Rational optimism for cultivated meat

Perspectives from the beginning of a long journey
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Starting skeptical

It’s early 2016 and I’m a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA investigating how to turn human stem cells into skeletal muscle and neuronal tissues to study neuromuscular diseases like ALS. This is when I first read about Memphis Meats (now UPSIDE Foods), the first company to complete a fundraising round to cultivate meat from animal stem cells.

“Interesting,” I thought to myself, “but that’s not going to happen any time soon. It’s far too expensive.”

I would know. I was burning upwards of $1,000 of cell culture media and reagents each month using similar methods to those needed to cultivate meat. 

But the seed had been planted. What if we could cultivate meat at the scales and costs that would make it an effective replacement for conventional animal meat? Meat without the animal. How difficult would it be?

As I followed the nascent cultivated meat industry, I also began consulting for a startup company aiming to discover treatments for as-of-yet unsolved neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Drug discovery is notoriously challenging. In many cases, we don’t even know the root cause of the disease, what would make a good therapeutic target, or the best method for drugging that hypothetical target. There’s often a biological black box full of known unknowns and unknown unknowns standing in the way. Despite this, society pours billions of dollars each year to make this box, and many others, a little less opaque.

But what about cultivated meat? Decades of preceding science have given us an understanding of how to transform stem cells into the muscle, fat, and connective tissues needed to make meat. Sure, there may be ways to do this more efficiently, but there didn’t appear to be a glaring black box. Half the battle had seemingly already been won. It was just a matter of scaling up and reducing costs, and efforts were just beginning to address that half of the battle. The timing seemed right.

So I dove in. And I wasn’t alone.

A growing industry

Today, there are more than 80 companies worldwide aiming to create consumer-ready cultivated meat products, and dozens more have sprung up to provide the cell lines, media, scaffolds, bioreactors, and other components necessary to support the growing industry.

In the past five years, hundreds of scientists and engineers have transitioned their research focus or careers toward solving challenges in cultivated meat to benefit the planet and its inhabitants.

The pace of this transition is accelerating. My colleagues and I at GFI are cold-contacted nearly everyday by an early-stage entrepreneur, a student in graduate school, an investor, or a representative from a life sciences or food company looking to better understand the challenges facing the cultivated meat industry and how they can get involved in solving them (see our Solutions Database for some ideas).

If you told a room of stem cell biologists in 2015 that consumers would be eating a government-approved cultivated meat product in 2021, you would have been laughed out of it. But within six years, cultivated meat went from science fiction to reality—depending on who you ask (more on this later).

Building a roadmap

At GFI, we’re envisioning a world where alternative proteins derived from plants, fermentation, and cultivated animal cells are no longer alternative. And we’re building the roadmap to get there.

One of the best methods to chart that roadmap is through the use of techno-economic analyses (TEAs). As we’ve written previously, TEAs are fundamental tools for exploring and prioritizing areas that warrant further research by unveiling the technical and economic bottlenecks within a given industry or process.

Three TEAs on hypothetical commercial-scale cultivated meat production have been published to date (Vergeer, 20211; Humbird, 2021; and Risner, 2021) and we’re aware of at least two others nearing publication. We actively encourage conducting additional TEAs that will bring new perspectives that can be used to illuminate alternate paths along the technological roadmap over time. 

Although they take different approaches and rely on different assumptions and sources of input data, the three published TEAs are actually quite similar in their high-level findings. Collectively, they suggest that cultivated meat production costs are high due to the current cost of the cell culture media, the current cost of large-scale stirred-tank bioreactors that were used in the modeling exercises, and the anticipated costs of additional infrastructure needed to produce meaningful amounts of cultivated meat. 

These TEAs suggest that based on our current knowledge, decreasing medium and bioreactor equipment costs and improving process productivity are essential to obtain cost-competitive ranges with some conventional meats. The cultivated meat industry will likely also require innovative approaches on both the business side and the technology side, including flexible financing options and new technology development to venture into truly competitive cost ranges with the majority of conventional meats (see additional considerations, including the importance of hybrid products in realizing this goal, highlighted in this Twitter thread).

To draw an analogy, consider the roadmap for cultivated meat as if it were the map of Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings.

The endeavor of cultivated meat is represented by Sam and Frodo leaving The Shire to travel to Mordor (or in this case, create cultivated meat that competes on price, taste, and convenience). The cultivated meat industry has just left The Shire. The rudimentary map of Middle Earth they are following, informed by current TEAs, shows the largest mountains (cell culture media and bioreactor costs), forests (food-grade facilities, uncertainty in scale-up technology), and rivers (regulations, increased process productivity) along the way, but it doesn’t reveal the best paths or technologies to guide us over, through, or around them. The full details of the trek through Middle Earth from start to finish are still murky.

The map reveals an intimidating journey—and to pessimists, one that may seem insurmountable or too uncertain. But optimists understand that the journey has just begun. The map will get clearer over time and there will be help along the way. Given the circumstances and what’s at stake, the cultivated meat journey is a trek worth taking. Like Sam and Frodo, we just have to put one foot in front of the other. We have to be action-oriented, learn from trial and error, and take the path that shows the most promise. Luckily, optimists have a bias toward action while pessimists have a humbling track record of failing to envision novel technological paradigms.

Getting to work

As the lead scientist for cultivated meat on GFI’s Science & Technology team, my role is to transform the murky Middle Earth map into a modern-day Google Maps that displays multiple paths and timelines while predicting traffic along the way.

To realize this goal, we must first deeply understand the nuances underlying the largest cost drivers, which is the starting point for strategically addressing them.

At GFI, we’ve begun to dissect these cost drivers of cultivated meat in much greater detail, and we’ve started with the cell culture medium because it is the predominant driver of current cultivated meat production costs—the first mountain to traverse. 

In 2019, GFI vice president of science and technology Dr. Liz Specht published a report that highlighted the cost drivers within a model cell culture media and explained how media costs could be reduced by 99 percent or more by converting to a food-grade formulation and making modest scaling assumptions for the highest-cost components. The analysis went on to serve as a backbone for assumptions taken in all of the TEAs published to date, which collectively show that media costs will be driven primarily by growth factors and secondarily by amino acids. The cultivated meat industry will need to use these components efficiently and produce them at food- or even feed-grade purification levels to achieve costs suitable for commercial-scale cultivated meat production.

To help understand where the industry is along this trajectory, we published an industry-wide survey earlier this year, demonstrating that many cultivated meat companies have already dramatically reduced media costs, a feat also independently achieved by Dr. Paul Burridge’s group at Northwestern University2. Companies are also experimenting with food- and feed-grade versions of amino acids and other media components. Although more data are needed, initial findings suggest the approach is tractable.

A forthcoming analysis aims to elucidate paths for the cost reduction of growth factors. We’re also hiring a research fellow to help map our current understanding of animal cell metabolism with an eye toward identifying amino acid sources that are best suited for cultivated meat production at the quantities the industry will demand as it scales.

But our focus extends beyond the first mountain. We’re looking at the whole map, siting challenges along the entire cultivated meat value chain. To accelerate progress toward the “holy grail” of the industry—producing intact whole cuts of meat—we designated our entire 2021 competitive research grant toward this goal. GFI awarded nearly $3 million to thirteen world-class research teams to begin work on creating whole-cut cultivated meat. We authored a lengthy review article on scaffolding technologies in the journal Advanced Science, funded a life cycle assessment that maps the key environmental drivers of production, doubled down on expanding access to cell lines, and built open databases, courses, and communities along the way.

Future analyses planned in 2022 will enable a better understanding of the infrastructure requirements for commercial-scale cultivated meat production and will examine different methods for cultivating cells (all of the TEAs to date have examined just one way of doing so).

Each of these analyses serve as a crucial guiding post for scientists, companies, and other stakeholders along the cultivated meat journey. But we know we can’t build the full “Google Maps” version of the roadmap alone. We’ll need to build an entire ecosystem, leveraging network effects to turn the hundreds of talented minds working on solutions into numbers reaching the thousands—and eventually hundreds of thousands.

Current public funding levels do not support a thriving research and training ecosystem.

Research we published earlier this year shows that approximately $12 million of non-dilutive grants for pre-competitive research had been awarded for cultivated meat research between 2005 and the beginning of 2021. By comparison, public expenditures on R&D for renewable energy topped $5.5 billion in 2018 alone—a 450-fold difference.  

As a result, academic research into cultivated meat is behind the curve. Startup companies in the sector have raised more than $1 billion since 2015 and several are marching toward small-scale commercialization. Although over half of this total was raised within 2021 and has yet to be truly deployed, the comparative totals mean that the vast majority of cultivated meat research to date has been performed behind closed doors. This obscures knowledge on prices and practices, making assessing past, present, and future progress difficult. But we’re not blaming businesses for operating within the incentive structures they’re given.

Instead, teams across GFI (including in our affiliate offices in India, Israel, Brazil, APAC, and Europe) have tirelessly worked to increase the allocation of public funds toward cultivated meat and other alternative proteins. An integral part of this work involved the establishment of GFI’s research grants program in 2018. Thanks to a small set of generous donors, the program has awarded more than $7 million of open-access cultivated meat research. These catalytic funds have afforded pioneering researchers an opportunity to demonstrate the value of cultivated meat research, which has consequently begun to unlock new government funding sources needed to truly build a research and training ecosystem.

In 2020, the National Science Foundation awarded UC Davis researchers a $3.55 million grant for cultivated meat research. Nearly one year later, the United States Department of Agriculture has now funded a $10 million National Institute for Cellular Agriculture to be established at Tufts University3. In 2020, the government of Singapore earmarked S$144 million for its Food Story R&D program, with some of those funds dedicated to cultivated meat research. In 2021, the A*STAR Bioprocessing Technology Institute announced the establishment of the CentRe of Innovation for Sustainable banking and Production of cultivated Meats (CRISP Meats). Multi-million dollar research projects are also underway in Japan, with support in China also becoming available. Along the way, GFI’s cultivated meat research grantees have additionally spun out companies, built research consortia, advised on-campus student groups, and readied a growing number of scientists for careers in the field. 

These public funds serve as an important signal that cultivated meat is becoming a legitimate research discipline. A strengthening positive feedback loop is beginning to emerge that will continue to drive more interdisciplinary researchers toward cultivated meat. These researchers will submit more applications to more funding agencies, unlocking more grants to fund more research and train more scientists and engineers. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but a large part of the reason I’m optimistic about overcoming challenges facing the cultivated meat industry is because of the nascency of its research ecosystem. We have far from exhausted the creativity of researchers who will enter the field. Furthermore, the majority of private capital raised to date still has yet to be put to work. As noted above, less than half of the private investment into the field was allocated prior to 2021, meaning that startups are still fervently hiring the researchers to execute on the R&D plans funded by these investments. 

What happens when the current level of talented scientists and engineers around the globe working on cultivated meat is increased by 1000-fold? Those wheels have just begun to churn.

The Fellowship of Cultivated Meat

It’s easy to forget, but the reason we’re here today is largely because optimistic investors began—and continue—to place bets six years ago.

Those bets amounting to over $1 billion to date have done more than just fund sixty or so hopeful startups—they have bootstrapped an industry and incentivized additional help to come from various directions. There are now dozens of ancillary startups that aim to service the industry in a B2B fashion. Global regulators are establishing approval pathways. Multinational food, ingredient, and chemicals companies are investing and partnering. Policymakers are listening and learning, and enthusiasm in the general public is growing (e.g., see this Reddit community of 60,000+ enthusiasts).

But there’s reason to believe even more help is on the way. While the technology currently being implemented in the cultivated meat industry stands on the shoulders of the biopharmaceutical sector, those legacy technologies are not fit for the purpose of creating cultivated meat products. The cells used to create biologic drugs and vaccines were never the product; they were simply serving as production platforms.

In the field of regenerative medicine, however, the cells are the product. And global efforts to create an advanced manufacturing industry for cells, tissues, and organs for human medicine are now well underway. Although their ultimate price regimes and scales will differ, many of the overarching challenges facing the regenerative medicine industry are shared with cultivated meat.
Efforts to address shared challenges will not occur in a vacuum. Successes, failures, and technologies created for the regenerative medicine and cultivated meat fields will be increasingly distributed via publications, intellectual property development, and public discussions in the coming years.

These industries are increasingly tapping into opportunities to collaborate and share knowledge—for example, GFI joined the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute earlier this year to explore these synergies. Likewise, ongoing improvements across synthetic biology, bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, automation, and other life science sectors may find equally important applications in these fields.

To be rational is to see the world as it is, not how you want it to be.

The approval of Eat Just’s cultivated chicken product in Singapore was a monumental milestone along cultivated meat’s journey. But zoom out and you’ll find that the cultivated meat industry makes up 0.00% market share—yes, less than a rounding error on the global stage. That approved product? It’s being sold at a loss by just two restaurants in a single country. 

According to McKinsey, the global meat and seafood market is expected to reach 531 million tons by 2030 and continue to grow for the foreseeable future. This means that millions of tons of cultivated animal cells will need to be produced to capture just a fraction of one percent of the growing market, requiring somewhere between 11 to 22 times the current volumetric capacity of the global pharmaceutical industry. It’s a monumental task given that the industry is currently producing cultivated meat at scales better measured in kilograms than tons.

There are real challenges associated with reducing costs and achieving the scales necessary to make meaningful amounts of cultivated meat. There are additional uncertainties in the regulatory landscape, how likely consumers are to adopt it, and whether cultivated meat will actually displace conventional meat consumption. For many, these reasons are why cultivated meat still remains in the realm of science fiction rather than reality. 

This knowledge coupled with the urgency of the climate crisis may make it easy to turn pessimistic and perhaps think about spending money and time elsewhere. But over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. And a glimpse into the future of the meat industry may be gleaned from the current transition taking place in the energy sector.

Every technology abundant today started from zero.

Amara’s Law states that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short term and underestimate its effects in the long term. Technologies often go through periods of inflated expectations, a trough of disillusionment, and eventually gradual progress that leads to its diffusion through society. From airplanes to blockchains, these qualitative trends tend to hold, but quantifying the timeline and rate of technology adoption is difficult and dependent on many variables. Looking to other industries provides insight into how those variables influence predictive power.

Many industries have experienced similar trajectories, but to illustrate some key parallels, the solar industry seems appropriate. As Max Roser from Our World in Data describes, in their early, exorbitantly-priced days, solar photovoltaic (PV) modules were shunned but eventually gained a scaling foothold by servicing the satellite industry. As more PV modules were produced for spacecraft, their costs decreased, allowing access in much larger, more mainstream markets on Earth. This created a positive feedback loop that has resulted in a 99.6 percent decline in solar PV costs since 1976, with concomitant declines in solar energy prices.

The real-world timelines of these price declines shattered every forecast. It turns out that for many industries, each doubling of manufacturing capacity results in a predictable decline in costs, known as the experience curve. But these rates are hard to predict. For solar it’s 20 percent, for on-shore wind power it’s 23 percent, and for offshore wind it’s closer to 10 percent. 

So what can be said about the timeline and experience curves for cultivated meat? While some have tried to illustrate end-product price declines of cultivated meat based on numbers cited in the media (e.g., here and here), it’s still too early to make predictions. The data is too scarce and the scales are too small to approximate experience curves.

However, like the solar industry, the cultivated meat industry has a crucial opportunity to gain a scaling foothold in the niche premium and specialty meat market or as an ingredient to enhance sensory aspects of plant-based products. These markets are not small. For instance, the premium and specialty meat market may be approximately six million tons annually. If we estimate the volumetric capacity for the cultivated meat industry in 2022 as approximately 500 tons, then it will require thirteen doublings to satisfy demand for premium and specialty meats. It is here where cultivated meat manufacturers will hone their craft in the coming years and more reliable experience curves will begin to emerge.

While data mentioned previously hints at significant cost decreases in cell culture media that are well underway, there is more uncertainty for the costs of bioreactors. And like solar PV modules three decades ago, the necessary upscaling of bioreactor manufacturing may unlock experience curves that make assumptions used in today’s TEAs appear wildly inaccurate.

In the last five years, solar has undercut all forms of fossil fuel energy in most regions, and its prices are expected to continue to decline. In 2019, solar accounted for approximately one percent of global energy and two percent of global electricity.

It would be an oversight not to mention that getting to just two percent of global electricity use took massive public and private investment, tax incentives for infrastructure, subsidies to bolster early adoption, and a lot of consumer education. The same scale of investment and effort will likely be needed for cultivated meat to achieve similar market penetration.  

There are now few who are skeptical that solar will be a significant piece of our decarbonized future or that those investments weren’t worth doing. But solar alone is not a panacea to our reliance on fossil fuels. Research, manufacturing, and well-structured policies need to be replicated across sustainable energy sources. Solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and nuclear together must make up our future energy mix, and they must do so in the context of smarter engineering and consumer shifts that improve overall energy efficiency. 

Similarly, cultivated meat alone is not a panacea to our reliance on industrialized animal meat production (and it never was). Plant-based meat, fermentation-derived foods, cultivated meat, an overarching shift toward plant-heavy diets, and other resource-efficient food production and consumption solutions are all important elements of a holistic strategy to reduce our global food system’s environmental footprint.

In today’s world, technology leads and policy follows.

In recent months, the number of local and national government policies to phase out internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles has dramatically increased. But it would be difficult to credit these policies solely to the foresight of virtuous, mission-aligned politicians. Instead, what lies behind them is the long and arduous road of Tesla, which pioneered electric vehicle adoption, became more valuable than all other leading automakers combined, and in doing so forced the hand of automakers and politicians alike to double down on electric vehicles4.

We should give credit to the growing list of cities and nations leading the way, but it also feels like these policies are long overdue. As stated by Ramez Naam, given the urgency of climate change, it seems that every new bill meant to enable climate technologies like solar or electric vehicles is inadequate.

Yet each political step in the right direction enables those technologies to further scale up, lower costs, and increase consumer adoption, which leads to more ambitious policies and strengthens the feedforward loop.

In the context of meat consumption, some advocate that grassroots political actions or persuasion of consumers to shift diets is where efforts should lie—why even attempt to pursue cultivated meat? But lessons from the solar and electric vehicle industries demonstrate that at the root of social change often lies a novel technology that offers a legitimate threat to the incumbent market and an attractive alternative to consumers. Without this foundation, persuasion and grassroots efforts will encounter fierce consumer resistance and a steep political uphill climb.

Enter alternative proteins

Like Tesla with electric vehicles, companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat demonstrated that consumers are willing to make a switch (at least partially) from conventional meat if a viable alternative is presented. This demonstration has catalyzed a flurry of new startups using plant-based, fermentation, and cell cultivation technologies to create meat without the animal (collectively, the alternative protein industry). 

The alternative protein industry has already begun to emerge as a growing market opportunity with increasing levels of consumer demand. Despite existing plant-based products still being sold at a premium and most fermentation-derived and cultivated products still in the pipeline, the incumbent meat industry has already embraced this new category by launching their own meat alternative products or investing in alternative protein companies.

Progress of the alternative protein industry to date has thus far been shouldered predominantly by private capital and hard work at a small number of companies, rather than public investment support. For each alternative protein category to compete on price, taste, and convenience (which comes down to accessibility and, ultimately, scale) with conventional meat, substantive public support to the same extent demonstrated in other industries may be needed.

Early signs point to a techno-political feedback loop that is now in motion for the alternative protein industry, akin to that which drove solar and electric vehicle technologies to their inflection points.  

This is an asymmetric bet worth taking.

The status quo for the conventional animal agriculture industry carries enormous existential risk in terms of climate change, environmental degradation, pandemic risk, and antibiotic resistance. The future costs of each of these threats alone will amount to trillions of dollars and many human and animal lives. Any technology that stands a chance at seriously mitigating these threats must be pursued.

Cultivated meat is an important piece of the alternative protein technology suite that stands a chance at doing just that. For those partaking in it, the journey is understood to be long; but it’s also understood that it has just begun. Challenges are just beginning to be seen with clarity, and potential paths to success are just beginning to be tested. A comparatively small amount of investment has brought cultivated meat to market in six short years, and the majority of that investment has yet to be deployed.

When we zoom out and take a bird’s eye view of our global food journey, it’s important to acknowledge the paths we’ve already taken that have brought us to this place and moment in time. It’s clear those same paths and choices are no longer viable if we are to feed 10 billion people, achieve a net-zero or negative-emissions economy, and free up enough lands and waters for planet-scale recovery and restoration. With all that’s at stake, the quest to reimagine modern agriculture is an asymmetric bet worth taking.

1  This study was commissioned by GFI.

 2GFI has since awarded Dr. Burridge a grant to translate low-cost, human-specific formulations to bovine and porcine cell lines, amongst other grants focused on cell culture media development. 

3Three GFI grantees are involved in these projects, including the two principal investigators. New Harvest additionally funded many students that influenced the success of these proposals.

4Tesla was founded in 2003, released its first car in 2008, and is still working to gain the economies of scale and supply chain efficiencies necessary to compete on pricing with the incumbent ICE vehicle market. Along the way, Tesla heavily leveraged carbon credit markets for revenues and government incentive programs for electric vehicles that subsidized adoption.

Header image courtesy of Upside Foods

Author

Elliot headshot

Elliot Swartz, Ph.D. LEAD SCIENTIST, CULTIVATED MEAT

Elliot Swartz analyzes scientific progress and bottlenecks in cultivated meat. Areas of expertise: stem cell biology, neuroscience, cultivated meat.