—if the companies making it can resolve an array of technological and regulatory questions. Whether it can evolve from a niche food to a mass-market protein fit for a meat-loving public is another question entirely.
Justin Kolbeck, the co-founder and CEO of San Francisco’s Wildtype Foods, wants to use these new technologies to create the cleanest, most sustainable seafood in the market.
A veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, he came to realize that the current pace of seafood consumption was running headlong into issues with fish stock sustainability and environmental challenges posed by climate change.
Kolbeck linked up with Aryé Elfenbein to start Wildtype with the purpose of developing and scaling up lab-based production of salmon, a relatively healthy protein Americans are familiar with.
“What if we could make that same level of nutrition and do away with things like microplastics, antibiotics and heavy metals like mercury?” Kolbeck said.
Wildtype’s first experiments were “pretty unspectacular,” Kolbeck acknowledged. But countless iterations later, it has begun to share its products with chefs and investors, including at the startup’s sushi tasting bar in Dogpatch. Of course, turning that into a commercial product is a different question.
“If you asked me to make a microscopically perfect equivalent version to salmon muscle, we could do that 100%,” Kolbeck said. “But can I do that on a really large scale, super cheaply? Not yet.”
Then there’s the animal rights issue. One of the most notable early boosters for cultured meat technology is animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), known for its demonstrations against factory farming and anti-fur stunts. The organization sees the technology as an easy way to eliminate the scourge of factory farming, which it views as a societal ill.
“We were kind of ahead of the curve in this way back when it was just a science-fiction concept,” said Amber Canavan, the manager of PETA’s Vegan Campaign.
Eat Just is the only company that has received regulatory approval to actually sell its cultivated meat products directly to consumers in Singapore. The Alameda company, formerly known as Hampton Creek, started out by making egg and mayo alternatives before branching out into the cellular agriculture space a few years back.
CEO Josh Tetrick was driven by many of the same moral and environmental considerations, alongside a belief that it would be easier to reform the food system with a product that is scientifically meat—rather than a plant-based alternative.
“I’d say the vast majority of customers we’re going after right now are like me. So they generally get the issues; they may not be able to recite the statistics, but they know something’s amiss with the current ways of doing things,” Tetrick said.
“More broadly, though, our customer eventually needs to be someone who loves meat, wants to keep eating meat and doesn’t care about that feeling at all. When we get to that consumer, a much more transformational change will happen,” he added.
Growing meat in a lab isn’t something you can do just anywhere.
Tetrick drew a distinction between two types of facilities that cell-cultivated meat companies require: “Pilot plants” that develop proofs of concepts, and massive manufacturing facilities that can produce cultivated meat at scale.
While he said the latter are likely to be located elsewhere because of cost and environmental concerns, smaller pilot plants have proliferated across the Bay Area.
Tetrick attributed this to the region’s concentration of talent across disciplines like biotechnology, molecular biology and fermentation.
Then there’s the concentration of capital necessary to do intensive lab work and scaling of production. Of the top 10 U.S.-based cultivated protein companies ranked by venture capital, seven are located in the Bay Area, according to data from PitchBook.
At the top of the list are Eat Just and Berkeley’s Upside Foods, which have both raised hundreds of millions of dollars and are valued at $1.25 billion and $1.31 billion, respectively.
For Michael Selden, CEO of Finless Foods, the move from Brooklyn to the Bay Area was the result of the availability of vital lab equipment through incubators like IndieBio.
“We kind of had no choice. Our intent was to move out here for six months then go right back home,” Selden said. “Five years later, we’re still here.”
He said the local infrastructure and workforce has helped enable the company’s growth, along with a willingness from landlords to convert existing properties into biotech space to take advantage of the growing field.
“I’ve always said being in the Bay Area is kind of like being on the jungle floor; companies are booming and busting so frequently that it’s easy to find things like lab equipment,” Selden said.
The general process for creating these products starts with a small sample of harvested animal cells. Those cells are placed in a temperature-controlled, nutrient-rich bath where they can eat, grow and multiply to create a stable cell line.
Selden said at this point, the texture and color of his company’s product is something like hummus, with the taste of bluefin tuna.
Those cells are then encouraged to grow and divide in successively larger vessels. When enough mass is created, the cells anchor to a scaffold to give the product shape, and the startup uses tissue engineering to help it turn into appropriate muscle, fat and connective tissue.
Finless’ facility in Emeryville has a host of different lab equipment to help usher those cells on their journey from the lab to the plate.
The equipment includes vats and hoods for cell cultures and growth, analytic machines to measure the components of cellular material and a food production lab to help with product testing and tasting. One of the more notable pieces of machinery was what Selden described as an “electronic nose” that helps amplify scent and provide a chemical readout of what exactly it is you’re smelling.
The scientific process of producing a piece of meat is one thing, but making sure that products meet regulatory standards so they can be commercially sold is another challenge entirely.
Berkeley-based Upside Foods became the first cell-cultured meat company to get a green light from the Food and Drug Administration to sell its chicken fillet product to consumers. All that’s left is for the United States Department of Agriculture to give its OK.
“One of the strongest benefits to the U.S. regulatory system for food is that it doesn’t discriminate on how a food is made, just on how safe it is to eat,” said Eric Schulze, vice president of global scientific affairs at Upside and a former FDA regulator.
In the U.S., cell-grown livestock and poultry products are jointly regulated by the FDA and the USDA, which will be working on new regulations governing the labeling of these products.
“We have advocated for mandatory disclosure of the production process here in the United States,” Schulze said. “For example, our product would say 'Upside—cultivated from chicken cells,' or in parentheses it would be specified as cultivated.”
There are few people better-versed in fermentation than Ricardo San Martin.
The UC Berkeley professor holds a doctorate in biotechnology and is the director of the Alt:Meat Lab at UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology.
“The first question I asked when I heard about the process was how many cells or how many steaks can you get out of a fermenter every two or three days or whatever,” San Martin said.
In order to help answer the questions, he collaborated with a colleague who specializes in growing mammalian cells. Together they developed a simulation that utilized models developed in the biopharma industry.
Far from allaying concerns, the research raised red flags. Among the potential issues San Martin outlined was that the viscosity of the material would be a barrier for scaling, along with the growing volume of cellular byproducts that will inhibit cell growth.
Research commissioned by Open Philanthropy to gauge the potential for scaling cellular meat production found that based on existing processes, lab-grown meat would struggle to attain cost parity with standard meat products.
“If the industry says, ‘We’re creating very expensive meat using no animals for a specific high-end market’ that would be totally legit,” San Martin said. “But if you tell me you’re going to save the world and the technology is just around the corner, then it's sort of misleading.”
Selden said there’s a possibility that future technological breakthroughs could serve to rapidly bring down costs. But the cost structure is part of why Finless has decided to focus primarily on bluefin tuna, which is incredibly challenging to farm and wholesales at high prices.
“I think that skepticism is right,” Selden said. “There is no path using current technology that exists today at scale to get an entirely cellular product that’s price compatible with something like pork, beef or chicken.”
Patricia Bubner, CEO of Orbillion Bio, is aiming to get around that hurdle by first focusing on cell lines taken from ultra-premium Wagyu beef, with the eventual goal of creating cost parity of high-quality beef with more conventional options.
Bubner said with enough smart people, time and money, the current scaling issues can be overcome. As an example, she pointed to the electric vehicle industry, which has grown exponentially in recent years after decades of pessimistic projections.
“If you have a process that’s never been scaled, then you need to figure out how to scale it,” Bubner said. “There will be naysayers who say it’s not possible, and there will be people who know it’s possible, work on it and make it happen.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org