8 Lab-Based Food Companies Creating Exotic Foods
We used to worry that fast-food companies were hoodwinking us with questionable beef patties and chicken nuggets made from pink goop. Well, looks like fake meat in the form of lab-based food is back on the menu, folks.
These days, the hottest green tech food startups are throwing their weight behind cellular agriculture, which is the process of taking cells from an animal and growing them in a bioreactor. With enough cells, scientists can harvest this tissue in the form of a steak, chicken breast, fish fillet, or egg. All without killing an animal.
From fast food to fine dining, the emerging players in this nascent branch of the food industry promise that meat grown in a test tube is going to be the biggest thing since sliced bread. Cellular agriculture is touted as more environmentally friendly than conventional agriculture because less land, water, and resources will eventually be needed to grow a pound of meat in the lab than in the field. If done right, cellular agriculture could flip the conventional meat industry on its head, producing a tasty hunk of meat without the cow or chicken.
And once scientists figure out how to make every ingredient used in cellular agriculture solely from plants, the vegans can finally have their cake and eat it, too.
The Cost of Lab-Based Food
While we’ve moved past the crazy headlines about $325,000 lab-grown burgers, cultured meat is still costly. The reason is that the main ingredient used in the cell culture media, fetal bovine serum (FBS), still comes from the blood of calf fetuses and costs an arm and a leg. FBS is necessary because it contains essential growth factors that signal to the cells to grow, and there aren’t too many cheap sources for them. We’ll have to wait a few years for our perfectly marbled Costco steaks made in Dexter’s laboratory.
But if you take a red-eye out to Singapore, you could get a taste of lab-cultured chicken. Singapore just approved the sale of the first lab-grown chicken meat back in December 2020, with Eat Just making a historic debut of its chicken nuggets at the Singaporean restaurant 1880.
Be sure to bring your wallet. Four chicken nuggets cost a whopping $23.
Exotic Lab-Based Foods
Most startups in the cellular agriculture space are laser-focused on mainstream food products like beef or chicken; however, cellular agriculture technology can be used to make meat from pretty much any animal, including humans. That’s why lab-grown meat hasn’t exactly been free from ethical controversy.
Orkan Telhan, an artist and professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania, shocked a small circle of naysayers with his steak made from cultured human cells. Aptly named Ouroboros Steak, based on the symbol of a snake eating its own tail, the project blew up Telhan’s inbox with an endless stream of hate mail from very concerned citizens. Funny enough, he’s received just as many inquiries from people who want to grow human meat at home, and from investors interested in bringing human meat to the market. It’s probably the Peter Thiel-like billionaires who have been denied the taste of young blood so they can live forever.
Below is an exotic feast of eight companies that are developing lab-based food through cellular agriculture that you generally won’t find on the dinner tables of real ‘Muricans.
Lab-Based Kangaroo Meat
Founded in 2019, the Australian company Vow has already raised $6.8 million in funding, most of it from a $6 million Seed round in January. The Vow team has been hard at work putting together its food design studio and laboratory in Sydney, with a portfolio of 11 different animals. As a company from Down Under, it’s only natural lab-grown kangaroo would be at the top of the menu. But the team is also looking into the future, wondering if there are other animals worth munching on outside of the usual suspects.
The brainiacs at Vow are combing through the millions of animals that exist on planet Earth and dialing in on the ones we haven’t even thought to eat (yet). By selecting the tastiest animals it can find and grow in the lab, Vow doesn’t just want to replace conventional meat. It wants to outperform it. Back in 2020, they worked with a couple of famous Aussie chefs to prepare six dishes made from the cultured meat of six different species that included kangaroo, pig, lamb, alpaca, rabbit, and goat.
Lab-Based Horse Meat
Horse meat isn’t big here in the United States, with the horse meat industry effectively shut down in 2006, but horse meat is still on the menu for Russians and Hungarians. Founded in 2019, ArtMeat is a startup based in Kazan, Russia, culturing meat from horse and sturgeon cells. ArtMeat is a university spinoff supported by the Nanotechnology Center of the Tatarstan Republic and the Kazan Federal University, and one of the first cellular agriculture companies in Russia.
Its technology is based on growing the cells in a bioreactor and 3D printing those cells into the shapes desired, like a steak or a fillet. ArtMeat claims that its horse meat steak will get pumped out in as little as three weeks, compared to the 33 months it takes for a horse to get impregnated, give birth to a foal, and raise that foal into an adult horse. The company has plans to bring its horse meat and sturgeon fillets to market in 2023.
This next company first came across our radar in a piece we did on 9 Alternative Seafood Companies Saving the Oceans. Founded in 2018, the Singapore-based startup Shiok Meats has banked a total of $20.4 million from more than two dozen investors. The focus is on producing cell-based shrimp meat, before the company turns its attention to other costly seafood options, such as crabs and lobsters. With seafood prices up 50% in the first half of last year, getting involved with the seafood market is a no-brainer.
The CEO of Shiok Meats, Sandhya Sriram, has said that it currently costs $5,000 to make one kilogram of cell-based shrimp, with a projected drop in cost to $50 per kilogram in the near future. Shiok Meats is working with another player in the cellular agriculture arena, Japanese company IntegriCulture (more below), to pull down those costs.
Lab-Based Fish Maw
Founded in 2018, Avant Meats is a Hong Kong-based startup that’s working to produce lab-grown fish maw, raising $3.1 million in a Seed round last December. Known as the “cocaine of the sea” and “money maw,” fish maw is believed to be an aphrodisiac and a fertility cure-all. It sounds like anything but: Fish maw is the dried swim bladders of large fish, like sturgeon, and commands a high price on the market because of its supposed medicinal properties. The fish maw of some endangered species, such as the Mexican totoaba, are trafficked illegally and can fetch up to $50,000.
Avant Meats is hoping to get in the middle of that skyrocketing demand and deliver fish maw to hungry customers in a sustainable (and legal) way by cultivating the swim bladder cells of the fish in a bioreactor.
Lab-Based Duck Fat
Founded in 2018, Cubiq Foods is headquartered in Barcelona, Spain. The startup raised more than $19 million from investors to build out a platform of healthy omega-3 fatty acids cultivated from fatty duck cells. Normally, omega-3 fatty acids are harvested from fish or krill oil, but Cubiq Foods is betting that marine supplies are going to dwindle so much that they’ll be a sustainable player that can churn out omega-3s on demand for the dietary supplements market.
The technology is based on cultivating fatty duck cells that accumulate almost 85% of their weight in oil. Plus, Cubiq’s omega-3 fatty acids have the added benefit of not tasting like dead fish.
Lab-Based Foie Gras
Founded in 2019, Paris-based Gourmey is
blaspheming revolutionizing French cuisine, starting with foie gras. The company has received funding from grants, subsidies, and a couple of undisclosed funding rounds to grow foie gras directly from duck egg cells. The Gourmey team wants to do away with the cruel process used to make traditional foie gras, which involves force-feeding ducks and geese until their livers are riddled with mouthwatering fat.
Gourmey is tapping into the market for ethically sourced luxury foods. That’s good news for the New Yorkers who’ll be in desperate need for a foie gras fix after 2022 when the delicacy will be banned over concerns regarding animal welfare. Though they’ll have to wait a little longer, because the company doesn’t expect to commercialize cell-based foie gras in 2023 at the earliest. Afterwards, Gourmey plans to build a cultivated meat platform based entirely on duck cells to target the duck-loving markets in Asia.
Founded in 2015, Tokyo startup IntegriCulture raised just over $10 million to also bring cell-cultured foie gras to the table, most of it from a Series A in May 2020. IntegriCulture plans to build a pilot plant with this newfound cash to start producing foie gras at scale while also double-dipping into the beauty market by churning out lab-cultured serum for cosmetics.
The pride and joy of IntegriCulture is its CulNet technology, a platform for growing the main tissue cells (i.e., muscle cells for meat) in a central tank connected to feeder tanks containing other, more specialized cells, like liver or placental cells. These feeder tanks supply the main tank cells with growth factors. That way, the company doesn’t have to rely on expensive, third-party growth factors to support its operations, which in theory should help IntegriCulture bring down the cost of its cultured products.
IntegriCulture will also license its CulNet technology to other companies to bring in more of that cash. One of its first partnerships is with the Singaporean cellular agriculture startup, Shiok Meats.
Lab-Based Pet Food
Founded in 2016, Because Animals is a cultured pet food startup based in sunny Philadelphia that raised an undisclosed Seed round back in 2019, mainly from a list of well-known alt food accelerators like SOSV and IndieBio. Because Animals claims to have successfully created the world’s first cultured pet food for cats from cultured mouse cells. While the startup has yet to commercialize lab-based mice meat, it did launch some less capital-intensive products, including probiotic supplements for cats and dogs.
Bill Gates recently mentioned in his latest book that every nation with money in its pockets should start chowing down on meat from a culture flask to prevent a climate apocalypse. That’s a nice thought Bill, but unless faux meat comes down in price to that of real meat (or even less for those of us who make peanuts), don’t expect it to happen. While 50% of U.S. consumers are trying to work in plant-based proteins like Beyond Meat into their diets, we’ll see what that number looks like if a Rona recession hits.
Mr. Gates’ vision of the future may become a reality if fake meats of all types continue getting cheaper year after year. It’s possible we’ll see lab-based foods in the grocery aisle within this decade. And whether it’s kangaroo steaks or fish maw soup, the potential is limitless on what we can put on the dinner table through the power of cellular agriculture. Platypus steak, anyone?
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