This might be the way to stop climate change while still enjoying that sweet BBQ flavor, meet the vegans that want you to eat more meat
Israeli biotechnology startup SuperMeat announced today the launch of their campaign on crowdfunding Indiegogo in hopes of raising enough funding to move forward on developing the technology to grow cultured chicken meat, eliminating the need for farming and killing the birds.
The campaign is looking to bring in $100,000 to get the ball rolling on their project, which is based on the research of Hebrew University Professor Yaakov Nahmias. Their goal is to grow chicken breasts from the cells of chickens with a “meat oven” device that could be used by supermarkets, restaurants, and hopefully at some point in people’s homes.
Co-founded in December 2015 by Co-CEOs Koby Barak and Ido Savir along with Nahmias who serves as the CSO, the team had the vision of replacing the meat industry with a more sustainable, cruelty-free, and eco-friendly alternative.
“I came to realize that, this is unsustainable,” says Nahmias. “If I want my children to eat the same fried chicken that my grandma used to make, I need to develop groundbreaking technology that will fundamentally change meat production in the coming century”
Speaking with Shir Friedman, a biologist herself and Spokeswoman and VP of Marketing for the company, she tells Geektime that their team of eight is driven by a strong ideology of environmentalism. Citing a list of reports showing that animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases including methane, deforestation in places like the Amazon, outsized use of resources like drinkable water and land, as well as many other detrimental effects, Friedman explains that her team felt a pressing need to create a change.
While many of the team members are themselves vegans, Friedman is very clear in saying that this project is not aimed at that sector but instead for those who eat and enjoy meat.
“Meat is so ingrained in culture and it’s not realistic to expect people to give it up,” she says.
Most of the research today is being done on cows, but they wanted to be different by working with chicken. Friedman adds that chickens are one of the most consumed animal on the planet, mostly competing with pigs. “We wanted to go big and eliminate the biggest industry” she says, noting that there are 100 chickens killed for every cow.
Why did the lab grown chicken cross the road?
Their solution will be to remove some cells from a chicken and then replicate them into tissue that will eventually grow to become whole parts of the bird. The idea for the final product will be for users to insert capsules into the device in their home and grow the meat there.
The science behind this is based on Nahmias’s work from 2006 when he was able to 3D print human liver cells.
At the same time, their process does not use animal serum – like the fetal calf serum that was used in work with cows – which can complicate their chances of making this scalable.
Friedman tells Geektime that while they are not performing genetic engineering, they can make meat that will be healthier by adding healthier fats like Omega 3s. Moreover, by growing cultured meat, they remove the need for antibiotics and other harmful factors that can affect human health by eating meat.
A rapidly evolving industry hungry for a change
Moves towards alternatives to the meat industry as it stands have been simmering for some time now, with some new innovations in the past few years bringing excitement over the possibilities to a sizzle.
In 2013, Dr. Mark Post from Maastricht University in the Netherlands caused the world to take notice when he produced the first lab grown hamburger that was later eaten on stage, at a cost of $325,000. Thankfully Dr. Post’s research attracted the attention of big name backers like Sergey Brin of Alphabet who put in €250,000 to help fund the project.
For Brin and many others, concerns over the medium and long term effects of farming are very disconcerting, and with most of the world unlikely to give up BBQ anytime soon (for very delicious reasons to be sure), they view lab assisted meat as the only viable solution.
Is there a market?
SuperMeat the second incarnation of a previous Israeli NGO called the Modern Agriculture Foundation that set out to grow chicken using a non-profit model to fund the research. Friedman who helped lead the group says that the team eventually came to the conclusion that “raising funds [for the project] philanthropically was just impossible.”
So far SuperMeat has received some limited financing to help launch their campaign from private backers who see an opportunity in this market, but need much more to get their project fully underway. They hope that this campaign will help them gain market validation, showing investors and others that there is a strong demand for this kind of meat, and will lead to more significant investments down the line.
While they have set their focus on chicken, they are facing off against some stiff competition from players like San Francisco-based Memphis Meats who have told the press that they intend to produce beef, pork, and chicken products. They took part in SOSVentures’ accelerator and announced in February that they were expecting to raise $2 million soon from investors.
Then there is the question of whether people will eat it. Will it taste different?
That is still unclear and I will be happy to be among the taste testers, but Friedman believes that this could appeal to big chains like McDonald’s who just want to serve their customers burgers at a low cost. How the meat was grown is far less of an issue.
Is it the future?
There is no question that the use of land and other resources for the production of meat is placing a heavy burden on the planet and a solution is needed. Add on the appalling conditions faced by the vast majority of farm animals and the situation feels even more dire.
The two main factors that will likely affect the success of the alternative meat movement are how long it will take them to create a viable, scalable offering and the cost.
In interviews, Post has said that he thinks it will take another 20 to 30 years for his burger to be fully ready for the commercial market. Earlier this year Post reported that he had optimized his process to bring the cost down to a far more reasonable $11 per burger, so there is progress on that front.
The SuperMeat team estimate that they will be able to sell their chicken pieces, breasts, liver, etc, at a price between $1-5 a kilo.
Friedman says that if they are able to get their funding, then they should be able to have their prototype ready in one and a half to two years, and finally hit the market within five years time, same as Memphis Meats.
This is provided that they are able to stay on schedule without hitting snags, which can happen for many early stage projects like these.
There have also been concerns about the amount of power that will be needed to grow cultured meat, which could grow exponentially if the technology becomes an item of necessity in the home. However these concerns pale in comparison to the current path of the meat industry’s effect on the environment.
“We’ll know the challenges once we start the research,” responds Friedman, who is optimistic on their ability to progress quickly, adding that most people overestimate the complexity of making this a reality.
“We’re doing far more complicated things in science than culturing meat. This could have been done 50 years ago. The problem is that there hasn’t been enough public interest.”
Hopefully this campaign will help prove otherwise.