- A new lab-grown meat startup is taking on the industry’s key hurdle by coming up with a way to make truly slaughter-free meat without relying on cow fetus blood (also known as fetal bovine serum).
- Called Meatable, the Dutch startup was born out of a partnership with Cambridge and uses proprietary stem cell technology to make faster, cheaper lab-grown meat.
- Meatable claims its technology eliminates the need to remove any tissue from an animal – a development that would make it the least invasive method for sourcing cells yet.
A handful of startups around the world are racing to make real meat in facilities that look more like breweries than farms.
In giant steel containers akin to brewer’s vats, cells from pigs, cows, and chickens will be carefully monitored and multiplied. Then, they’ll be formed into burgers, sausages, and meatballs – all without a single animal being slaughtered. At least, that’s the vision.
Until now, lab-grown meat startups have faced a key barrier that’s something of deal-breaker for the industry: the food for the cells comes from slaughtered cows. Called fetal bovine serum, or simply “serum,” the liquid remains the standard means of coaxing animal cells to proliferate.
The founders of a new startup called Meatable think they’ve found a way around the serum problem.
Rather than relying on cells that can’t grow without a serum-like food source, Meatable’s founders use pluripotent stem cells, which possess the unique ability to turn into any type of cell – from muscle to fat – without serum. Other lab-grown meat startups have avoided using pluripotent stem cells because they are notoriously hard to control in a lab environment.
Yet the Meatable team claims they've developed the secret sauce to making them behave. It involves proprietary technology created in partnership with Roger Pedersen, a stem cell biologist and founder of the University of Cambridge's Stem Cell Institute, and Mark Kotter, a Cambridge neurosurgery clinician scientist.
"Serum is out the door for us. We don't need it in any way," Daan Luining, Meatable's chief technology officer, told Business Insider.
A team of heavy-hitters in medicine and meat
Based in the Netherlands, where Dutch researcher Mark Post made history by creating the first beef burger from cow cells, Meatable is stacked with a team of heavy-hitters in medicine and cell-based meat.
Luining previously worked as a research strategist for the nonprofit cell-based agriculture foundation New Harvest; Pedersen founded the first institute for stem cell science at the University of Cambridge; and Kotter founded Elpis Biomed, a British biotech startup that specializes in making cells for research.
"What I saw was too good to be real," Luining said of his first meeting with Kotter, when he demonstrated his approach to working with stem cells. "Then I saw that is was real."
The company has raised $3.5 million from three venture capital firms - BlueYard Capital, Atlantic Food Labs, and Backed VC - and several angel investors, including former Microsoft strategist Charlie Songhurst and early stage investor Jörg Mohaupt.
Faster and cheaper slaughter-free meat?
Many cell-based meat companies get the stem cells for their products from a small piece of tissue taken from a live animal.
Meatable claims it avoids this procedure entirely by sourcing stem cells from animals' umbilical cords. This is the same process that people use to bank a baby's stem cells at birth. So-called "cord blood" is collected because the stem cells it contains can be used to treat a variety of disorders and conditions ranging from leukemia to sickle cell disease.
"This way, we don't harm the animals at all, and it's material that would otherwise get thrown away," Krijn De Nood, Meatable's CEO, told Business Insider.
The key to Meatable's approach isn't merely the way they source the cells. Instead, it's how the startup coaxes them into the right kind of cells - the cells that together makeup the kinds of tissues that people eat.
"When you have a stem cell, it doesn't know which program to run," Luining said. "Our technology turns on the right program at the right time."
For example, if Luining wanted a stem cell to turn into a fat cell or a muscle cell - two types of cells that are found in every meat product - he and his team could direct it to do so using their proprietary technique.
"You can think of it like running a muscle application or a fat application," Luining said.
Meatable plans to start with beef burgers and sausages and then expand to chicken and pork products. Luining said the technology will lend itself to scaling up to more complex products like steak within a few years.
Luining hopes to see those beef products in restaurants in four years. The startup will likely launch products first in the Netherlands, where he said the regulatory environment is more friendly to cell-based products.
"We're coming back to where it all started," said Luining.