A $161 million investment round that will be used to build a pilot plant is bringing Memphis Meats much closer to being able to produce cell-based meat for consumers — something company officials hope will be possible from an infrastructure and regulatory standpoint in about two years. This latest round increases the California cell-based meat company's total funds raised more than eight-fold.
Investors who participated in the investment round announced Wednesday include funding leaders SoftBank Group, Norwest and Temasek, but also meat giants Cargill and Tyson Foods and celebrity business leaders Richard Branson and Bill Gates.
So far, Memphis Meats has produced different food items, including beef, chicken and duck, from cells using fermentation technology and cultivators. These products include both cutlets and ground meats, and Vice President of Operations Steve Myrick told Food Dive he's confident in the process and quality of Memphis Meats' products.
"Our hope is to be able to produce products from many species that people enjoy eating today," Myrick said. "I think the proof is in the pudding when people come and try our products. We think that they already create a wonderful consumer experience. And lifelong meat eaters have given us the feedback that the products are delicious — and very clearly meat products."
As the products have improved, Myrick said it is time to be able to produce them at scale. The company has identified land in San Francisco's East Bay area where it would like to build the pilot plant, close to Memphis Meats' current headquarters in Berkeley, California, Myrick told Food Dive. The design is currently underway, and Myrick said he's anticipating it could be fully operational 18 to 24 months from now.
Although company officials would not say how much meat they expect the plant to produce, they said it will be able to make all of Memphis Meats' product lines. Myrick said the plant will likely begin serving the local area — both consumers and food service — and use the Bay Area test market to get feedback in the beginning. As the company further perfects its products and processes, it will likely build similar regional plants to serve different areas.
Big Meat support
While some reports have shown acrimony between traditional meat companies and cell-based meat companies, Memphis Meats’ latest investment round shows little evidence of these battles. Two legacy meat companies — Cargill and Tyson — participated in this round. Tyson’s venture capital arm purchased a minority stake in the company in 2018. Cargill is a new investor, but previously invested in cell-based meat company Aleph Farms.
"We've found that those companies share our conviction that our food system needs to continue to innovate in order to feed humanity and to feed the growing demand for meat in the coming decades, and that they see our technology as an important potential solution," Myrick said. "From our point of view, Cargill and Tyson are very remarkable in their ability to feed countless millions of people, and they built out production and distribution system at the largest scale you can imagine. So we're really eager to learn from them as we look to scale up our production and build a global supply chain."
"I think the proof is in the pudding when people come and try our products. We think that they already create a wonderful, consumer experience. And lifelong meat eaters have given us the feedback that the products are delicious — and very clearly meat products."
VP of operations, Memphis Meats
The release about the funding round contains quotes from several of Memphis Meats' investors, partners and advisers, including Cargill.
"Our continued investment in Memphis Meats underscores our inclusive approach to the future of meat. We need all options on the table to meet customer and consumer needs now and in the future," Elizabeth Gutschenritter, managing director of Cargill’s alternative protein team, said in the release.
David Kay, Memphis Meats' senior manager of communications and operations, told Food Dive that the company believes in a "big tent" vision of the meat market. Demand is projected to double in the next 30 years, and he said cell-based meat can help be part of the solution. Those in the livestock business and those in the cell-based meat business have found "quite a bit" of common ground, Kay said.
Regulatory hurdles nearly cleared?
By the time the plant is complete and operational, the U.S. government could be ready to allow the sale of cell-based meat, Eric Schulze, Memphis Meats’ vice president of product and regulation, told Food Dive. The company has been working with federal regulators at the FDA and USDA, which is putting together a joint framework to oversee the cultured meat segment. Schulze, who formerly worked for the FDA, said Memphis Meats expects to be able to legally sell in the U.S. as it reaches the ability to have products on the market.
"I can say as a former regulator myself, the U.S. government is working with an incredible speed, diligence and efficiency on bringing these products to market," Schulze said.
While many food companies developing new products fight for a first-to-market advantage, that distinction doesn’t seem as crucial in the cell-based meat space.
"We think that this is a truly enormous opportunity that is large enough to sustain multiple companies and to allow multiple companies to be successful," Kay said.
Last year, Memphis Meats and cell-based meat companies Just, Fork & Goode, Finless Foods and BlueNalu formed the Alliance for Meat, Poultry & Seafood Innovation. The group lobbies the federal government, educates consumers about products and the industry, and serves as a marketplace of ideas for members. Kay said this group’s formation is a milestone for the industry and collaboration.
Memphis Meats is not the only cell-based meat company that is close to beginning production. In the U.S., Just has said it will be able to produce cell-based chicken nuggets to sell as soon as it can get regulatory approval somewhere — likely in Asia. Israel-based Future Meat Technologies is currently building its pilot plant, which it expects to be producing meat this year. Founder and Chief Science Officer Yaakov Nahmias told Food Dive he expects to sell cell-based meat in Israel next year. And BlueNalu, a California company that produces cell-based seafood, released a commercialization strategy and facility design schematics last year.
Kay said the space is not all about competition right now.
"We're happy that an ecosystem has started to rise around cell-based meat," he said. "Ultimately, we believe for ourselves that getting a product to market first is less important than making sure that that product launch is done the right way: with products that are safe and delicious and that consumers really enjoy."