The cultivated meat industry just got another multi-million dollar boost. But this time, the money didn’t come from a venture capitalist. And the recipient wasn’t a startup company.
The U.S. government awarded a total of $3.55 million, to be dispersed over five years, to a team of researchers at UC Davis for open-access cultivated meat research. The researchers will receive $1.15 million upfront and unlock an additional $2.4 million upon demonstration of sufficient progress in the first two years of the project. This grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) represents the U.S. government’s biggest investment in cultivated meat research ever. It’s also the first cultivated meat grant that the U.S. government has awarded to a university and not to a company.
UC Davis’ press release explains the origin of the proposal: “The grant grew out of the UC Davis Cultivated Meat Consortium, established in fall 2019 in conjunction with the Biotechnology Program, after conversations with the Good Food Institute and several cultivated meat companies throughout California. The consortium acts as a hub for exchanging knowledge on related research on campus, and also to train graduate students interested in this new industry.”
GFI provided a letter of support for the UC Davis proposal and will serve as part of the external advisory board alongside to-be-named industry partners. The advisory board will assess research progress, recommend new research directions, and expand the scope or impact of projects through new collaborations in industry and academia.
What this means for cultivated meat science
The five years of funding to UC Davis will help lay “the scientific and engineering foundation for sustainable cultivated meat production.”
The proposed research will address several key scientific needs for cultivated meat, including the creation of new cell lines, development of inexpensive, serum-free cell culture media, and optimization of biomaterials for structured meat products like steak or chicken breasts. The project team will also conduct economic and environmental assessments of scalable bioprocesses for producing cultivated meat.
While cultivated meat companies across the globe are conducting similar research, most of that knowledge will remain in-house. As much as we cheer on every company’s advance, we can’t count on any one company to rapidly develop all of the solutions necessary for large-scale commercialization of cost-competitive cultivated meat. The cultivated meat industry absolutely needs private sector innovation and commercialization, but it will advance more efficiently and rapidly if the whole field has a foundation of open-access research to build upon. Building a trained workforce specific for the industry and providing a venue for continuing education are also key benefits of an academic center of this type.
Unfortunately, academia still has a gap in pre-competitive cultivated meat research. Currently, the number of academic groups wanting to apply their expertise to cultivated meat far outnumbers the available funding opportunities. Additionally, collecting preliminary data to support grant proposals can be difficult, as newcomers still face barriers to entry, such as access to cell lines.
“Academic research typically bridges idea flow and technology transfer into burgeoning biotech industries,” said GFI senior scientist Elliot Swartz, Ph.D. “This idea flow is currently little more than a trickle because there are very few academic labs around the world conducting cultivated meat research. We expect this NSF award to UC Davis to create a positive feedback loop whereby more funding opportunities catalyze more cultivated meat research in academia. More academic research leads to new technology generation, and, ultimately, a larger talent pool for the industry given the training opportunities these grants provide for students.”
What this means for cultivated meat research funding
Just as UPSIDE Foods’ $186 million Series B revealed investor confidence in cultivated meat technology, UC Davis’ receipt of a multi-million dollar NSF grant signals the recognition of cultivated meat as a worthy U.S. government research investment. Public investment in cultivated meat research can inspire additional research, stimulate economic growth and job creation, create new opportunities to feed Americans and the world, and diversify the food supply so that it is resilient to extreme weather, zoonotic disease risk, and changing consumer preferences.
NSF’s support of UC Davis’ cultivated meat research is an important milestone for the cultivated meat industry as it presents an opportunity to create a positive feedback loop of government-funded cultivated meat research. Other governments—from Singapore, Australia, India, and the European Union—have recently announced funding that will partially support cultivated meat research. But, as a New Scientist editorial put it earlier this year, public investment in cultivated meat R&D has so far been “chicken feed for a technology that could change the world for the better.”
By the end of 2019, 55 total cultivated meat and seafood industry startups had publicly announced themselves. More than one-third of these companies are U.S.-based, positioning the United States to be the global leader in the cultivated meat industry. However, this leadership position is by no means guaranteed. Without additional public-sector support for cultivated meat R&D and training, it is less likely that more cutting-edge cultivated meat companies will come from American soil.
Convergence and collaboration
Professor David Block, who is also a GFI grantee and mentor for two New Harvest fellows, is the Principal Investigator for the UC Davis project. His Co-Investigators include Professor Karen McDonald, Professor Jonathan Leach, Professor Keith Baar, and Professor Pablo Ross. Additional UC Davis project team members include Professors Lucas Smith, Edward Spang, Daniel Sumner, Jiandi Wan, Ameer Taha, Payam Vahmani, Adjunct Professor Somen Nandi, and Cooperative Extension Specialist Anita Oberholster. The group, as well as the associated UC Davis Cultivated Meat Consortium, is supported by Biotech Program Director Denneal Jamison-McClung.
The breadth and depth of the project team’s scientific expertise demonstrate why cultivated meat is a perfect fit for NSF’s Growing Convergence Research program. Cultivated meat research epitomizes convergent research, requiring chemical engineers, tissue engineers, physiologists, animal scientists, food scientists, and material scientists to partner together with economists, environmental scientists, and policy experts to successfully commercialize cultivated meat.
To address the numerous environmental and social stressors our current food system creates, we must accelerate the cultivated meat industry. Our ability to ultimately commercialize cultivated meat depends on technological developments across a range of scientific and engineering disciplines that account for a variety of complex factors, including environmental and social impacts, food accessibility, taste, and customs.
UC Davis is now well-positioned to lead the way in catalyzing many of these needed technological developments while also advancing training specific to this growing field. We hope this is just the start of many more government funding agencies and universities across the world partnering to accelerate open-access cultivated meat research.
Want to explore how you can apply your scientific expertise to alternative protein research? Check out GFI’s resources for scientists here.