In its manufacturing facility in San Leandro, Calif., SCiFi Foods scaled its beef cell lines that grow in single-cell suspension from its lab environment to a 500-liter bioreactor, March explained. The cell-cultivated meat created in the run will go into a hybrid burger party that consists of 10% cultivated meat and 90% plant-based meat.
The quantity produced in the first run — which produced higher yields than from their smaller format bioreactors — will be the amount the company needs to launch commercially in foodservice establishments, March said. SCiFi Foods is also exploring ways to partner with major food companies to create other products, he added.
Currently, the company is seeking FDA and USDA approval for its process. In 2023, the FDA and USDA gave the green light for UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat to sell their respective cell-cultured chickens in the US.
“FDA and the USDA have been really cooperative with industry. We're in that consultation process with the FDA at the moment,” March said. “Our goal is that we will have full FDA and USDA approval by early next year, and we're working really closely with regulators to enable that.”
Investors focus on scalability, commercialization
Cell-cultivated meat companies are often challenged to scale their production to meet commercial demands, but SCiFi Foods is “very confident” in its ability to scale up, March said. Unlike other cell-cultivated products, SCiFi Foods comes in the form of a “fatty meat paste” and doesn’t need the scaffolding that's required in steaks or other more complex meats.
“We view synthetic biology as the key unlock to shift the behavior of those cells and develop high-performance cell lines that can be scaled up and grown cheaply, and we really demonstrated that with beef. To our knowledge, we're still the only company in the world [that] can grow beef cells without any substrate, no microcarriers, no scaffolding, just a single-cell suspension.”
When asked about the current funding environment for cell-cultivated companies, March acknowledged that it has been more challenging, but SCiFi has been "lucky to be supported by a number of really amazing investors." Investors are now focusing on the companies that use capital more efficiently and have a path to commercialization, he added.
"Investors just really need to see meaningful progress towards commercialization, and companies are operating in a really capital efficient way, and that they have a plan as to how they can scale in an efficient way. And I think that's imperative on everyone in the industry today."
Meeting the ‘big protein gap,’ providing what plant-based does not
The emergence of cell-cultivated meats comes at a time when demand for protein is increasing due to a growing global populace, and as the animal-based meat sector faces climate change challenges, March said.
“Climate change is decreasing arable land. For years now, we've had a drought in the Midwest that is putting pretty significant pressure on cattle herds. So, beef prices are going up, and that trend is not going to change anytime soon. And so, we have this ... decreasing supply, increasing demand. You don't have to extrapolate that over the next couple of decades to understand where that's going to lead. So, we really do need more sustainable and efficient ways of meeting that demand and that big protein gap.”
Despite the increased need for protein, consumers are split on what they think of cell-cultivated meats and their value. In a survey of over 1,200 American consumers, Purdue University found that half or more of all consumers preferred farm-raised beef over cell-culture products among several purchase drivers, including animal welfare, health, nutrition, price, taste, the ingredient list, and others. However, a 2023 Real Research survey of 10,000 global consumers found that 61.95% said they’d try cell-cultivated meat.
'It is sci-fi, but it's actually super cool'
Though some consumers are concerned about lab-grown food, March believes that being transparent and educating consumers in a fun way is crucial to getting shoppers to trust cell-cultivated meat.
“A big part of our branding strategy is to say, ‘Oh, yeah, it is sci-fi, but it's actually super cool that you can create real meat without the need for animals.’ So, it's really the utopian, exciting version of sci-fi that we should all be dreaming of, and use the rest of the brand to make that super fun. ... We think that's a much better way of building trust with consumers than trying to just hide it, or pretend it's not there.”
When it comes to consumer concerns around taste, cell-cultivated meats can also more closely match what consumers are looking for, compared to the plant-based options, he added.
"What we've seen with plant-based meat is that people want to eat real meat, and plant-based meat gets some of the way but not all the way there. And ultimately, I think only cultivated meat really, truly holds the potential to be an absolute one-to-one replacement.”