“There are a few companies announcing ambitious timelines and making promises that are very aggressive and they could fool people into thinking clean meat is just around the corner,” claims Spears, a chemical engineer with a background in industrial automation.
If you stand back and survey the space, he claimed, "Most clean meat companies are not paying enough attention to automation and data science, which will change entirely how fast they can do research and how cheaply they can manufacture products.
“Many of them are still taking an academic approach, saying, ‘We’ll perfect this in the lab and then we scale,’ rather than approaching this as an industrial automation project. Cells don’t behave the same way in the 2D environment vs a 3D environment, so you have to address the late stage questions earlier.”
The industry will fail if it tries to do everything itself
He added: “A lot of clean meat companies are also trying to be supermen, to do all the elements in-house, the cell lines, the cell culture, the scaffolding, and the bioreactors, each of which is a multi-million dollar industry. But I think the industry will fail if it tries to do everything itself.”
Take scaffolding, for example, edible frameworks to which cells can adhere as they grow and differentiate and form 3D structures that enable oxygen and nutrients to permeate. There are lots of options out there, with some exciting experimental work using decellularized apples or spinach leaves, for example, but not every clean meat company is necessarily best-placed to develop them in house.
“We are working early on with others with knowledge in this area; we’re also exploring bioreactors and cell lines that don’t require scaffolding.”
He added: “It’s become clear to us that at each stage of the value chain there are really strong players that can provide solutions and what’s really needed is a player that can integrate this entire ecosystem and start conversations with potential partners very early. So for example we’re in conversations with a bioreactor company that’s worked with pharma companies and is very excited to work with us because they see the massive potential for clean meat production.”
We’re using automation and data at every stage of the production process
That said, while Spears originally envisaged that San Francisco-based New Age Meats would service the clean meat industry by using its automation platforms to help firms scale more rapidly, he is now building his own vertically integrated clean meat company with co-founder Andra Necula, an acknowledgement perhaps that owning IP around at least some of the key elements of clean meat production in-house will be important to clean meat brands, especially as they seek to woo investors.
According to Spears: “We have unique cell lines and processes to make muscle, fat and connective tissue, and they all start with stem cells, which can be induced to differentiate into the cells you want, and we have a variety of ways to do that, which we are optimizing.
“In general our approach is using automation and data at every stage of the production process, so you can say, I tried to increase the amount of transferrin [an insulin-like growth factor used in the growth medium that delivers nutrients to the cells] in this timeframe and it wasn’t very good, but I also noticed that when the pH and temperature were in this range, I saw a lot of cell proliferation, so you can do a lot of post analysis with the data, but you have to measure and monitor all of these things.”
When it comes to immortalization – ways to manipulate cells such that they keep dividing, and you don’t keep having to go back to your source (eg. a pig) – Spears is looking at different approaches including genetic engineering, but acknowledges that there are public perception issues to address. But there may also be clear consumer benefits arising from GM techniques that stop cells producing some known carcinogens, for example, he said.
“We can craft meat to make it healthier and tastier as well as providing benefits around climate change and animal welfare.”
Regulating clean meat: "American jobs and industry will be lost if the wrong decisions are made from a regulatory perspective, because companies will go to countries with a better regulatory system.
“There are countries clamoring to have clean meat companies set up shop there, from China and South Korea to India, and regulators in the US should be aware that we will be losing out on industry and innovation and jobs if they take a backward approach to science and regulation.”
Brian Spears, co-founder, New Age Meats
Why start with pork?
New Age Meats’ first products – which Spears plans to showcase at the demo day at accelerator IndieBio in November – will be cell-cultured pork sausages, chosen in part because other players are more focused on beef and poultry, and because so many pork products are processed and don’t require so much structure (sausages, pepperoni, dumplings); but also because “there is a mountain of existing data about pig out there because of all the work on therapeutics and organ transplants, so why not start there?
“We could go out and find a really high margin meat product like Snow Crab,” said Spears, “but good luck finding the protocols [about how to culture that outside an animal]. Protocols are like recipes to grow the cells that exhibit the characteristics that you want, when do you add a certain growth factor, what’s the temperature, what’s the pH you keep it at? And there is already a ton of data about this for pigs.”
Meat is a $1.3tr market, and if you can capture even a small slice of that, there is a huge opportunity to make money
Right now, New Age Meats is operating on a shoestring [IndieBio gives early stage biotech companies it works with $250k in funding, plus lab and co-working space, mentorship, and access to its network of alumni, investors, biotech entrepreneurs, and corporate partners] but is looking to raise seed money (“a few million dollars”) after it has produced a proof of concept later this year (its prototype pork sausage), he said.
“Meat worldwide is a $1.3tr market, and if you can capture even a small slice of that, investors can see there is a huge opportunity here to make money, but they are also interested in the positive social impact of clean meat.”
Beer & bratwurst?
The first example of Spears’ technology in action in a commercial setting might be in a craft brewery, where a fermentation tank for brewing beer sits alongside a clean meat bioreactor producing cell cultured pork for sausages, with both visible to consumers, he said.
“I could envisage a pilot facility where people can see our product being made, but also see that beer is made using intense science and engineering in reactors with piping and gauges. It’s about complete transparency.”