Ido Savir knows that he’s starting with the hard stuff.
And yes, the SuperMeat CEO is aware that everything his cultivated meat company has been doing since its founding in 2015 is really difficult. It’s not like there’s anything easy about creating meat for food by growing cells in bioreactors, but using stem cells as a starting point is its own gigantic challenge.
“You can ask anyone who is in biotech or anything related to cells, the cells that we're using ... are very early embryonic stem cells. These are the hardest to grow and the hardest to maintain and use in terms of production.”
But it was more than “inherent craziness” that set Savir on this path. He was hoping to find a way to actually recreate meat the way it comes from animals — with muscle, connective tissues and fat all together at once — without having to work with several different types of cells. And he wanted to be able to use more standard fermentation equipment, not requiring extraordinarily specialized bioreactors for a faster scale-up and lower start-up costs.
Savir said that so far, doing it the hard way has paid off. SuperMeat, located in Israel, has been one of the most active manufacturers in the cultivated meat space. Since last year, the company has hosted tasting events at The Chicken, its tasting room and restaurant that is attached to its pilot plant. Hundreds of people — ranging from funders to food critics to chefs to curious consumers — have tried SuperMeat’s chicken there. Among those was professional taster and Master Chef judge Michal Ansky, who could not tell the difference between cultivated and animal-derived chicken, and actually preferred the taste of SuperMeat’s poultry.
SuperMeat also wants to help other cultivated meat companies get a lot of the hard stuff out of the way. The company has two major partnerships in place to do open source research — information that will be freely available to anyone in the space. In March, SuperMeat announced it was working with global ingredients giant Ajinomoto to create and refine cell growth media — something that Savir said might be sold to cultivated meat companies in the future, much like animal nutrition suppliers today sell feed to farmers.
Last week, SuperMeat announced a second partnership with Thermo Fisher Scientific. The global life sciences company will work with SuperMeat to develop a system that can screen hundreds of thousands of potential inputs for growth media, cell supplements and scaffolds. The end goal is identifying what works best and costs the least. The partnership and system are made possible through a grant from the Israeli Innovation Authority.
While there are still challenges ahead, Savir said that SuperMeat and other companies in the space have all broken through some of the initial difficulties, which puts the entire cultivated meat industry at an exciting place. Eat Just’s Good Meat cell-based chicken was approved in Singapore in November 2020, which was the first big landmark point, but there’s more just around the corner for cultivated meat, he said.
“The next point, I believe, would be the tipping point,” Savir said. “When we actually hit the market — and the expected timeline is the next year or two years, that's when the frontline players are going to roll out the first products to the market and have the first consumer engagement with commercial products. ...What we're all [waiting for,] and I think that's what the world is waiting for, is the last barrier, which is commercial viability. And that's what we're working on.”
Working toward meat
If SuperMeat keeps going in its current direction, it isn’t going to be a brand consumers recognize at the grocery store. Savir said he intends for the company to stay in the business-to-business and supply-chain realm. SuperMeat would be able to cultivate the meat, while manufacturers or wholesalers would take it to market.
But, he said, SuperMeat also wants to be a player that truly knows the cultivated meat space and can help newcomers get past some of the common challenges that early players have faced.
In terms of the cells SuperMeat uses, the early stage embryonic cells can differentiate into many parts of chicken. Savir said when he started the work at the company’s core, his first concern was being able to scale into potential products. If they concentrated on just muscle cells at the beginning, he said, they would also have to learn how to cultivate and nurture fat cells, too. And they’d need to work on cultivating different types of muscle cells in order to make a combination more like the chicken consumers are used to.
Savir said they put the most effort into using the embryonic stem cells, but also worked on some more traditional — and potentially easier — cell cultivation methods, just in case.
"What we're all [waiting for,] and I think that's what the world is waiting for, is the last barrier, which is commercial viability. And that's what we're working on.”
“Once we saw this beginning to work, we abandoned all the other paths,” he said.
SuperMeat has been working with regulators in the United States, Europe and Asia, Savir said. The U.S. is currently SuperMeat’s top priority. Savir said that the FDA and USDA, which will be jointly regulating the space, have been proactive, public and positive. Although SuperMeat has been talking with regulators there, Savir said it’s likely Israel will follow the U.S.’s lead in establishing a regulatory framework for the space.
Because the U.S. is so important, SuperMeat is currently looking to build its first commercial-scale plant here, Savir said. Site selection is not yet complete, and Savir said he is hoping to build at a scale that can supply thousands of restaurants — not just SuperMeat’s own.
Working together to expand access
One of the biggest challenges of cultivated meat is getting the cost down. Savir said his goal when he introduces products is that they are at price parity with those made from animals. And, much like in animal agriculture, it means that the cost of feed needs to be kept low.
“We are a tech company and we want to facilitate the great food companies to buy our product, right?” Savir said. “And at the other end of the scale is supply chain. Being able to tap into a supply chain that will provide for not only one brand, but multiple brands, is something that would work to our advantage and our ability to to drive the cost price down.”
This, he said, is the driving factor behind SuperMeat’s partnership with Ajinomoto — which is also an investor in the company. Ajinomoto, one of the largest global producers of amino acids, is working with SuperMeat to build what Savir called a true supply chain for cultivated meat, creating and testing food-grade cell-growth medium. Ajinomoto is not necessarily developing anything specifically for SuperMeat, he said — it already has a proprietary growth serum of its own. But SuperMeat can help Ajinomoto validate a platform that could become available to other cultivated meat companies.
That said, it’s not just about having something that works. Savir said just like the taste and texture of animal meat is impacted by what’s in the feed, cell-based meat can also be impacted by components in the growth medium. Given Ajinomoto’s vast experience in taste and flavor, Savir said it can also help create something that can optimize the end product.
Cultivating cells is hard enough, Savir said. With Ajinomoto and SuperMeat’s validation, any cell-growth medium product made through this partnership would signal the work already done. Savir characterized what the thought process might be for a company looking to get into the space.
“‘We know this is scalable. Ajinomoto knows to provide the price point that is needed to scale,’” he said, speaking for a potential other company. “So this becomes a no brainer.”
The initiative announced last week is very similar. With the grant and help from Thermo Fisher Scientific, the system SuperMeat is building will be able to screen hundreds of thousands of different potential materials used for cell cultivation — both growth media and scaffoldings — every month. The system will be open, meaning data will be available to all players in the industry in order to find the best components that work for them and at the lowest cost.
While SuperMeat has established initiatives to help the entire industry, it also has a partnership for itself. In March, SuperMeat announced a partnership with European poultry company PHW. The poultry company will help SuperMeat obtain the regulatory green light to sell its products in the European Union, and will work to get its cultivated products developed, manufactured and distributed on a large scale there.
Beyond The Chicken
Because cultivated meat is so new, transparency and education is key, Savir said.
Having been a part of the cultivated meat world since 2015, Savir has heard his share of questions about it through the years. People wonder exactly how the process works. What is done to make meat. If it’s actually meat. How it tastes and feels.
At SuperMeat’s The Chicken, the bioreactors where the cells are grown are in clear view to diners who are sitting in what looks otherwise like a restaurant. After all, Savir said, having the bioreactors on full working display still shows just one part of the process.
“When you have people come in to your facility and actually see how it looks and observe the actual process, all of a sudden it's not interesting, because what they're more interested in is the open kitchen where the chefs are preparing the very delicious dishes,” Savir said.
The Chicken isn’t like a regular restaurant and only serves those with reservations. It’s been not only a consumer educational center, but also a way for the company to get valuable consumer feedback.
Savir said that it’s important for the company to be hitting developmental milestones, like the successful professional taste test and improved consumer education. The potential of better product quality when compared to industrial chicken production isn’t always one of the first considerations people make when thinking of cultivated meat, he said.
“When you think of industrial production, you have many small units of production, you want each of them to be very cost efficient in terms of its conversion,” Savir said. “However, when you look at cultivated meat, it's the other way around. You source the cells once. That can be the most expensive animal you ever meet. It could be $1 million to buy it, because you buy it once and you can have [it] continuously. So you can choose, and that’s what we’ve done.”