By next year, Future Meat Technologies expects to be producing an amount of meat equivalent to 1,500 chickens or five cows each month in a vessel the size of a refrigerator.
The facility to do it is already under construction, made possible by a recent $14 million round of funding, led by S2G Ventures and Emerald Technology Ventures. And Yaakov Nahmias, the founder and chief science officer of the Israel-based company, told Food Dive he is confident he can use this new facility to produce cultured meat products that taste good and are affordable on the market in Israel by 2021.
Future Meat started about a year and a half ago, and appears to be positioned to be the first company in the world to have cultured meat on the market. While the company seems to have figured out technology to make viable products quickly and relatively inexpensively, Nahmias said he's not necessarily looking at the cultured meat market as a race to be won.
"I'm not sure that it's going to be important to get in first. I think," he said. "What is going to be critically important is getting it right."
Once Future Meat does get it right, Nahmias said the company will expand as a contract manager for major meat producers — like Tyson, which was the lead investor in Future Meat's first funding round last year through its venture capital fund.
"Future Meat Technologies is not interested in building a brand and creating our own products," Nahmias said. "As far as I'm concerned, I want to be the biggest company you've never heard of. I'm not interested in being Tyson or Beyond Meat. I'm interested more in being Caterpillar, right. I want to be a company that's producing the technology, cell-starters, the medium that makes everybody's life easier, that allows farmers to grow meat, just with different technology than they're using today."
A unique approach
Many companies are working to develop meat without animals. Some use stem cells. Some genetically modify the cells so that they will grow in a way that they develop muscle and fat.
Future Meat takes a very different approach. The company uses fibroblasts, which Nahmias explained are the type of fast-growing cells that quickly close up a paper cut. These cells can rapidly and cheaply produce biomass, doubling in less than 24 hours. And they can also grow as muscle or fat, Nahmias said, meaning they can become the muscle part of meat — protein and texture — or the fat part of meat — aroma and flavor.
"I want to be a company that's producing the technology, cell-starters, the medium that makes everybody's life easier, that allows farmers to grow meat, just with different technology than they're using today."
Founder and CSO, Future Meat Technologies
How did he come up with this? Nahmias, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, has four young children. He said that in order for them to be able to eat meat as they become adults, something has to change. In the future, he said, the planet will not be able to sustain the resource-intensive way meat has traditionally been produced. So how could he use his knowledge to change that?
"What we did ... is reverse engineer the problem," Nahmias said. "...It's an engineering problem and a biology problem."
He chose to use fibroblasts because of their speedy and relatively inexpensive growth. After all, he said, any cultured product also needs to be at cost parity with traditionally farmed meat. Stem cells require an expensive medium in order to stay viable, and Nahmias did not want to genetically modify cells.
The technology Nahmias's company uses ferments meat cells in 600-liter stainless steel bioreactor, one of which he said is about the size of a refrigerator. And it takes about two weeks to grow the meat there. It's easy to switch what's being grown in that bioreactor, meaning the same reactor can easily switch between beef, chicken and pork — and could make all three in six weeks time.
While Future Meat is capable of making 100% pure meat, Nahmias intends to start with blended products. After all, any ground meat product on the market today is blended with something — even just water or soy.
Today's consumer is also very willing to eat plant-based meat products, and while they are extremely popular, they have long ingredient lists. Nahmias said he tries every new plant-based product he finds and pays attention to their strengths and weaknesses.
"All of the meat substitutes today, they managed to get the color and the texture incredibly right," he said. "But every time you eat it, you notice that something is off. And the thing that is off is the lack of the fat. ...There's no grilling effects. There's no oil in the plant kingdom, not even coconut oil, that can replace that. So we think we can actually come in with a product that is going to be incredibly close to meat, but still be a hybrid."
These products, which Nahmias said are likely to be the first on the market, will use actual cultured meat fat to provide the flavor, aroma and cooking behavior of meat. The rest of the product will be plant-based. So it will be somewhat akin to the blended products that manufacturers including Hormel, with Applegate's Great Organic Blend Burger, and Tyson's soon-to-come Raised & Rooted brand, but different, considering no animals will have been used for the product.
Nahmias said the blended products will be easiest to produce and the least expensive for the consumer. After those are successful, he plans to start producing products with more lab-created muscle and less plant-protein ingredients.
The plan is to meet consumer demands, he said, and not to ease into cultured meat, which may make some consumers squeamish simply because of the way it was produced.
Will they eat it?
While cultured meat is certainly different — at least in its origin — from conventional meat, Nahmias does not see a problem with consumer acceptance.
"I don't think the consumers would care," he said. "I'll tell you the truth: I think there's going to be a lot of interest in trying to try it right off the bat. And I think if it tastes good, it tastes good."
Sustainability is becoming a big enough concern that Nahmias said consumers — and even people working in the traditional meat industry — are likely to take notice of the lesser impact on the environment. According to its website, Future Meat produces 80% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and uses 99% less land and 96% less fresh water than traditional meat production.
"We can keep protein production at roughly the same level as it is today. If we move everything onto cultured meats, we would free about 40% of the habitable land in the U.S.," Nahmias said. "That massive amount of land is no longer going to be needed for grazing. ...If you moved everything [on that newly freed land] to forestry, just that would make the U.S. carbon-neutral for decades."
Meanwhile, the people currently working in the meat industry would be able to stay in the industry, he said. They would just go from operating ranches to working at bioreactors to produce meat. After all, production facilities should be spread out worldwide.
"One of the things the Beyond Meat IPO taught us is that there is massive interest in meat alternatives in general. And I think people realize that, you know, the game as it is, is over. We have to start putting new pieces on the plate."
Founder and CSO, Future Meat Technologies
Nahmias is not sure what the regulatory landscape will look like for his products. He's already begun talking to the proper governmental departments in Israel, but the process is being developed now. Nahmias anticipates it will be relatively easy because the growing medium is simple and the cells are not genetically modified. Because the cultures start from cells of animals, they could potentially be classified as meat byproducts, something that is already allowed by law.
He does think that in the next five to 10 years, there will be many similar products on the market and consumers will not think twice about eating a meat product that did not come from a traditional farm.
"One of the things the Beyond Meat IPO taught us is that there is massive interest in meat alternatives in general," Nahmias said. "And I think people realize that, you know, the game as it is, is over. We have to start putting new pieces on the plate. And we have to start thinking about climate change, and how are we contributing to it, and how can we address it?"