A Russian bioprinting company is bringing an idea tested in the stars back down to Earth — and potentially to consumer plates in coming years.
3D Bioprinting Solutions, which worked with Aleph Farms to produce a 3D printed steak on the International Space Station last year, announced last week it would be working with KFC in Russia to 3D print chicken nuggets that are a hybrid of cell-based meat and plant proteins. Andrei Rukavishnikov, sales and marketing director for 3D Bioprinting Solutions, told Food Dive that the chain restaurant's Russian arm is known for being at the forefront of new technology. 3D Bioprinting Solutions approached KFC about a collaboration, Rukavishnikov said, and they were extremely enthusiastic.
"So what we decided to do is, by the end of this year, we're gonna bring the first chicken nuggets made of chicken, not just plants," Rukavishnikov said. "We will use different chicken cells, and, of course, this will be a hybrid. Not 100% chicken meat, but it will be a hybrid of plant-based meat and chicken meat."
The joint announcement from KFC and 3D Bioprinting Solutions says a final product will be available for testing in Moscow this fall. Rukavishnikov said that testing is internal and will be for KFC. It does not mean that Russian diners will be able to try the chicken nuggets before the end of the year. The timeline is much longer than that to get a product to market. There's still a sizeable amount of R&D that needs to be worked out, including figuring out which chicken cells perform the best for the nuggets, and which extruded plant proteins work the best to make the hybrid look and taste the most like the real thing.
After the prototypes are finished, the long road to regulatory approval begins. While startups and research labs in many countries have started working on cell-based meat, none have finished regulatory approval for the products to be served to consumers. Rukavishnikov said it may take more than a year for the 3D printed chicken nuggets to gain approval in Russia, since the nuggets will be made using live, cultivated cells.
"Because we will use a hybrid product [that is also] plant-based, I think it will be possible to register it quite quickly, as long as we have the technology perfected," Rukavishnikov said.
'Very positive about the outcome'
Until its outer space collaboration with Aleph Farms, as well as a similar one with cell-based fish producer Finless Foods during which they created 3D printed cultured seafood cells in space, 3D Bioprinting Solutions was not in the cell-based meat space.
The company did very similar work, however. It uses cell cultivation technology and 3D printing expertise to create glands, organs and tissues for medical use. The company has also 3D printed bone tissue, and is working on creating biologically based 3D printed skin grafts and organ replacements.
Last year, Rukavishnikov said, the company worked with renowned Moscow restaurant Twins Garden to make a 3D bioprinted squid out of fish cells. That led them to seeking a partnership with KFC to work on the newest project.
While the company has made some prototypes, there is still a lot of research to be done.
"It looks very promising. It really looks like chicken," Rukavishnikov said about prototypes so far. "So I'm very positive ... about the outcome."
The nuggets will start out being produced as plant-based/cell-based hybrids partially because of the high cost for cultured cells. While the production costs are going down for cell-based meat — Mosa Meat's first cell-based hamburger in 2013 cost about $280,000 to produce, and some have predicted that patty could cost $10 in the next two years — it is still rather expensive. 3D Bioprinting Solutions does not currently have its own chicken cell lines. Rukavishnikov said they may try producing some, but they also may try partnering with some larger cell-based startups that have been working on cultivating cells for years. For the trials in space, 3D Bioprinting Solutions used cells cultured by Aleph Farms and Finless Foods.
Rukavishnikov said the cells needed depend on which ones work better with the 3D printing process, and which look and taste the most like conventional nuggets. The same goes for the plant proteins that will be used as part of the nuggets. They could be soy, pea, wheat or bean proteins — or a combination of all of them. What 3D Bioprinting Solutions is looking for most right now is authenticity.
The long-term goal, Rukavishnikov said, is to 3D print nuggets that are 100% chicken cells. He said he's hopeful that by the time they are able to do that — as well as able to sell the nuggets to consumers because of regulatory approval — the cost will have dropped down to something more affordable for the average consumer.
At this point, it's not entirely clear if 3D Bioprinting sees itself as a new entrant into the cell-based food production space or will be a solution for already existing cell-based food companies to structure their cells into forms that look more like conventional meat.
"I think we have a big expertise, and with this expertise and know-how, we want to bring it to the food industry, and then make something new and something different," Rukavishnikov said.
"The product will be more fresh than sushi or sashimi or whatever."
Sales and marketing director, 3D Bioprinting Solutions
Many who advocate for cell-based meat tout its sustainability attributes, as well as the health benefits to consumers who would be able to eat meat that was not exposed to antibiotics or other environmental pollutants. But one other positive attribute is the extreme freshness of the product. Rukavishnikov said the nuggets will be made using live chicken cells. This means that the meat would be fresher than that coming from a chicken that was butchered the same day as it was eaten.
"They are completely fresh. They are alive still," Rukavishnikov said. "The product will be more fresh than sushi or sashimi or whatever."
The nuggets will be produced at 3D Bioprinting Solutions, but they will then go to KFC to be finished and roasted, he said.
Coming to the US
While the current project is based in Russia, a different arm of this company will soon be working on R&D for an American audience.
Vivax Bio, the parent company of 3D Bioprinting Solutions, also created New York-based Meal Source Technologies. The primary purpose for this company, CEO and CFO Yakov Balakhovsky told Food Dive, is to develop the 3D bioprinting technology to produce cell-based meat for the U.S. consumer market.
The company is getting off the ground now, with more executive officers to be named in coming months, Balakhovsky said. Customized equipment is also being built to allow for more R&D and prototyping.
3D printed cell-based food is still some years away, he said, but the new venture puts the company in the right place to work with many of the startups that are developing cell lines, as well as at the right place to access a market that is hungry for the newest technology in food, and willing to pay for the product.
Balakhovsky said the work with KFC in Russia is just the first partnership the company is making. He's open to working with other companies in the U.S. to further develop products.
"There are very few really fully integrated companies. And I think as industry matures everybody will find some niche where they're comfortable. Some will be working as an upstream company, some will be working with a downstream company."