Meet the startup that makes milk—without cows

Your days are numbered (and that’s a good thing).
Your days are numbered (and that’s a good thing).
Image: Reuters/Stephane Mahe
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Three young entrepreneurs in their mid-twenties sat nervously in the Hong Kong office of Solina Chau, one of the world’s most powerful women. Chau, founder of Horizons Ventures, oversees investments for multibillionaire Li Ka-Shing, focusing those investments on disruptive technologies she thinks the world needs.

She’d been introduced to Ryan Pandya, Perumal Gandhi, and Isha Datar by Horizons consultant Josh Balk, who himself had co-founded food tech start-up Hampton Creek just a few years earlier. Now, all four of them sat anxiously before Chau as they discussed the new start-up Perfect Day’s big idea: producing real milk without cows.

Only weeks prior, these three young idealists had hatched their business plan via online video chats. No, they weren’t interested in producing alternatives to milk, such as soy or almond milk. Instead, Perfect Day wanted to use a process called microbial fermentation to produce actual cow’s milk—but without any cows at all.

Humanity’s procurement of animal-based foods has remained stagnant for a long time. In the case of milk, we grow massive amount of crops using large swaths of land and other resources. We then raise cows, feed them those crops, medicate them, impregnate them, milk them, and eventually slaughter them. It’s intensive, requiring huge quantities of land, water, fossil fuels, and other resources.

Perfect Day’s plan was to make milk using the exact dairy proteins cows create, but with designer yeast instead of cows—and in a matter of mere days.

In other words, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

Well, maybe not free, but certainly far more efficiently—and thus far more profitably. In a process similar to how baker’s yeast produces CO2 to make bread rise and brewer’s yeast produces alcohol, Perfect Day’s yeast produces actual dairy proteins (like casein and whey). Food scientists program the genetic code into the yeast, and that yeast starts pumping out the desired proteins. The yeast never makes it into the final product, enabling the final product to be labeled GMO-free.

The entrepreneurs unceremoniously unveiled their prototype in a plastic water bottle they’d transported with them, pouring Perfect Day’s milk into Chau’s cup. Minutes later, they had a deal.

These twenty-somethings who hardly knew each other had walked into the meeting with a mere $30,000 in the bank account of their embryonic startup. They walked out with $2 million.

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Four years later, Perfect Day has now raised millions more and has attracted talent from some of the world’s largest dairy companies. They plan to start by selling dairy proteins as functional ingredients for food manufacturers, with other dairy products not far behind. Having personally eaten from their early batches of yogurt, I’m convinced that they’re onto something big.

The company is part of a group of promising start-ups pioneering the field of “clean” animal products: real animal products grown without raising and slaughtering animals. The terminology is a nod to “clean energy,” but in addition to lightening the “food-prints” of animal products, clean milk and meat are also just, well, cleaner.

We’re warned to treat raw meat in our kitchens with extreme caution because it can carry E. Coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and other intestinal pathogens. But when growing clean meat, there are no intestines to speak of. Instead, from a tiny biopsy of an animal’s muscle, we can grow the meat we want to eat without the rest of the animal.

Just how much meat could we grow? When MIT Technology Review profiled Marie Gibbons—a fellow at the nonprofit Good Food Institute, which is working to hasten clean meat’s rise—they made it clear why venture capitalists like Chau are salivating: by taking a sesame seed-sized sample of turkey muscle, Gibbons just might feed the world.

“In theory, the growth potential is enormous,” MIT reported. “Assuming unlimited nutrients and room to grow, a single satellite cell from one single turkey can undergo seventy-five generations of division during three months. That means one cell could turn into enough muscle to manufacture over twenty trillion turkey nuggets.”

The venture capitalists pouring money into clean meat companies are betting that theory becomes fact. One company, Memphis Meats, has attracted capital from billionaires like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Jack and Suzy Welch.

But this isn’t all simply a product of Silicon Valley; even Big Meat has taken notice. Just last August, Cargill became the first large meat producer to invest in clean meat. In a Fox Business interview, Cargill CEO David MacLennan discussed his new investment, boasting that Memphis Meats “produces chicken or duck in a way that doesn’t use the resources that traditional meat uses. So it’s all about sustainability. Call it ‘clean meat’ if you will. It’s a way to produce meat in a different alternative that isn’t as resource-intensive.”

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For millennia, animals have satisfied humanity’s desire for meat, leather, and other forms of sustenance. But as our population and demand for animal products increases, continuing to funnel more and more resources through more and more animals poses serious challenges.

The plant-based protein revolution is already underway, with major investment from Tyson Foods and others in start-ups like Beyond Meat that are producing amazingly meaty plant-based meats. These plant-based meat companies are extremely promising—and their products are gaining traction. One need look no further than the explosion of plant-based milks to see what might soon happen with plant-based meats. But they’re not making actual meat from animal cells, like Memphis Meats or actual dairy proteins, like Perfect Day.

For consumers who feel wedded to actual animal products, this nascent industry may soon allow us to have our meat and eat it too.