This is the third installment in a five-part series about the challenges food tech companies face in scaling up. Previous stories can be found here.
It’s been just about a year since Upside Foods opened its new production facility and innovation center in the San Francisco Bay area, but the company is already looking to expand.
Upside’s 53,000-square-foot Engineering, Production and Innovation Center, abbreviated as EPIC, is in a former grocery store. The facility was custom built out for the cultivated meat company, and has the setup it needs to receive approval to produce and sell cultivated meat from USDA and FDA. With its large silvery bioreactor tanks in the middle of the facility that can be seen through windows all around the building, EPIC will eventually be able to make up to 400,000 pounds of cultivated meat in a year.
This is enough to supply a few restaurants, but not enough to create an actual supply of meat for consumers.
In April, Upside Foods closed its $400 million Series C round, which will fund the company’s first commercial-scale facility. Chief Operating Officer Amy Chen said the company is looking for a site for the plant in the United States, and they’re also currently designing the facility.
They’ve already proven they can safely grow the cells to make meat, and they taste good to consumers, she said. Upside’s biggest challenge now, Chen said, is getting to the point where the company can produce at scale.
“I think the question now is, how do you get from thousands of liters to tens of thousands of liters, or hundreds of thousands of liter scale?” Chen said. “I think that next chapter is more of a technical engineering problem than it is a basic science challenge.”
Getting down to the standardized screws of manufacturing
It’s one thing to design technology and systems that work in the lab. It’s quite another to make something that could mass produce food, especially using brand new technologies and processes.
Cultivated seafood company Finless Foods recently moved into its first pilot facility — an 11,000-square-foot space that allowed for bigger bioreactors, larger prototypes, more employees and more research. Co-founder and CEO Mike Selden said that has helped the company make enormous strides.
“Previously, we were just sort of showcasing ourselves and being like, ‘Hey, this tastes good. What do you think?’ to investors,” Selden said. “Now we're really able to put together prototypes that we're proud of, and that are pretty close to a thing that we’d put to market. That's been huge for us. We've been able to achieve breakthroughs in terms of getting into much larger bioreactors and much higher densities than we had previously, which drops our costs and also makes this more functional from a large-scale production perspective.”
For Upside Foods, Chen said they are focusing on scaling up both their equipment and their supplies. Getting a supply chain for cell growth media has been one of the company’s focal points in recent months. Growth media essentially feeds the cells, kind of like a cultivated meat spin on animal feed. Upside’s growth media has been animal-component free since last December. It’s currently made of nutrients including sugars, salts, amino acids and proteins, which don’t necessarily exist in quantities that are needed to make the amount of meat Upside is scaling up to, or haven’t previously been used for food.
Chen said Upside Foods recently hired Sheetal Shah, who helped Impossible Foods scale up with its push into retail, as its senior vice president of manufacturing and operations. Shah, who also helped communication tech companies scale up before he came to the food industry, is working with Upside to make sure they have all of the proper components, agreements and partnerships in place to grow as planned.
Thinking of what used to be a scientific project as an actual food manufacturing company requires a lot of changes in perceptions. Selden said that before scaling up Finless, he took the way industrialization works for granted. Now, he said, he knows there are a lot of things that have to be considered — even as simple as ensuring that screw sizes and gauges are standardized in a part of the factory.
He also had never realized how difficult it is for a food company to take in ingredients, create finished goods and sell them on the market. Selden said many companies in cultured meat seem “hand wavy” about the whole thing — assuming creating a finished product will be simple and come easily once there is FDA approval of a product to go on the market.
Finless Foods is also making a plant-based tuna product, which will get to some restaurant menus this fall. Selden said this product is schooling him in how complex the process actually is.
“I'm really, really glad that we have the plant-based product because that has taught us how difficult this is, and how many processes we have to set up in place to be a real food company,” Selden said.
Preparing for the biggest test of all
While food tech companies are working hard to improve their technology, increase the output of their facilities, shore up funding and build their knowhow, there is still one important step to scaling up: facing the consumer.
While studies have shown that consumers are receptive to the idea of food made through technology, the companies actually making that food need to properly connect with consumers to be able to make a product people will want to buy. Many food startups that make products consumers can already understand and are familiar with end up failing. Food tech companies both need to explain what it is they are doing and why consumers need to buy it.
Upside Foods’ Chen said they’re already beginning the educational process so people will look forward to trying their products once they are available.
“We're spending a lot of time on demystifying with consumers what is cultivated meat, and we know from a lot of the work that we've done that it's more lack of information than anything else that we need to get over, right?” Chen said. “Once we see that consumers start learning about what cultivated meat is, the more they learn, the more excited they are.”
Those who use technology to make next-generation food have a more difficult time explaining themselves than companies launching plant-based alternatives or food products incorporating ingredients that reduce undesirable nutrients like sodium or sugar. Coming up with language and branding that centers on the consumer has been a project many companies in the space have been working on for years.
Eat Just’s CEO Josh Tetrick said there’s a lot that food tech companies need to do to improve their products and get ready for them to be consumer-facing. And this needs to be done consistently and remembered as they scale.
“At some point, you've got to face the ultimate decider, which is the consumer, and that's a hard confrontation,” Tetrick said. “If you're not making it right, if it doesn't taste right, if it's not priced right, they do not give a damn about how many years you spent doing this, how much you've sacrificed your life or how many homes you’ve mortgaged, or how many relationships — They don't care. They're just trying to fill up their grocery cart and get back to their kids so they can put them to bed.
“...Some companies will be able to pass that test,” he continued. “Some companies won't get to that test. Some companies will get to the test and not be able to pass it. And then I think a smaller number of companies will pass it with flying colors, and be the companies that come to define this new approach to making meat, eggs and milk.”