After Mosa Meat showed off the world's first hamburger made from cell-based meat in 2013 — a process that took two years and cost the equivalent of $325,000 — people believed that real meat could be made without slaughtering an animal.
Then came the next challenge: producing cell-based meat less expensively, let alone at a price affordable to a consumer.
The price has been steadily dropping thanks to more players in the game, scientific advancements, new plant-based growth media, and partnerships across different scientific disciplines. Most recently, Israel-based Future Meat Technologies has gotten the price to produce a cell-based chicken breast down to about $7.50.
"In seven years, we managed to bring down the cost of the hamburger by 28,000 times. Can you imagine anything else in the world depreciating by 28,000 times?" Future Meat Technologies Founder and Chief Science Officer Yaakov Nahmias said. "Imagine what would happen if you can buy a Tesla Model X for 28,000 times less than when it emerged. I mean, you would buy it for essentially, you know, $20."
Getting the price of cell-based meat down to where consumers can afford it is central to developing it as a food item and to building the foundation of the industry, Nahmias said. After all, consumers will not be willing to buy it if it costs a lot more than conventional meats. Low cost and efficient production were at the forefront of Nahmias' mind when he started Future Meat in 2018 — and the company is getting closer to both.
In addition to the lower cost of a chicken breast, Future Meat Technologies also announced $26.75 million in new funding. This latest round, in the form of a convertible note, involved both new and old investors in the company, and it more than doubles its existing funds. Existing investors Tyson Foods, Archer Daniels Midland, S2G Ventures, Manta Ray Investors, Emerald Technology Ventures and Bits x Bites all participated in this round. Joining them as first-time funders are German dairy producer Müller Group, U.S.-based CPG and foodservice products maker Rich Products Corp. and investment firm ADM Capital (not affiliated with the ingredients and grain company).
How to reduce the cost of the world's most expensive meat
Nahmias, a biotechnologist and professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has had a career of scientific research and startups prior to founding Future Meat Technologies, is used to looking at things through a multidisciplinary lens.
This approach became vital once the COVID-19 pandemic shut down a lot of routine business actions, he said. Duties that the company might have outsourced had to be done in-house. So instead of relying on other companies to develop cell growth medium, Future Meat did it itself. And the growth medium is where most of the cost has historically been for cell-based meat; the very first used pricey fetal bovine serum. All of the producers working on cell-based meat now have the goal of developing a less expensive plant-based alternative.
Future Meat has built robotic analytical systems that break down the chemical composition of different plants and proteins. And they have found some food ingredients that work well for cultured meat growth. Nahmias said Future Meat's long partnership with ADM has truly aided this effort. All those factors have helped devise an effective and relatively inexpensive growth medium.
The company's bioreactors also have a system that can clean the growth medium. This means that impurities are removed and the growth medium can actually be reused. This further reduces the cost, Nahmias said.
"I think right now we are roughly in the area that Impossible Foods were when they when they started showing up with their products," Nahmias said.
"In seven years, we managed to bring down the cost of the hamburger by 28,000 times. Can you imagine anything else in the world depreciating by 28,000 times?"
Founder and chief science officer, Future Meat Technologies
The system Future Meat uses is also unique in the way it can quickly produce a lot of cells. The company has always used fast-growing cells, but Nahmias said it is in the process of building out what would be one of the most efficient biomanufacturing facilities in the world. In this 800-liter facility, about 36% of the bioreactor will become biomass, which he said is 10 times more efficient than many others existing today — and more efficient than what had been predicted for the cultured meat industry. Nahmias said this new bioreactor will be completely built out in April or May.
The $7.50 chicken breast does blend cell-based chicken with some plant proteins, which is something the company has long planned to do for its first products to get the cost down. Nahmias would not provide any specifics about how much of the chicken breast was plant protein, but he did say it had the look, texture, smell and taste of conventional chicken. He has four young children who don't particularly like plant-based meat, he said. But they will eat Future Meat's products.
"You can do a lot of things, but you can't cheat a 3-year-old," he said. "They know what a chicken nugget's supposed to taste like."
There's not much cost comparison for cell-based chicken breasts now. The only cell-based meat provider with product on the market is Eat Just, which received regulatory approval for its Good Meat cultured chicken in Singapore and has sold it to diners at an exclusive restaurant there. Channel News Asia reported Eat Just's cultured chicken will cost S$23 — about $17.29. In an interview with CNBC, Eat Just CEO Josh Tetrick would not say how much the chicken costs the company to make, but he said Eat Just is not making any money at the current price.
Coming to a plate near you in 2022 (or sooner)
The funding has helped fund Future Meat's new facility and new hires, Nahmias said.
Future Meat now has close to 40 employees. Nahmias said the COVID-19 related quarantines helped him build a "much more diverse" company. He has compared it to NASA's Apollo project, which propelled U.S. astronauts to be the first on the moon in 1969.
"We have amazing teams of engineers and chemists and biologists and food scientists and chefs all working together for a single purpose and this was only possible with this very strong support of industry," Nahmias said.
Future Meat's investors come from many sectors of life — and have ties to the food industry. Nahmias said he is proud to see the diversity of the investors, both in what their primary function is and where they are located. With big investors from the U.S., Europe and Asia, Future Meat's work is being supported around the globe, he said.
The company is also focusing on getting regulatory approval for its products, and is working closely with the FDA in the United States and with regulators in its home country in Israel. Nahmias said there are active discussions with some regulatory agencies in Asia.
While the drop in manufacturing cost and new funding are both big deals for Future Meat Technologies, Nahmias said they're just the first two announcements in what he thinks will be a very exciting year for the company. Future Meat currently has a target of getting products on the market in 2022, but Nahmias said it could be sooner if regulators give their approval faster.
"We want to be there with the right product at the right time, with the complete regulatory approval to make sure that everybody is enjoying a delicious, healthy, safe, sustainable product that they expect," Nahmias said. "Honestly, I don't think we're gonna have a second chance to make a first impression, as the saying goes. We have to get it right."