In the edible space race to bring cell-cultured meat to market, Israel just stepped up its game.
Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies this month announced its plan to build the world’s first pilot production facility for growing cultured meat, a signal of just how close scientists and entrepreneurs are to getting a product into consumers’ hands.
Yaakov Nahmias, founder of the company, says it plans to break ground on the facility in coming months, making history just south of Tel Aviv, in a relatively small Israeli city called Rehovot. In 2014, Nahmias won the Rappaport Prize for biomedical sciences for his work on liver tissue engineering—expertise he’s now applied to the challenge of growing cost-competitive chicken and beef from animal cells.
In the race to produce and serve cell-cultured meat, the facility would make Israel a front-runner, standing toe-to-toe with the US and Singapore as a possible introductory market. The plan caught the attention of Matt Walker, the managing director of S2G Ventures, a Chicago-based venture capital firm. In early October, Future Meat Technologies announced it raised $14 million in its latest funding round, with S2G Ventures leading the round.
As Walker puts it, there are close to 30 companies around the world looking to grow cell-cultured meat, but the vast majority of them aren’t prepared to begin scaling up their production.
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“A lot of those will probably merge or shake out in the next year or two,” Walker says. “At a high level, this is a company that actually has a plan to get to a commercially viable price point, and it doesn’t require a massive influx of capital.”
Nahmias and his CEO, Rom Kshuk, have laid out big goals for the company. Unlike some of its Silicon Valley counterparts, Future Meat Technologies seeks to be a business-to-business operation. It aims to market its animal cell lines, nutrient-dense liquid mediums that cells feed on, and cell-culturing equipment to existing meat companies, such as Tyson Foods, rather than selling under its own branding alone.
“We want to change the way we manufacture meat,” Nahmias says. “We want to help everybody get better efficiency and better flexibility across the board. I want to be the biggest company that you’ve never heard of. I want to be a company that Tyson depends on.”
When stacking up popular plant-based meats against future cell-cultured meats, Nahmias makes the case that cell-cultured products will be differentiated by raw desire. Put simply: People will crave it.
Conventional meat that comes from slaughtered animals is comprised primarily of muscle tissue and fat tissue, and each of those components offers something different. It’s the muscle that gives meat much of its familiar appearance and texture. The fat provides much of its taste and aroma when it’s cooked.
“If you walk next to a gyro place or you smell somebody doing barbecue next door, that’s the smell that you crave,” Nahmias says.
For popular plant-based companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, plants have replicated appearance and mouth-feel. But there are close to 300 molecules found in meat that you can’t get from plants, and those can make all the difference in the eating experience, Nahmias says. This is where he expects to fill the gap, and he hopes to do so by first making a hybrid product that is comprised of both plants and cell-cultured meat.
“We have the technology that actually gives you that emotional jump,” Nahmias says. “Muscle you can get from plant-based. What I can’t get is the aroma and the flavor—so it comes to growing fat tissue.”
The company says its first product will be about one-third cell-cultured meat and two-thirds plant-based, that it will likely be cost-competitive and ready for the market by 2021, and that a fully cell-cultured product will be ready for launch in 2022. Future Meat Technologies’ current small-scale production of chicken costs about $150 per pound; beef, about $200 per pound. The company says it hopes to set its 100% cell-cultured meat product at less than $10 per pound.
The first processing plant
So what does a cell-cultured meat plant look like? Both Nahmias and Kshuk described a facility about 1,000 square meters (about 10,700 square feet) in size and stocked with the company’s patented bioreactors.
Future Meat Technologies has released an illustrated rendering of the plant, which shows what looks like a cross between a beer brewery and a basic processing facility. It includes an area with several sleek, silver bioreactors.
The processing plant sets the stage for what Nahmias calls a “distributive manufacturing solution,” which is a technical way of saying that growing cell-cultured meat won’t happen in a centralized facility, but rather across regions. Facilities could be incorporated by farmers, retailers, and restaurants, among others.
Because the growth cycles for the meat are so short—a 600-liter, refrigerator-sized bioreactor can make the equivalent of 2,000 chickens every 6 weeks—those who use the technology will be able to change the kind of meat they are growing relatively quickly to respond to market demand.
Unclear is whether the Israeli government will give the green light for the company’s product. That’s the case for every cell-cultured meat company: While many companies are scientifically advanced enough to begin selling their meat, the biggest barrier to market entry is government regulation.
“This could be very good for Israel,” Kshuk says. “Even if it’s small, controlled volumes.”