Our Iraoho-Analyst Olivia Ogilvie has a look at one of the rising trends in scientific innovation and commercialisation.
Cellular agriculture (cell-ag) is an alternative biotechnology-based production method for agriculture products such as foods, flavours, and materials. It differs from traditional methods because it harnesses the power of individual cells, whereas conventional agriculture uses living animals. Notably, cellular agriculture products are distinct from plant-based alternatives because they are (theoretically) compositionally and functionally identical to animal-derived products. There are two types of cellular agriculture, acellular agriculture and cell-based agriculture; both involve the cultivation or culture of cells using cell-culture technology.
Acellular agriculture involves producing nonliving molecules like proteins, fats, and flavour compounds. These are isolated and subsequently used to make products such as leather, milk, and eggs. Acellular agriculture uses recombinant expression, which involves engineering then growing bacteria or yeast cells. In contrast, cell-based agriculture grows and isolates living animal cells, which are used to produce meat and seafood products (Figure 1) known as cultivated or cultured meat. Compared to acellular agriculture, cell-based products use tissue culture methods to grow mammalian cells like cow, sheep, deer and fish. Both recombinant expression and tissue culture are established techniques used to produce medicines; their application to food is more novel.
Figure 1. Basic comparison of the process used to produce cultured meat versus conventional meat (source: WhatIsCultivatedMeat.com under CC BY 4.0 license).
Multiple factors are motivating the commercialisation of cell-ag technology. First and foremost, cellular agriculture is an alternative strategy to increase the global production of animal-derived food products. Food consumption is anticipated to increase by 70% over the next 30 years (FAO, 2018), presenting a significant challenge on food supply. The agricultural industry’s negative impact on the environment is also often criticised. Cell-ag products arguably possess a lower environmental footprint, although this depends on the energy source used to power a cell-ag plant and the production method’s efficiency. Other potential environmental benefits include decreasing land-use (allowing rewilding/regeneration of native bush), reducing the reliance on intensive farming practices, and decreasing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Notably, these potential environmental benefits will only eventuate if unsustainable farming practices improve due to cell-ag.
Currently, there are around 80 startups worldwide commercialising cell-ag technology, most of which are based in North America. Other hubs include Israel, Singapore, and the Netherlands. These startups are pursuing massive markets (beef alone is USD$1323.92 billion) and attracting VC funding (USD$1B to date). These companies must overcome many technical, market, regulatory, and societal challenges to reach full commercialisation, but VC backed startups are making significant progress on all fronts.
Acellular products are closer to commercialisation than cultivated meat products because they face lower technical and regulatory challenges. Several companies are working in the acellular space, one of which is Perfect Day Foods. They produce milk proteins, selling them B2B to food manufacturers, taking advantage of the massive milk powder market. They obtained FDA regulatory approval (GRAS status) in Q2 2020 to sell their products, and then closed a USD$300M Series C round led by the Canadian Pension Plan, a notably large institutional investor who contributed $160M. You can buy ice cream containing their acellular milk from Brave Robot in select US stores for around NZD$15 for 413 mLs (targeting a premium price point). They recently announced their ice cream would be available in over 5000 stores in North America, hinting that they are close to industrial-scale commercialisation. Another interesting acellular-ag company is Geltor, who produce high-purity gelatin and collagen, again selling B2B specifically to beauty, nutrition, and food companies. They closed a USD$91M Series B round in Q3 2020 and have reportedly secured multiple long-term contracts with large collagen companies such as Gelita.
The majority of cell-ag start-ups are in the cultivated meat market segment. This is divided into companies producing cultivated meat for consumers (B2C), and companies producing technology or ingredients to grow cultivated meat (B2B). The B2-cell-agB business model is the newest class of cell-ag startups emerging in the past year; they are targeting cell-based and acellular companies that need novel technical solutions. Examples include companies producing cell-ag bioreactors like Opsin and cellulaREvolution, and companies producing media ingredients such as Sophie’s Bionutrients and Future Fields.
There are a number of interesting cell-based B2C companies; some examples of their products are shown in Figure 2. One example is Blue Nalu, who make cultivated seafood from yellowtail, red snapper, and tuna, among other species. They plan to operate B2C, but their products aren’t currently available to the general public. Their most recent funding round was $60M in debt financing in Q1 2021. An interesting recent article however has concluded that cultured seafood is unlikely to have the desired positive conservation benefits. Mosa Meat is a Netherlands-based B2C cultivated meat company focussing on producing beef products. The company is run by Prof. Mark Post, the first person to make a cultured meat burger. They recently closed a USD$85M Series B round.
Another notable B2C company is EAT JUST, who developed hybrid chicken nuggets containing pea protein and cultivated chicken cells. They were the first (and is still the only) cultured meat company to gain regulatory approval anywhere in the world to sell their product. Eat Just recently closed a USD$200M round, bringing their valuation to $2.1B (after raising USD$650M to date). Their business model differs from traditional cell-ag companies as most of their income comes from a plant protein egg-replacement, rather than a sole focus on cultivated meat. Another notable cell-based company is Turtle Tree Labs, who culture mammalian cells to produce human breast milk. They closed a USD$6.4M seed round in Q4 2020 and already have an oversubscribed but yet to be closed $60M Series A round. All of these companies are moving at lightning speed – each day more milestone announcements are made. Just last week, Orbillion Bio was the first cell-ag startup to be accepted into Y Combinator.
Figure 2. Photos of cultivated meat products collated by the Good Food Institute (source: WhatIsCultivatedMeat.com under CC BY 4.0 license).
So what’s happening in New Zealand?
There are currently no (public) cellular agriculture start-ups in New Zealand. Australia has seven, four of which were founded in 2020. Interestingly, Fonterra has invested an undisclosed amount into US-based Motif FoodWorks, an acellular agriculture and high-value ingredient company. Several academic research groups are working on cell-ag projects in NZ. Notably, Dr. Laura Domigan from The University of Auckland recently (Q3 2020) received the largest global publicly funded grant for cell-ag research – Olivia Ogilvie works on this project alongside her role with us at Matū. Plant & Food Research are also working on a cell-based seafood project. Unfortunately, New Zealand is beginning to lag behind in commercial cell-ag, despite being global leaders in agricultural innovation. However, we are seeing academic research in this area accelerate, which is promising for translation to commercial settings.
There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the future of cellular agriculture. Is the hype justified? Are we at the beginning of one of the largest disruptions in food production? Will we fall into the trough of disillusionment and face a cell-ag winter? Is this the solution to our food supply and environmental challenges? Only time will tell.