When cardiologist Uma Valeti left a job as a medical school professor to launch a startup attempting to grow meat from cells in bioreactors in 2015, it was the biggest risk of his professional life. “Nearly everyone I spoke to said, Don’t do this,” he says. Most people who were paying attention thought that the idea wasn’t feasible; many skeptics still think so. But his company, first called Memphis Meats, and now Upside Foods, says that it sees a clear path to making affordable meat that’s real–but animal-free.
Like others in the burgeoning space, the company has made samples of foods such as chicken breast grown from chicken cells. But it also just opened a large new production facility in the Bay Area city of Emeryville that will eventually make hundreds of thousands of pounds of products a year. “What we’re doing here is trying to start showing industrial scale,” says Valeti, the startup’s CEO.
If it can succeed, “cultivated” meat can make a difference on several fronts. Since it’s grown from animal cells, it can have the exact flavor of traditional meat, unlike plant-based alternatives. (It can also be added to plant ingredients to make a hybrid product that tastes like real meat.) If it’s made using clean energy, it can shrink the large carbon footprint of meat and avoid the meat industry’s massive use of land and water. It can also avoid health risks like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the hormones used in animals, and the potential spread of future pandemics from farms. Last, it avoids the ethical problems involved with factory farming of animals.
Since Upside Foods launched, it has focused on reinventing the process that has been used, at a much smaller scale, to make antibodies and vaccines by the pharmaceutical industry. Making meat involves taking animal cells, growing them in progressively larger bioreactors, and then harvesting them so they can be processed into products. “Everything that’s been done in the past for pharma was small scale,” Valeti says. “They were just doing enough for a patient, much more personalized medicine, like when they make monoclonal antibodies—you just need to make enough to dose one patient. Or they were making enough for vaccines. And even though you make it for tens of millions of people, that dose is tiny. So that scale was a very different manufacturing scale.”
Investors have poured support into cultivated meat, including some of the largest meat producers.
The cost of producing meat has come down “by multiple orders of magnitude” since the company started developing the technology, says Kevin Kayser, senior vice president of research at Upside Foods. A recent McKinsey report said that production costs in the industry have dropped by 99%. (That’s starting from a very, very high cost—when another scientist, the Dutch researcher Mark Post, first made a lab-grown burger in 2013, it cost roughly $325,000; in 2016, Upside Foods’ first meatball cost around $20,000 a pound.) The McKinsey report suggests that if the industry can follow the cost trajectory of human genome sequencing, cultivated meat could reach cost parity with traditional meat by the end of the decade.
Not everyone is a believer. One recent technical analysis concluded that cultivated meat would likely never be cost-competitive. Another analysis, however, using data from the startups working in the area, suggests that it can be. Critics have said that the industry will need to use pharma-grade production facilities, which are far more expensive than food-grade facilities. Upside Foods says that it can use equipment that’s similar to what’s already used in other food production facilities. “Precision fermentation operators in the food industry are successfully running complex, neutral pH, sterile fermentation processes for extended periods of time in very large vessels, which is similar to our commercial production plans,” says Kayser. The company has also dramatically reduced the cost of feed for cells, he says, and eliminated the use of fetal bovine serum, an animal product typically used to grow cells in the pharmaceutical industry.
Investors have poured support into cultivated meat, including some of the largest meat producers—Cargill and Tyson have both invested in Upside Foods. (Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, has invested in competitor Mosa Meat.) “At the time we invested, Upside’s transformational end-to-end technology platform was already showing clear cost advantages to other competitors in the space,” says Jennifer Place, investment director for Finistere Ventures, another investor. Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that studies meat and dairy alternatives, is lobbying for the government to provide more funding to help the industry bring costs down more quickly.
Going into production
Upside’s new 53,000-square-foot production facility is the next critical step in scaling up, giving the company an opportunity to show how larger-scale production can work. That includes inviting the public in for tours starting in January, so consumers can begin to feel more comfortable with eating food made in an unfamiliar way.
As costs continue to drop, Valeti argues that costs for traditional meat production may simultaneously rise because of carbon taxes or other policy changes. “I think in the next five to 10 years, there’s going to be an intersection point where these curves are going to cross,” he says.
“There’s multiple reasons why the cost is going to keep coming down,” he adds. “And there’s still a few more levers that we need to pull. Not all of them are guaranteed yet, and that’s the reality. But we are putting one step in front of the other. We’ve lowered costs or multiple orders of magnitude in the last five years. And we feel really good about the path we are on and the high conviction that our team has, and also support in the industry, that this is going to happen. It’s not ‘if’ anymore.”