Hot new biotech in a toasty old town: New Harvest 2019 Conference in Cambridge, MA

In the middle of a July heatwave, entrepreneurs, scientists, and regulators gathered at the MIT Media Lab for New Harvest’s fourth annual conference on cellular agriculture. Here’s a taste of what we learned.

In the middle of a July heatwave, entrepreneurs, scientists, and regulators gathered at the MIT Media Lab for New Harvest’s fourth annual conference on cellular agriculture. 

Several clear themes emerged from two days of talks and panels, including:
  • a research focus on various cellular cultivation methods that promise increased efficiency and sustainability for food production;
  • the vast array of opportunities associated with cell-based seafood; and 
  • the need for transparent, proactive communication with consumers. 

Innovative research in cellular agriculture

The conference kicked off with several presentations on innovative research exploring efficient, sustainable methods to cultivate cell-based meat products. New Harvest Fellow Santiago Campuzano discussed research from the Pelling Lab in Ottawa that is focused on the potential for using plant-based scaffolds to guide cell proliferation. Decellularized celery stalks’ xylum and phloem channels are ideally spaced for specific cell alignment, which can help induce cells to grow in specific directions. Several labs and entrepreneurs are now experimenting with different kinds of decellularized plant cells for use in scaffolding.

New Harvest Fellow Scott Allan talked about ways for entrepreneurs and scientists in the cellular agriculture industry to optimize large-scale bioprocess design—that is, how actors can optimize production at commercial volumes, not just at research and development volumes. He outlined key considerations in the design of any given cell-ag production process, stressing the importance of understanding the characteristics,  such as the metabolism associated with different types of cells. Differences in these parameters necessitate not only different types of cell culture media but also potentially different types of bioreactors.

In a similar vein, Dr. Nina Buffi presented on the economic and engineering challenges of cellular agriculture. She discussed the advantages of different types of bioreactors—hollow fiber reactors, for instance, can cultivate huge numbers of cells at low volumes but are associated with difficulties in cell removal. She also underlined the importance of developing consistent, low-cost ways to recycle cell-culture media.

New Harvest Fellow Natalie Rubio, whose research focuses on insect cell culture, explained that the Kaplan Lab at Tufts University is regulating and quantifying the nutritional quality of insect cells and that the lab has successfully doubled the iron content of cells in culture. Because insect cells are highly resistant to changes in osmolarity, pH, and temperature, they provide an excellent avenue for research and experimentation in cellular agriculture.

Oceans of opportunity in cultivating cell-based seafood

Three back-to-back speakers discussed the vast opportunity associated with seafood in cellular agriculture. BlueNalu CEO Lou Cooperhouse laid out the company’s ambitious plan to produce highly delicious seafood that doesn’t just compete with conventional fish in terms of health and food safety, but outperforms it in terms of taste. Dr. Marlin Keith Cox also emphasized the advantages cell-based seafood has in terms of food safety, discussing bioelectric impedance analysis (tracking how quickly electricity moves through cells) as a way to measure condition at the cellular level. Finally, Dr. Tim Sullivan of the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute discussed the current and potential future uses of biotechnology to transform conventional fisheries, as well as ways to engage fishermen in the new cellular agriculture industry.

(Check out our white paper, Oceans of Opportunity, to learn more about the white spaces in clean seafood!

Transparency and proactive communication

Several speakers emphasized that the cellular agriculture industry should learn from the established industrial food system’s mistakes. Deb Arcelo pointed out that 57 percent of consumers believe that large food companies put their own interests ahead of their customers’. Cellular agriculturalists have the opportunity to start from a much more positive position. How?

Speakers agreed that cellular agriculture companies need to be honest, transparent, and, most importantly, proactive when they share information. Consumers want to hear unbiased reporting from third party sources they trust. (The Good Food Institute was proud to be frequently cited as a trustworthy source of information!) Dr. Garrett M. Broad of Fordham University also reminded us that proactively sharing information will prevent “knowledge gaps” from forming in the popular opinion. Such gaps are easily filled with misinformation. 

Cell-ag companies should also identify and amplify the values they already share with consumers, and use these values as well as high-quality, safe products to cultivate consumer trust. This involves proactively engaging with animal farmers and conventional meat processors, so as to avoid divisive messaging to consumers and unproductive conflicts with the established meat industry.

Above all, speakers emphasized that cellular agriculture companies can earn trust if they maintain fair, transparent, and ethical business and production practices. 

Growth and optimism in a propulsive industry

One of the most exciting parts of the New Harvest Conference was seeing the enormous growth of the cellular agriculture industry from its humble beginnings. In the early 2000s, bio-artists grew and then ate frog steaks as part of the Tissue Culture and Art Project. Now, hundreds of attendees—from established entrepreneurs to students honing their bioengineering skillsets—are involved in the industry. Even talks that identified technological bottlenecks or market risks addressed these in terms of opportunity and innovation. Optimism and enthusiasm defined the conference from start to finish. 

We’re looking forward to New Harvest 2020!