Culinary history was made in August 2013 when a group of British scientists cooked up some lab-made hamburgers and served them to food critics. Tasty or not, they were the world’s most expensive burgers – the scientists had spent 250,000 euros ($278,000 at current exchange rates) to research and develop them.
But from their point of view, it was worth the price because they had shown it was possible to grow meat from live tissue instead of by slaughtering an animal. The recipe included muscle cells from a cow, spices and beet juice, which gave the ersatz meat a deep color and the feel of a real burger.
A lot of progress has been made since and today meatless meat has become a hot new product for entrepreneurs and investors. In Israel and the United States, startups are developing better and better products based on tissue engineering. The technology to create artificial organs is now being used to create artificial meat.
The regulatory hurdles for meat are much lower than those for medical products and the authorities in many countries are adjusting the rule to encourage the development and manufacture of cultured meat.
Beyond Meat, the U.S. maker of artificial beef, chicken and pork using vegetable ingredients, trades on Nasdaq at a $6.2 billion valuation and counts McDonald’s as one of its customers.
In Israel, Future Meat is developing a hybrid cultured meat based on research done by Hebrew University Prof. Prof. Yaakov Nahmias.
Like posters, like meat
Another Israeli entrant to the market is MeaTech, which recently listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and trades at a 107 million shekel ($30.7 million) market cap. Its CEO, Sharon Fima, claims that his company is the only one in the world that can produce a two-centimeter slab of meat by machine.
“Our plan is to produce meat by digital printing. Just as in poster printing, every drop will contain differing material at differing amounts to reach the resolution we want,” he said. The challenge is not just to make meat in a factory but to make it quickly and adjust the product easily from one batch to the next. “To produce a steak today takes about an hour. Our goal is to produce it in three seconds and with a single click of a button to adjust production to add more fat,” said Fima.
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MeaTech naturally isn’t anywhere near a cattle farm or slaughterhouse. It’s home is a high-tech park in Nes Tziona, where there are a number of other startups engaged in 3D printing.
MeaTech became a publicly traded company last October when it was merged with Ophectra Real Estate & Investments. MeaTech’s 35 shareholders got a combined 60% of the merged company as well as options to bring their stake to 68% if the company achieved certain milestones.
The first milestone is to complete a prototype for producing a layer of stem cells via 3D printing technology. The second is to create edible meat tissue of 100 grams and reproduce it with the company’s 3D printing process. Fima says the research and development is not proceeding quickly.
“If you think that soon you’ll be seeing printed steaks, you’re wrong. We’re not at that stage yet. We’re just a startup and we’ve only begun working,” he said.
As to when the first products will reach store shelves, Fima said: “I estimate in six to eight years. We know what needs to be done to make it happen, the big question is whether we be able to lower the cost and grow meat in industrial-sized quantities.”
Asked how the manufacturing process works, he replied: “We take an umbilical cord sample and extract cells from it, which we then grow in laboratory petri dishes. The aim is to move into larger containers until we accumulate more and more cells equal to thousands of liters.”
“We’ve created tissue the thickness of paper, but in laboratory conditions, not by machine. Now we want to do it by machine. We’re growing the stem cells and differentiating them by fat and connective tissue and so on... we turn each group of cells into ink and dilute into a special liquid we’ve developed, which keeps the cells alive. This ink can be produced on a small prototype printer from which we’ll be able to develop a big biological printer and the software.”
Fima estimates he will need at least $30 million for R&D and construction of a plant to produce the meat. He attributes the high cost to MeaTech developing everything in-house from ingredients to biological printers.
Founded in 2018, the startup has raised $14 million to date. Fima said the company will raise more capital in stages, which he hints will be made easier as the company makes breakthroughs.
“I can only say that in the coming year interesting things will be happening in our laboratory and that we’ve already filed for three patents in the U.S.,” he said.
Asked how he stacks up against competitors, he replies that “the company that is the most advanced is Israel’s Aleph Farms, whose investors include [the Israeli food company] Strauss. But even they’re working with syringes in a lab and aren’t dealing with the development of a 3D industrial printer. That’s a stage I don’t care about – I’m looking at mass production.”
Fima arrived at MeaTech from the world of 3D printing. Eight years ago, he formed Nano Dimension to develop the 3D printing for printed circuit boards. It began promisingly, but over the last 12 months its shares have plunged 85% on the TASE to a market cap of just 35 million shekels. Fima blamed its troubles on a change in its business strategy.
He came to MeaTech by happenstance. “At Nano Dimension there was a unit examining the feasibility of organ printing, One of the employees was a vegetarian and when she understood that you could print tissue for organs she asked me why not print edible meat that she can eat. That idea stayed with me,” Fima said.
After he left Nano Dimension, Fima formed a startup called Agama Extreme to develop 3D-printed extreme sportswear. He left that business after breaking a knee and some ribs while engaging in extreme sports. At about the same time his attorney asked him about using a machine to print meat.
“I’m not a vegetarian and I love meat. But because I also liked the idea of finding a solution that didn’t require killing animals, I decided to look into it,” Fima said.
MeaTech employs 15 researchers. Fima took the unusual step for a startup of listing its shares because he hopes to turn into a big company in part through mergers and acquisitions with companies that have technologies that he needs. Being a publicly traded company makes that process easier.
“At the same time, we’re making connections with industry players, They’ve expressed an interest in us and are asking me how we’re building a factory, how big it needs to be and what resources we need,” said Fima. Companies that have shown an interest include “food companies across the board between slaughtering and marketing. Companies from Europe have looked at us and want to see the whole process as we complete it … The Israeli market is too small for us.” Fima doesn’t rule out selling the company later on. “I’m not going to sell steaks but license advanced technology,” he said. Asked if he’s ever tasted the meat he wants to produce, he replies: “At the moment, there’s noting to taste – just tiny cells. But when the process is complete, the product is supposed to taste no different than other meat.”