One of the leading Silicon Valley startups making high-tech, cell-cultured meat says it’s about to build its first pilot production plant in the United States.
California-based Memphis Meats today announced it closed a $161 million Series B funding round, much of which will go toward building the plant in the Bay Area. Once operational, the facility will grow meat from animal cells without having to slaughter a single creature. The plans for a new plant signals Memphis Meats is ready to begin scaling up the volume of meat it can produce, which will eventually help drive the cost of its products down to an acceptable level for consumers.
🥩See our recent field guide, “The future of meat,” for an in-depth look at this new food technology.🥩
Globally, Memphis Meats is only the second cell-cultured meat company to publicly announce plans for a pilot facility. In October 2019, Israel-based Future Meat Technologies said it was building a 10,700 square-foot facility in Rehovot, just south of Tel Aviv. That startup will aim to put a hybrid cell-cultured and plant-based product on the market sometime in 2021, followed by a cost-competitive, 100% cell-cultured chicken product by 2022. San Francisco-based JUST never publicly announced its facility, but the company says it began operating an off-site pilot plant, using 1,000-liter bioreactors, at an undisclosed location in California in mid-2019.
Memphis Meats did not release specific details about where its pilot facility would be located, how big it would be, or how many of its custom-built bioreactors would be housed inside. Bioreactors are crucial components of any cultured meat production facility; they’re where the animal cells will grow and proliferate. CEO Uma Valeti did say, though, that his company’s first marketed meat would be 100% cell-cultured.
“I don’t want to be first to market unless we are the best on the market,” Valeti says.
The development is a big one for the companies vying to get cell-cultured meat to market. There are around 30 cultured startups around the world, with a handful in the US including JUST, Mission Barns, Finless Foods, and New Age Meats. For years, cultured meat companies have shown photos and offered rare tastings of meat products grown in small batches. Some are approaching the moment when they can start scaling up their technology—and Memphis Meats, JUST, and Future Meat Technologies have raised the stakes for those competitors.
The new pilot plans are also noteworthy from a regulatory standpoint. No government on the planet has given cell-cultured meat a green light to be served to consumers. Working closely with the US Department of Agriculture and the US Food and Drug Administration, Valeti says he hopes to engage with regulators in his new pilot facility.
“The regulators would like to see that we have good manufacturing practices,” he says. “When they come to the plant they should be able to see high-quality cells, high-quality feed, and a clean production plant.”
Valeti said the funding round also helps his company make inroads into markets in China, Australia, and New Zealand. Two of its three lead investors, SoftBank Group and Temasek, are from Asian nations, giving investors in that region of the world more exposure to the work happening in Memphis Meats’ labs (the third is Norwest, of California).
Memphis Meats’ funding round—which will also go toward tripling its headcount from 45 to 135—received additional investments from Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Threshold Ventures, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Finistere, Kimbal Musk, Fifty Years, and CPT Capital. Since its founding, the company has raised close to $180 million, making it the top fundraiser among startups working exclusively on cultured meat. But that shouldn’t discourage competitors from entering the race to scale: Future Meat Technologies is diving into its plant with just $14 million raised.
Correction: Memphis Meats is the second US-based cultured meat company to establish a pilot plant. In mid-2019, San Francisco-based JUST began producing meat at an off-site pilot plant using 1,000-liter bioreactors. JUST never publicly announced its plant.