The race to move lab-grown meat onto supermarket shelves and onto dinner plates is heating up as more companies that cultivate cell-based meat and seafood — also known as “clean” or “cultured” meat — start to emerge.
Unlike plant-based meats that have rapidly grown in popularity, cultured meat is a lab-grown meat alternative produced from animal cells.
However, cultured meat faces serious challenges with cost reduction, scale-up and regulatory approval, according to a report by market research company IDTechEx.
Dr Vinayaka Srinivas co-founded local startup Gaia Foods in 2019 together with Thanh Hung Nguyen. Both are scientists by training and have over 20 years of experience in biology research.
Gaia Foods was started based on a simple idea: A cow weighs more than 600kg and when we kill it, we only use less than 50 per cent of it to produce meat. So why don’t we produce just the amount of meat that we are going to consume?
“(With) this, we can reduce great wastage of animal products, animal cruelty and also diseases that spread from gracing large herds of cows in a small land mass,” he said.
Replacing butchered meat with cultured meat
Gaia Foods is Southeast Asia’s first clean red meat company that produces meat using stem cell technology.
It essentially develops cell-based cuts of pork, beef and mutton; and it’s doing so by growing animal cells on scaffolds, or thin plant-based surfaces, so that it mimics the texture of meat cuts as opposed to minced meat.
It also controls all the materials that are necessary for producing the meat to ensure that it doesn’t contain any antibiotics and other contaminants.
The goal of the company is to produce meat in a cleaner, green and animal-friendly manner that people can consume without any guilt.
In fact, the production of cultivated meat in a controlled environment is expected to reduce the land usage by more than 98 per cent, water usage by more than 95 per cent, and greenhouse gas emission by more than 80 per cent.
Srinivas shared that as a cultured meat company, he finds that it’s challenging for them to secure a space for them to do their work.
This is not any general co-working or commercial space. We need a regulatory approved place with all the instruments in place. (It) can be very expensive to start out on our own, so we need the support from different agencies to help us with that.
Apart from that, most investors like to see the product developed or ready to taste. Since we are very particular about all the ingredients that we source, this is one of the biggest hurdles (when we want) to showcase our product to investors.– Dr Vinayaka Srinivas, co-founder of Gaia Foods
He also noted that many investors understand that the technology is not going to be profitable in the next few years, so they are ready to invest in them.
Producing cultured meat is an expensive affair
Gaia Foods is developing meat products using just muscle and fat cells from cows, lambs and pigs to eliminate the need to slaughter animals for their flesh.
Producing cultured meat is highly expensive and not scaleable in a cost-effective manner.
The cost of production currently stands at S$6,000 per kilogram, this is largely due to the expensive animal serum and pharma-grade nutrients used to grow and feed the animal cells respectively.
As such, Gaia Foods strives to play a major role in making cultured meat a cost-effective meat in the future.
One of the ways to do so is cell line development. Although they use non-genetically modified (GM) cells, making them grow outside animal body for long periods of time is a challenge in itself.
However, the duo is confident that they can help bring the price down. They are already experimenting with developing a similar serum from plants and yeast, as well as cell feed from nutrients extracted from plants.
They are hoping to accelerate this development process if they are able to hit their goal of raising S$3 million by the end of this year.
To date, the bootstrapped startup has been relying on their US$125,000 seed funding from Big Idea Ventures.
The Temasek Holdings-backed firm invests in alternative protein companies that focus on cell- and plant-based foods and related technologies. In Singapore, it has invested in Karana, LVL Life, Confetti Fine Foods and Shiok Meats.
We are still an early-stage company to (generate) a revenue (but) after we started the company, we have managed to get attention from several investors and institutes in the likes of Big Idea Ventures, Temasek Life Sciences et cetera.– Dr Vinayaka Srinivas, co-founder of Gaia Foods
Growing cultured meat is much faster
Gaia Foods was started in December 2019, right before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Before all the borders were closed, we had isolated small fingernail-sized animal samples and harvested stem cells from it. From then on, we solely relied on stem cells to do all our research,” said Srinivas.
“Cultured meat is the process of producing meat from the animal stem cells in a controlled environment. Just like how we produce noodles or any other food materials, we will use animal cells, give them proper nutrition and harvest them to produce any meat of choice.”
Typically, growing cultured meat in a factory takes anywhere between four to six weeks, as opposed to animals which will take around two to four years.
According to a Straits Times report, the nutrient broth costs about S$300 to S$400 per litre, and Bovine serum costs S$800 to S$1,000 per litre. The Bovine serum is the most widely-used serum for cell culture, and is added to the nutrient broth to help cells multiply.
The current cost of production is still very high, mainly because of all the supply chain (needed) to produce some of the components are not in place. Going forward, the cost of producing cultured meat will be equivalent or lower than traditional butchered meat in the market.– Dr Vinayaka Srinivas, co-founder of Gaia Foods
When asked about some of the misconceptions about cultivated meat, Srinivas said that the core messaging that they want to bring centrestage is to make sure that this technology is a very simple way to produce meat and not science fiction.
“This is the biggest misconception (that are) in people’s minds — that this tech is somehow very secretive and uses lots of harmful chemicals.”
“Meat of the future”
Over the past two years, more than 15 alternative protein startups have set up base in Singapore.
Currently, the local alternative protein scene is dominated by the likes of first-movers Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, whose sausages and beef patties are now commonplace in supermarkets and resturants.
Gaia Food wants to do the same. It intends to go mass market in the next five years, and launch their first product in 3.5 years at S$15 to S$20 per kilogram, which is close to prices of traditional meat today.
In October last year, Gaia Foods created its first structured meat product – six thin pieces of beef that were pancooked and served with rice noodles.
Commenting on the food tech industry, Srinivas said that the way in which we produce and consume food will significantly change in the future.
People will be asking more questions about the source of their foods, energy footprint and welfare of the animals. With these questions, we see a massive opportunity for alternate protein companies to have a huge role to play in the future.
Gaia Foods wants to be one of the leading technical and manufacturing powerhouses when it comes to novel food tech and we see ourselves playing a huge role in transitioning people’s habits from butchered to cultured meat in the future.– Dr Vinayaka Srinivas, co-founder of Gaia Foods
Featured Image Credit: Synthego / Food Navigator