Until late last year, very few had heard of Israel-based 3D-printed cultured meat company Meat-Tech 3D.
But after Meat-Tech merged into real estate and holding company Ophectra Real Estate & Investments in October 2019, essentially making its debut as a publicly traded company on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, it's been in the public eye. Simon Fried, the company's head of business development, said Meat-Tech was essentially born as a public company, but it's truly a research and development operation.
As the only cultured meat company that is publicly traded on any exchange right now, Meat-Tech is starting to make waves. In the last month, Meat-Tech printed its first uniform meat tissue produced from stem cells, created a daughter company dedicated to making cell-based chicken called Chick&Tech and announced the pending acquisition of a cultured animal fat company for approximately $17.5 million in cash and equity.
Meat-Tech takes stem cells from umbilical cords of animals and grows them into different types of cells used in meat, including muscle tissue and fat. Those cells are formulated into inks for 3D printing. The company also will create a scaffolding structure to get those different cells arranged into what looks and behaves like conventional meat. The company has a roster of food scientists, cellular experts and 3D printing experts, as well as a list of milestones they hope to meet by certain dates. They also have applied for four patents on different technology to create cultured meat using bioprinting and harvesting stem cells.
"One of the strategies at Meat-Tech is to focus on attaining industrial-scale production of cell-based protein as quickly as possible."
Head of business development, Meat-Tech 3D
But Meat-Tech isn't looking to create its own products for consumers to buy at grocery stores or restaurants, Fried said.
"We are focused on being a B2B company, and the mission is that we are going to be enabling others to become producers of cultured meats, so we're very much focused on [that]," Fried said. "We don't want to be fighting for shelf space. We don't want to be going all the way with the brand in stores. We don't want to be a consumer brand. Our mission is to get into companies where the production is happening. That means you have to have a global outlook from from day one."
Fried said Meat-Tech has its eyes on the United States as perhaps its initial core market, but the technology is not going to be ready to create products and bring a profit back to the company for several years.
Acquisitions and big plans
Late last week, Meat-Tech announced the acquisition agreement for a cell-based fat producer. Meat-Tech has not said which company it hopes to buy, though Fried said Meat-Tech is working on due diligence right now. Given travel restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, he said it is proving challenging. However, the company wants to close the acquisition as quickly as possible.
This is likely the first of many acquisitions for Meat-Tech, Fried said.
"One of the strategies at Meat-Tech is to focus on attaining industrial-scale production of cell-based protein as quickly as possible," Fried said. "And it may well be that as a company, we would find that there are certain technologies that have been developed elsewhere and perhaps by others. And as a result, we're constantly on the lookout for complementary or syllogistic technologies."
Fat cells are needed to create realistic cuts of cell-based meat, but Fried said cell-based fat may be market-ready on its own earlier. And, Fried said, being able to create cell-based fat for use in other products could help Meat-Tech become profitable earlier on.
Meat-Tech is also looking at the possibility of using this cell-based fat in conjunction with plant-based products. Fried said critics of today's plant-based meat products say they don't taste or feel enough like the real thing, or there are too many ingredients. As plant-based meat products are reformulated to taste better and simplify their ingredient lists, adding animal fat that does not actually come from animals may help companies clear this hurdle.
"That can really transform, and in time may prove to be a new category," Fried said. "We certainly believe this type of food technology is going to be changing food."
Less than a week before the acquisition was announced, Meat-Tech filed a presentation about its new company Chick&Tech with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Chicken is likely to be a popular extension in Meat-Tech's home country. According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization data cited in the presentation, Israel is the world's top poultry consuming country per capita, with each person eating an average of almost 142 pounds per year.
Few details have been published about the chicken spinoff, but Fried said Meat-Tech is always looking to find related ways to diversify its business.
On the meat side, the company had previously published the goal of 3D printing meat tissue this year, so its successful execution of what it called "Project Carpaccio" met shareholder targets. Plans for 2021 include 3D printing a nearly quarter-pound piece of meat and finishing a lab-scale production printer.
What sets Meat-Tech apart?
Cell-based meat is a hot area of food science, but there are no products on the market just yet. Several companies worldwide are all tackling different areas of the cell-based food space, while companies and industry groups are working with regulators in different nations to clear a path for eventual products to come to market.
Every major company in this space except for Meat-Tech is privately held, though some have talked about going public in the future. Other startup companies in the more tech-heavy area of creating new types of food products tend to use investment rounds with financial partners to make money during the R&D phase. But Fried said Meat-Tech saw the stock exchange as a better place to get that capital.
"We felt that at this particular time, this approach to this industry, it is the right time to operate in this way — partly because it would afford the ability to carry out mergers and collaborations and acquisitions in a different way you can do than a traditionally funded startup," Fried said. "And we said that from the get go. And I think now we also have been walking that walk as well as talking that talk, and so it's very much a conscious effort to make the most of a vehicle that allows us to ... [make progress] perhaps more quickly. It's a large opportunity, as well as obviously a large challenge. And to that end, it's something that is possibly more interesting for us."
He mentioned the company's desire to list on NASDAQ in the near future, but didn't give any additional details about timing.
"We don't want to be fighting for shelf space. We don't want to be going all the way with the brand in stores. We don't want to be a consumer brand. Our mission is to get into companies where the production is happening. That means you have to have a global outlook from from day one."
Head of business development, Meat-Tech 3D
Meat-Tech also uses 3D printing to create cell-based meat, similar to what Russian company 3D Bioprinting Solutions announced it was pursuing earlier this year. The Russian company is working with KFC in its home country to create 3D-printed chicken nuggets that are a hybrid of cell-based meat and plant proteins.
Fried said that while 3D Bioprinting Solutions uses similar technology, the company is adapting what it had been using for its main business of creating tissue for medical purposes, which needs to be able to handle many different cell types in order to be flexible and precise. Creating cell-based food requires specific bioprinters, especially if they are looking for mass production, he said.
"In our approach, it's going to require fewer cell types and the structures are somewhat simpler, and as a result, we believe that our way is going to have a throughput that is much higher," he said.
Meat-Tech CEO Sharon Fima told Haaretz in March he estimated products will be ready in six to eight years. Fried would not directly comment on whether that target still stands, but said the company is working as quickly as it can to make marketable items.
"The risk of hype in the industry [is] leading people to make forecasts, I think, that will eventually ... be worthless, that they will have to swab it," Fried said. "And we don't want to be that company."