- Cultivated beef maker SCiFi Foods reduced its production cost 1,000-fold through a breakthrough that allows its cells to develop on their own in a bioreactor. This development will let SCiFi grow more cells at once, dramatically increasing the company’s yield, co-founder and CEO Joshua March said.
- The development was achieved through genetic modification using CRISPR. SCiFi is currently interested in making only single cells. March said its first product will be a blended burger using plant-based ingredients and cultivated beef cells.
- Companies are tackling technical and cost-related challenges to make meat from cells. Aside from gaining regulatory approval to sell products, one of the biggest hurdles they face is reducing the price to a point that consumers would be willing to pay.
SCiFi, which emerged from stealth in June, has had an eventful month. The company, previously known as Artemys Foods, rebranded and announced a $22 million Series A funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz about a month ago. The company said it planned to use the funds to bolster its R&D efforts, as well as increase marketing and build its team.
With this breakthrough, that R&D could literally be paying off. March said SCiFi figured out a way to solve a unique issue that presented itself only when cultivating beef cells. When cells grow, he said, they generally want to either cluster together on a surface or be attached to one another. This works well when cells are being grown on a petri dish or if they are part of an actual body, but it makes cultivation in a bioreactor — a specialized sort of large vat — difficult.
March said cultivated meat companies working on chicken and seafood have long been able to grow cells in a tighter density and separated from one another — known as single-cell suspension — for a long time.
But those methods did not work for beef cells, which had previously been grown on the surface of microcarriers — small plastic beads, which March said took up space in a bioreactor and drastically limited how many cells could be grown at once. This, in turn, made the cultivated meat product more expensive because the scale was much smaller.
“When we did the math on different ways of scaling up, it was very clear to us that this was the only approach that would enable a true, commercially viable manufacturing process,” March said. “Without it, you don’t really have a chance.”
Using bioengineering such as CRISPR, SCiFi has created beef cells that can adapt to be grown in single-cell suspension. March said its cells are nearly identical to those coming from cows, with CRISPR modifications being very slight.
While this means SCiFi’s eventual products will be classified as GMOs, March said the ability of bioengineering technology to make modifications — coupled with the fact that CRISPR-modified products are safe to consume and any of SCiFi’s beef cells could be found in an ordinary cow — makes the process worth using.
“The most important thing, I think, is that you just have a great tasting product, and that people trust us,” March said. “That trust comes from being open and authentic about it.”
SCiFi is years away from being able to produce these cells to add to plant-based burgers at scale. March said they are designing a pilot facility to be built in the San Francisco Bay Area where the company is currently headquartered.
If everything goes according to plan, he said the facility should be completed and operational in the second half of 2024. By that time, March is hopeful SCiFi will be able to get the green light from the U.S. government to sell products for food — something no company has received so far.
When that pilot facility opens, SCiFi said single-cell suspension will help make its hybrid plant/cultivated meat burgers more affordable. A company statement said they should be less than $10 a burger at the scale of that facility. Once SCiFi is working in that plant, March said they will start planning a commercial-scale facility — from which the company should be able to produce hybrid burgers for $1 apiece, according to a statement.
Cultivated meat companies are working to make their processes as cost-effective as possible. The first cell-based hamburger made in 2013 cost the equivalent of $325,000. In December, Future Meat Technologies said it could make a cultivated chicken breast for $1.70. Most companies at this point say they are on track to launch at costs roughly at parity with high-end animal-based meat products, but do not give prices for potential products.