8 pioneering companies creating sustainable lab-grown meat
By Joseph Mapue
Human appetite for meat remains high even amid spiking population figures, disruptive climate change, and serious environmental stress — hardly a recipe for culinary delight but more likely a brew for global disaster.
Or is it?
Spurred by creative food startups and stunning innovations in fields such as biotechnology, 3D printing, and stem cell research, the quest for sustainable meat products may have already found its holy grail: protein-rich meat that leaves an extremely light environmental footprint without leaving a bad taste in the mouth — literally.
Livestock raising has long been at the crosshairs of scientists given the serious damage it deals to already overburdened ecosystems. Cattle raising alone causes large-scale deforestation, rapidly depletes groundwater supply, and significantly increases greenhouse gas emissions. In combination, these effects accelerate global warming, the risk of food scarcity, and mass extinctions of endangered species.
Fortunately, pioneering companies are fundamentally redefining how meat can be produced to provide a highly sustainable, savory, and healthy nutrition for billions of meat-loving humans (and their pets) in the years ahead. Given the series of delectable breakthroughs, the market for alternative meat, poultry, and seafood will generate at least US$290 billion by 2035, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
Here are the sector’s top companies already attracting investor interest with their sustainable fare of meaty innovations, focusing on those that are creating lab-grown or cultured meat, not simply meat-like food.
The world’s very first cell-cultured hamburger was presented in 2013 at Maastricht University in the Netherlands by Dr. Mark Post, a pharmacologist and professor of Tissue Engineering. Funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the alternative meat project cost around US$300,000 and took technicians about three months to form the burger using 20,000 individual muscle fibers that they cultured in the lab from real cattle cells.
Two years later, Dr. Post formed Mosa Meat with veteran industry executive Peter Verstrate. Given the company’s promise as well as its potential benefit to the environment, investor appetite was healthy, with Mosa Meat’s Series A Funding round in 2018 having raised around US$8.9 million. Dr. Post currently serves as Chief Science Officer while Vestrate — who held various positions at Sara Lee, Ahold, and Smithfield Foods — serves as CEO.
Mosa Meat claims that it can make “tens of thousands of burgers” from just a small cell sample — without killing any cow nor maintaining a large herd.
Eat Just Inc. (Just Egg, Good Meat)
Apparently, you can now count your chickens before they hatch. Then have them for dinner as slaughter-free nuggets — fried, garnished, and seasoned to taste.
This counterintuitive achievement was successfully pulled off by a multibillion-dollar food startup using a bioreactor to accelerate the growth of animal cells that are safely taken from poultry. In 2020, Eat Just Inc. gained approval to produce and sell their lab-grown chicken in Singapore and has recently facilitated the world’s very first serving of cultured chicken meal in a local restaurant.
CEO Josh Tetrick founded the San Francisco-based company in 2011 with a vision to save the planet by transforming how people produce the stuff they eat. In addition to chicken meat, Eat Just also produces plant-based alternatives to egg products. In 2016, the company surpassed US$1 billion in valuation, becoming a unicorn in the protein foods market. Investors include Gate Ventures, Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures, and Singapore’s Temasek.
Is lab-grown pork kosher (or halal)?
Imams and rabbis might argue on the topic but Israel-based MeaTech 3D is pushing ahead with its planned development of cultivated porcine meat. Once done, this project will complete the company’s product line, which already has lab-grown beef and chicken in its portfolio.
Formed in 2018, MeaTech 3D is a publicly-traded company that uses 3D bioprinting to develop sustainable alternatives to conventional but largely harmful livestock farming methods. Aware that meat lovers can easily detect and resent poor copies of the protein-rich meal they crave, MeaTech 3D goes beyond just producing edible protein to perfecting the flavors and textures of cultured meat.
The company recently filed a patent for a methodology that it claims can improve its production process. Operating a subsidiary in Belgium, MeaTech serves premium end-products to consumers while also offering licensing agreements (for its manufacturing technologies) to other players in the sector.
Speaking of culinary perfection, the world’s first 3D-printed rib-eye steak grabbed the attention and whetted the appetite of sophisticated diners when it debuted in February 2021, courtesy of Aleph Farms.
Two years prior, the Israeli cultured-meat startup collaborated with Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station to pull off another historic first: 3D-print steaks in space using vials of cow cells and nutrient broths.
That definitely proves that players in the nascent alternative meat market can go places and that demand for their products might just become astronomical. Among the top movers in the field, Aleph Farms was formed in 2017 and is known for its 3D bioprinting innovations.
Unlike standard 3D printing, bioprinting literally prints actual living cells for subsequent incubation in tightly controlled lab conditions. This allows for the precise cultivation of different varieties of slaughter-free meat with near-identical shapes, fat-muscle structures, and organoleptic textures to traditional meat cuts such as beefsteaks.
Like other startups in this list, Aleph Farms attracts support from multiple investors around the world including Cargill, Migros, and BRF.
Across the far side of the Mediterranean, Barcelona-based CUBIQ FOODS operates as a food technology partner for other alternative food companies that need clean fatty ingredients to improve the taste, constituency, and nutritional value of their products.
Propelled by funding from Blue Horizon Ventures and Moira Capital Partners, CUBIQ FOODS was founded in 2018 to execute the finishing touches to cultured meat, thereby enhancing the flair, form, and flavor of tomorrow’s food products.
As stated on its website, the company has a three-pronged mission: 1) Replace traditional animal fats and vegetable oils with hyper-clean and sustainable substitutes that retain the flavor and texture of the original while also improving their nutritional value; 2) Improve the health of millions of people by subtly incorporating Omega-3 of algae oil into their diet; and, 3) Upgrade the food and pharmaceutical industries by providing a sustainable and animal-friendly platform for producing Omega 3 fatty acids from cultured cellular systems.
Having already attracted a number of industrial food customers around the world, CUBIQ FOODS only proves that while 3D-printing cultured meat might be marvelous, only an added dash of secret fatty ingredients can make the whole thing delicious.
There’s a wide range of lab-grown meat for people. But what about their pets? Even hardcore vegans can’t force their carnivorous pets to live on plant-based substitutes alone.
Fortunately, a Chicago-based food startup pioneered a cruelty-free cellular cultivation technology to produce lab-grown food exclusively for cats and dogs. Aptly called “Because, Animals” the company was founded in 2016 to develop and introduce cultured meat to the pet food market. Founder and CEO Shannon Falconer is a long-time vegan, animal rescue volunteer, and a microbiologist who left her post-doctoral work at Stanford to run the company. Co-founder and COO Joshua Errett is also an animal rescue volunteer who was working on his MBA prior to leading the startup’s daily operations.
With around 470 million dogs and 370 million cats kept as pets around the world according to Statista, the manufacturing processes and production inputs traditional pet food companies use certainly inflict a huge environmental impact. And these almost always involve the killing of animals used in pet food such as fish, poultry, swine, and cattle.
Because, Animals upends the industry by offering a highly sustainable and nutritious pet food alternative without harming the environment or any animal in it. To date, the company has already bagged numerous industry accolades while also attracting serious investor interest.
With 71% of the Earth’s surface covered by water, the only known planet so far to harbor life appears blue from space. Much of this water is found in the oceans which help regulate climate, supply oxygen, and provide resources such as food and medicines. Often, it also serves as Paradise for surfers, scuba divers, recreational sailors, and nature enthusiasts.
Over the years, however, escalating human activities have inflicted serious damage to oceanic ecosystems. Overfishing, in particular, has depleted fish stocks, ruined coral reefs, and wiped out local economies that depend on seafood.
Amid the already critical condition of the world’s oceans, global demand for seafood continues to rise as more people crave the wide variety, culinary experience, and nutritional value of seafood.
Lest everyone gets a massive letdown, a startup founded at the heart of the Pacific takes the steep challenge of meeting this demand — without harming the sea or any of its dwellers. Ushering a “new wave of thinking” about the ocean and its riches, BlueNalu takes its name from the Hawaiian word for “wave,” “surf,” and “contemplate.”
BlueNalu leads the race for the development and large-scale commercialization of cell-cultured seafood products that are nutritious, great-tasting, and sustainable. So far, the company has raised around US$84 million from more than a dozen investors including Rage Capital, KBW Ventures, and Agronomics. With a sprawling cellular aquaculture facility in San Diego, California, the startup is developing lab-grown counterparts of bluefin tuna, mahi-mahi, red snapper, yellowtail, mollusks, crustaceans, and other seafood.
Formerly known as Memphis Foods, this groundbreaking food tech company generated much buzz in 2017 when it gained the support of popular business leaders such as Richard Branson, Suzy and Jack Welch, Kimbal Musk, and Bill Gates.
Based in Berkeley, California, Upside Foods uses biotechnology to extract and cultivate stem cells into different muscle tissues, which are then fed to bioreactors to grow different meat products. To date, the company has pulled off a number of historic records in several areas: first cultured meatball (2016); first cultured chicken and duck (2017); largest B funding round (US$206 million) so far in the category.
Backed by formidable investors such as SoftBank Group, Temasek, Norwest, Cargill, and Tyson Foods, the company aims to make cell-cultured meat products affordable, accessible, and delicious.