Global livestock contributes 14.5% of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions. Our food systems need a significant revamp, not to say a revolution, if we are to have any chance of feeding a growing population while also making sure there is still a planet that is worth populating at all.
Some of that revamping is happening in the lab, with cell biology taking centre stage. With global meat consumption showing no sign of slowing down (in fact, quite the opposite), cellular agriculture could be one of the keys to reducing livestock-related emissions.
UK-based cultivated meat startup Uncommon announced today it has raised $30mn (€28mn) in Series A funding. The round was led by Balderton and Lowercarbon, but also included angel investors in the form of Sam Altman (of OpenAI fame) and his brother Max.
Patent-pending RNA technologies
Uncommon, founded in 2018 and based out of Cambridge, leverages RNA technology to cultivate bacon and pork belly from pig cells. If RNA sounds familiar to you, it is probably due to the mRNA vaccines developed to fight COVID-19. RNA stands for Ribonucelaic Acid, a molecule that contains the instructions, or recipe, that directs cells to make a protein using its natural machinery.
“As the only cultivated meat leveraging RNA technologies, we believe we have a competitive advantage that could help us become the largest protein company in the world,” said Benjamina Bollag, founder and CEO of Uncommon.
The cultured meat startup has now raised a total of approximately €35mn, including a £1mn (€1.16mn) Innovate UK grant. The latest round will go toward bringing down the cost of goods further, the regulatory application procedure, and the scaling of production at a pilot manufacturing facility at Cambridge Technopark. Furthermore, the company says it will double its team over the next 18 months.
Will cultivated meat succeed where plant-based alternatives appear to have failed?
Investors who backed the initial rush towards plant-based meat alternatives have not had a great time of it over the past couple of years. But if the failure to capitalise on the early enthusiasm for vegan meat substitutes has proved anything it is this: people will not stop eating meat, even if the future of the planet depends on it.
Even though the taste and texture of plant-based alternatives have come a long way, they cannot fully replicate actual meat. Lab-grown meat doesn’t have that problem since it is, well, actual meat.
Cells are taken from an otherwise unharmed animal and then cultivated in a lab setting. Uncommon transforms the individual cells into induced pluripotent stem cells in a process called “reprogramming,” a technology that won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2012.
Costs associated with the technology have thus far been prohibitive of commercialisation (and that is saying nothing of regulatory hurdles still to be overcome). However, companies in the sector claim that scaling production will reduce costs to where, in a few years time, the products will reach price parity with conventional meat. Indeed, Uncommon says it aims to own 5% of the global pork market by 2035.
UK cell agriculture investment is booming
Analysts differ in their estimates, but the cellular agriculture market could be worth hundreds of billions by 2040; an attractive proposition for investors willing to play the long game and potentially do something good for the planet. Globally, the cultured meat industry raised $869mn (€806mn) in venture capital funding in 2022, down from $1.3bn (€1.2bn) in 2021. However, in the UK, investments rose by 400%.
While most people have come to know him as the CEO that brought ChatGPT to the world, Sam Altman is an avid startup investor. He has backed over 100 companies over the years, including several biotech startups, for instance, Elon Musk’s Neuralink.
Securing food supply
Cultivated meat may be one of our best bets when it comes to curtailing the slaughter of 200 million animals per day and cutting down the vast emissions and overuse of antibiotics associated with land use and factory farming. What’s more, it may help assist with food security.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the first country to approve cultivated meat for human consumption – Singapore in December 2020 – imports 90% of its food. The US also approved the first cultivated meat product (chicken) in November 2022.
However, the EU could be in for a bit of a tussle, as Italy’s government recently backed a bill that would ban lab-grown and other synthetic meats in the name of cultural food heritage. Although, given it is the country’s 68th government in 76 years, things may still change in time for when the technology becomes commercially mature.
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