For years, analysts and entrepreneurs have said that someday, cultivated meat is going to be huge.
As Believer Meats begins construction on its commercial-scale facility in Wilson, North Carolina, the company is quickly getting to the huge part. The 200,000-square-foot facility will have an initial capacity to make 22 million pounds of cultivated meat annually.
“We have plenty of space to expand as we go forward in the future,” said Michael Lenahan, executive vice president of global commercialization at Believer Meats. “The total lot size is approximately 43 acres.”
Believer Meats broke ground on the facility in December. As it stands today, the building will be the world’s largest cultivated meat plant when operations start in the first quarter of 2024. Lenahan said that when the facility starts producing chicken meat grown from cells in bioreactors, the factory will have 100 employees.
Lenahan said company officials are optimistic that they will receive positive news from regulators that will allow them to start selling and distributing Believer’s cultivated meat in the U.S. soon after the plant goes into operation.
“The way that we have it planned right now is at the beginning, we’ll be off to a very good start,” Lenahan said.
Triangulating an ideal location in North Carolina
Believer Meats, which is based in Israel, announced the location of its commercial-scale plant in the U.S. after closing its $347 million Series B funding round in late 2021. Lenahan said the company spent 10 months on planning and site selection, concentrating on the eastern side of the United States.
Wilson County, North Carolina was chosen as the perfect location for the company, Lenahan said. The state has a track record of working with tech companies, and the county is a short drive from the Research Triangle — the area between three research universities, North Carolina State, Duke and UNC Chapel Hill. Lenahan said the region has a high-quality talent pool, and the company will be able to draw the professionals it needs locally.
The state also made economic incentives available. The One North Carolina Fund, a government fund under control of the state’s Department of Commerce, is giving Believer Meats a $500,000 performance-based grant to assist in locating its facility there. The state funds are not given upfront, according to North Carolina’s commerce department, and companies need to meet job creation and capital investment targets.
Lenahan said Believer Meats’ workforce in North Carolina will include a range of positions — including Ph.D.-level scientists and researchers, as well as workers who don’t need such extensive scientific knowledge. According to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, the average annual salary at Believer Meats will be about $60,087, and the new jobs will generate an annual payroll impact of more than $6 million.
A world’s first facility
In 2021, Believer Meats started operating in one of the world’s first pilot-scale facilities for cultivated meat in Rehovot, Israel. The company’s commercial-scale facility in North Carolina is the first in the world that is actually under construction, although other companies, including Upside Foods, Eat Just and SuperMeat, have announced their intentions to build similar facilities this year.
As Believer Meats officials designed the North Carolina facility, Lenahan said they worked closely with experienced engineering design firms, including German engineering specialist GEA and engineering and design firm Gray. They’ve also been in touch with the USDA branch office in North Carolina, since the federal agency needs to approve plants where cultivated meat is produced.
“As a general rule of thumb, we make sure we’re always focusing on the highest-skilled and most experienced groups as we move forward,” Lenahan said.
The new facility, he said, will be much like Believer Meats’ pilot plant in Israel, just bigger. There will be no major changes to the science and procedures, which were described in detail in a paper published last month in Nature Food co-authored by Believer founder and Chief Science Officer Yaakov Nahmias that has been praised for its level of transparency. The paper explains how the company grows fibroblast cells in serum-free culture media at high densities and differentiate some of them into fat cells. The paper also outlines how the company blends its cultivated chicken cells with plant-based proteins to make a final product.
Lenahan said that the aggressive plan to build and open a new facility in a little more than a year can be attributed to strong partnerships and good planning. The company has been working quickly to get things in place, he said, including placing very early orders for some of the machinery and equipment for the plant.
A year of preparing for launch (and hoping for good regulatory news)
With about a year to go until the North Carolina plant is operational, the company continues to prepare for the consumer launch of its products.
Last year was a very research-intensive period, Lenahan said. Not just on the science side — which led to the company announcing its entry into cultivated lamb — but also on the consumer side. The company spent a long time working to figure out consumer motivation, expectations and how people feel about cultivated meat as a whole.
The research findings also led to changes in 2022, most visibly the name change and rebrand from Future Meat Technologies to Believer Meats. In a November statement about the name change, Lenahan said the company’s new name “is a testament to our wholehearted belief that there is a better way to produce meat that is delicious, nourishing and cost-effective.”
But Lenahan said there is more changes to come this year.
“Big picture in 2023, the goal from a consumer standpoint is to really increase our connection with them,” Lenahan said. “To explain who we are, what we stand for, and the role that we can play in resolving some of their pain points specific to meat.”
Lenahan said Believer Meats will do more consumer-facing communication campaigns and also more face-to-face talks with consumers.
There’s also the challenge of pivoting the company from one built around science to one that makes a food product and safely gets it onto consumers’ plates.
Hence, Believer Meats is working to expand its team to include people with expertise in the CPG business, Lenahan said. The company also is evaluating several partnerships with other businesses to work on distribution, supply and branding, as well as avenues through which the company could launch its chicken products.
But even if Believer’s factory is producing millions of pounds of cultivated meat annually and the company has solid partnerships with retailers, CPGs or restaurants, it will not be able to sell its meat products to consumers without the proper regulatory clearances.
In the U.S., most cultivated meat has dual regulatory hurdles to clear.
Believer’s chicken must first be cleared from a food safety standpoint by the FDA. Once the company has that clearance, USDA needs to provide a grant of inspection — an assurance that products are safe and sanitary. Like any meat product in the United States, USDA is responsible for inspecting products and facilities for cultivated meat, as well as product labeling.
Believer Meats has been working with the FDA to get pre-market approval for more than two years. While Lenahan could say nothing about what might happen on that regulatory front, he said Believer management finds FDA’s recent greenlighting of Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken product — the first in the space — encouraging.
“The fact that they have gotten that is, I think, a good sign for every company in the category and we’re looking forward to them [FDA] sharing more good news,” Lenahan said.