cellular agriculture
How innovation affects the long-term price and availability of cellular agriculture
Cultured meat is a partnership between science and innovation
It’s impressive that we’re no longer debating whether cellular agriculture will happen but instead questioning its timing and price.
Cellular agriculture (aka “cell ag,” “clean meat,” “lab-grown meat,” “cultured meat”) is a new technology that creates real meat in a controlled environment from the stem cells of an animal. This industry is reshaping agriculture in various ways. There is no slaughter or cruelty, no antibiotics or hormones pumped into the animal, no enormous amount of water and animal feed needed, and no land outside the lab required for growing.

In 2013, Dr. Mark Post (founder of Mosa Meat) made headlines when he held a public tasting of the world’s first cell-based, lab-grown burger. It cost $325,000.00. Flash forward seven years, and Eat Just started serving cell-based, lab-grown chicken nuggets at a restaurant in Singapore in December 2020 for $17.00 a serving. (You could even get them delivered.) In seven short years, the cellular agriculture industry grew from a dream in a University to a menu item at a restaurant--with a 99% reduction in cost. There are currently over 80 companies in the cellular agriculture space creating all types and cuts of animal products from ground beef to foie gras to Chinese delicacies like fish maw and even breastmilk. Over $800 million USD has been invested in this space since 2016.
But the question remains, when will cellular agriculture be available in grocery stores and restaurants at a price comparable to traditionally-grown animal products? Current time estimates range from a few years to never.
The naysayers
A recent article from The Counter analyzed several techno-economic analyses (TEAs) and concluded that it’s unrealistic to think the industry will ever have price parity with traditional meat.

To reach this conclusion, they critiqued a Techno Economic Analysis funded by the Good Food Institute (GFI--“a nonprofit working internationally to accelerate alternative protein innovation”) that concluded cellular agriculture will reach price parity with conventionally-grown meat around 2030. The GFI report used actual data from cellular agriculture companies and called out specific barriers to entry including: reducing the price of operations and supplies as companies scale and monetary support from governments and investors with a long-term vision on returns.

The Counter could not themselves obtain proprietary data from companies in the cellular agriculture industry. Instead they referenced another TEA report based on data from a similar industry, written by chemical engineer David Humbird, that likened cellular agriculture to the process of growing ovarian cells from Chinese hamsters for biopharmaceutical purposes.

Scientific approaches are an excellent starting point. But estimates on cost and timing for a blossoming industry like cellular agriculture also need to account for innovation--which typically leads to investment--and consumer adoption.
Consumer adoption
Innovation is like a hurricane
Innovation is like a hurricane, and companies in cellular agriculture do not exist in a vacuum. Once a new, compelling technology starts down a particular path, it only accelerates and spreads out in all directions. You no longer have companies focused on the moonshot of creating cellular agriculture; you have companies just focused on ingredients, supplies, and other parts of the process. And it’s not just passionate founders. This industry has well-educated workers who understand the risks and the limitations. Teams are comfortable investing in R&D for scalable solutions (that might not work the first time) because they see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Let's look at some data

For example, in 1972, computers were big bulky machines. In their infancy, this technology was wildly unaffordable--you could get one for around $95,000 USD (adjusted for inflation that’s $500,000 USD). Flash forward 40 years, and you can get a laptop for less than $100 USD.

Moore’s law is a proven model that can be used to show how long-term innovation for new technologies could be priced. Investor, lecturer, and mentor, Ron Shigeta, used this model to plot prices from cellular agriculture companies (in 2019). In his graph, he also compared them to the cost of another high-tech innovation--human genome sequencing. He concluded that the price slope for cellular agriculture is, in fact, steeper than transistors, and a serving of cellular agriculture should reach. $50 by 2021.

Source: https://medium.com/the-future-of-food-technology/lab-grown-meat-is-scaling-like-the-internet-540893cbaf57

One specific critique in The Counter’s article was the proposed facility size needed for scaling up and the distribution of cellular agriculture. The article focused on how hard it is to keep bacteria and viruses out of the lab environments. Yet, they failed to acknowledge that with advances like this in food, there will also be advances in accompanying technologies like robotics, energy, and specific industry details like growth factors and scaffolds.

We're already seeing this with growth factors--critical ingredients used to ‘feed’ the cells. During the cellular agriculture industry’s infancy, companies used fetal bovine serum. Because cellular agriculture totes no harm to animals, this ingredient was pretty shocking and would sway many consumers (many from just the name of it.) However, the industry is rapidly moving beyond fetal bovine serum. Companies like Orfgenetics and TurtleTree Scientific manufacture growth factors and nutrients made from natural materials like fungus and plants.

And if you look at a similar ag-tech industry, like vertical farming. The price of critical supplies, like LEDs, is dropping exponentially as the industry gets bigger and bigger. With new industries comes the opportunity to improve existing technology.
Current price projections from cellular agriculture companies seeking regulatory approval or expanding their facilities:
Mosa Meat is in talks with EU regulators to sell their beef burgers.
$7.50/.25 lb
Future Meat plans to sell a quarter pound of hybrid plant and cellular agriculture-based chicken.
Avant Meats is developing fish maw. For reference, a bowl of soup with this Chinese delicacy usually retails for $30. They plan to bring it to market in 12-18 months.
WildType produces cell-based, sushi-grade salmon. They are opening a test kitchen in San Francisco.
Money is flowing into this industry
New technologies in highly regulated industries are a long game for investors--but it doesn’t mean they’re not bullish on them. All you have to do is Google “cellular agriculture investment” to see that governments and investors are already supporting the industry big time. For example, GOOD MEAT, a division of Eat Just (which is serving cell-based chicken nuggets in Singapore), recently raised an additional $97 million USD in funding.

Consider the people who invested in Uber or Lyft in their infancies. Uber is still not profitable, but its original investors are happy. And the transportation industry has wholly changed despite labor unions and laws that differ city by city.

Countries striving to be less dependent on imported goods are funding future food-based technologies left and right. For example, the UAE is investing heavily in vertical farming and providing tons of space for agricultural innovation like cellular agriculture in their Food Tech Valley. DisruptAD--the VC arm of UAE sovereign fund ADQ co-led cell ag company, Aleph Farms’, $105M USD series B round.

Singapore is another prime example. The government-backed Singapore Research, Innovation, and Enterprise Council gave $144million USD to their research and development arm, A*star, to progress on food security goals, including an entire R&D arm dedicated to the advancement of “future foods” like cellular agriculture. Temasek Holdings, the government’s private investment arm, funded cellular agriculture companies Upside Foods (formerly known as Memphis Meats) and Modern Meadow (making cell-based collagen and leather). They also back investment firm Big Idea Ventures, who have a $50M fund dedicated solely to ‘new proteins.’ The EU invested over $9 million USD in cellular agriculture companies in 2020.

The US government subsidizes over $20 billion USD a year to farmers, mainly in the livestock, dairy, and animal feed sectors. Why wouldn’t cellular agriculture be included in this in the future? (I can think of reasons--mainly lobbyists--but US agriculture priorities will evolve at some point.)
The real issue: consumer adoption
Many founders in this industry hope that cell ag will completely replace conventionally-grown meat. And it may--one day. But a few things have to happen first. Consumer adoption, or really, consumer understanding of what the heck cellular agriculture is and why it’s crucial, is paramount for this industry to survive. As a food anthropologist, I can tell you that most people I talk to have zero clear knowledge of this industry. We need more test kitchens, more infographics, and more TikTok personalities to explain why this new technology is better for the planet and future. People need to understand that this is not GMO or a veggie burger. Before price parity can exist fully and before companies operate at scale, the world needs to warm up to the idea of cell-based agriculture so that there is an audience willing to pay for it.

Take the plant-based meat and dairy industries as an example. There are tons of new plant-based products. These companies fought significant regulatory, lobbyist, and even naming hurdles to get to their tiny little section in the grocery store. Cellular agriculture companies should use the plant-based protein industry as a shining example of how to tell a rich, clear, compelling story for consumers while navigating all of the interests and industries trying to hold them back.

Cellular agriculture is not just a novel food or a space-age technology--it represents the reframing of an indispensable industry. As noted by George Peppou--founder of Vow Food--cellular agriculture represents “a paradigm shift in manufacturing that will enable products we can only dream of today.” Cellular agriculture is likely not going to replace conventionally-grown meat in my lifetime completely. But if consumer adoption is positive, in the future, there may be less land used for agriculture, fewer animals slaughtered, enough protein to support our growing population, and healthier cuts of meat with no additives, hormones, or antibiotics. And that’s a win to me.
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