Yesterday I explained how the plant-based meat industry has undergone significant growth which seems likely to continue. But what I am really excited about is that technology is now revolutionalising the meat alternatives on offer. We now have the very real near term prospect of being able to buy meat grown in labs with all the societal benefits this would involve. Today I would like to tell you about some leading startups close to commercialisation in this lab-grown meat space.
Alternative protein startups are innovating across the meatless ecosystem
We now have a growing range of choices for consumers of meat free products that are popular given their taste, texture and price. But the real excitement comes from technical innovation which will hopefully allow us to ‘grow’ real meat in labs. Technical advances in areas such as ag tech, synthetic biology, cellular agriculture and molecular engineering are enabling the production of meat substitutes that better emulate the flavour and texture of traditional animal meat. There are now over 100 startups in this space. These startups are raising millions and innovating in the meatless space. They are not only competing with prepared and frozen meats, but also exploring other methods of incorporating non-meat proteins into diets, with snacks (such as Beyond the Shoreline‘s kelp jerky) or meal substitutes.
Lab-grown or “cultured meat” is unlike existing offerings in the meat-free space: it is not a plant-based imitation meat - it’s real meat!
San Francisco-based Memphis Meats produces meat from self-reproducing cells, thereby growing meat that is an “animal-based” product but avoiding the need to breed, raise, and slaughter huge numbers of animals. The company debuted its first synthetic meatball in 2016 and followed up with the world’s first cell-cultured chicken and duck in 2017. Memphis Meats still has some way to go though: it still needs to materially decrease the cost of its lab-grown meat in order to compete commercially with traditional meat. While its original meat cost $18,000 a pound, by January 2018, the company had gotten costs down to $2,400 per pound. But the company claims that it can produce animal-free products using just 1% of the land and 1% of the water compared to meat-producer incumbents. In March 2018, the company announced its intention to bring clean chicken and duck to stores by 2021. More recently, in a series of patents, the company announced its intention to use the gene-editing technique CRISPR in order to help it develop its lab-grown meat products with even less impact on the environment and even less consumption of land and water.
In the future, lab grown meat companies like Memphis Meats could cut production, slaughter, and processing out of the meat production value chain. Memphis Meats wasn’t the first company to explore lab-grown meat products: Dr. Mark Post, a Netherlands-based researcher, produced the world’s first lab-grown burger in 2013, in research originally financed by Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin. This initiative spun off into MosaMeat, which aims to bring in vitro meat to market in the future.
Another company in this space, New Age Meats, has raised nearly $3M for its lab-grown sausage product. The company plans to put its sausage on the market by 2021.
However, while the environmental benefits of lab-grown meat are potentially dramatic, meatless products remain prohibitively expensive on a per-pound basis compared to animal alternatives. As well as being high cost, there are uncertainties surrounding the regulatory future of lab-grown meat. The USDA regulates meat production and advocates for agriculture, but the potential conflict of interest surrounding lab-grown meat left both the FDA and USDA in charge of oversight of alternatively grown meat.
Fish-free Seafood Alternatives
In addition to land-based meat, companies are applying similar processes to create sustainable seafood alternatives. This is due to the ever-increasing demand on the ocean’s resources. With 90% of global fish stocks overwhelmed and overfished due to rising global demand, startups are looking for ways to satiate consumers without fully depleting the earth’s fish supply.
“Shrimp has one of the worst supply chains in the seafood industry,” – Dominique Barnes, New Wave Foods Co-Founder & CEO
Companies innovating in this space include US startup Good Catch Foods who develop vegetarian tuna, crab cakes, and fish patties and sells its products in Whole Foods, FreshDirect, and Thrive Market stores. Its seafood look-alikes are made from lentils, chickpeas, fava beans, and other legumes. Other startups in the space include Finless Foods which uses cellular agriculture to grow fish meat, while New Wave Foods, which has received backing from Tyson Ventures, produces pea protein and algae-based imitation shrimp. Wild Type is a startup developing lab-grown salmon. Additionally, French startup Odontella, which produces algae-based salmon, has launched its first products: a vegan smoked salmon from the Odontella aurita microalgae, was launched in April 2018 and in mid-2019, the company announced that its next product would be a microalgae-based steak substitute named Tona.
While still in the early stages of R&D, fish-free seafood products are further expanding the possibilities of an animal-free future. As with animal-free meat, fishless seafood could radically simplify and clean up the associated production value chains.
Animal-Free Dairy & Eggs
Oat milk flew off the shelves in the early days of the pandemic. But the plant milk craze began long before 2020, as consumers increasingly lean towards plant-based diets and protein alternatives.
Americans are consuming 40% less milk than they did in 1975, according to the USDA. Dairy alternatives have siphoned greater and greater market share from traditional dairy companies in recent years, squeezing traditional milk companies and even forcing some to begin production of alternative dairy products.
Several startups have capitalised on this trend, raising massive tranches of funding to address surging demand including Pea-protein milk producer Ripple Foods, AI-powered eggless mayo producer NotCo and cow free milk producer Perfect Day. In 2018, plant-based startup Just (formerly Hampton Creek) started off producing vegan mayo, but has since expanded to vegan eggs, which are sold in select Whole Foods, Fairway, and Walmart locations. In February, it also announced a partnership with food provider Sodexo to serve its vegan egg product on campuses and corporate sites. As of June 2020, the company says it has sold the equivalent of 40M chicken eggs.
Protein innovations: VC’s are betting heavily on various avenues to a meatless future
Beyond meat and dairy substitutes, some startups are developing sustainable food solutions by leveraging alternative protein sources such as algae or insects.
Algae Farms Gain Traction For Their Sustainability
Algae serves as a source of sustainable, nutritious protein that grows rapidly, which has helped it garner some attention in recent years. Algae farms also avoid the problem of immense land and water usage that most farms face when growing traditional crops or raising livestock. While a relatively niche market, companies like Algama Foods or Odontella are capitalizing on algae to make various food and beverage products, such as egg-free mayonnaise or salmon.
Source: Algama Foods
Insect Protein Goes Mainstream
While the idea of eating insects is taboo in some countries, bugs and insects are nonetheless growing as a nutritious, environmentally-friendly protein source. 2bln people around the world eat insects, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and more than 1,000 species of insects and bugs are eaten in 80% of nations around the world.
To make insect consumption more palatable, startups are using insects as alternative ingredients, e.g. making flour from crickets, mealworms, and other insects, which can be raised at scale, or using them to produce snacks, protein bars, and even insect-enriched pasta.
Some notable startups in the space include Hargol, which makes protein bars out of locusts, and Entomo Farms, which raises insects for human consumption. Israel-based Flying Spark uses fruit fly larvae to produce protein powders, while Exo produces cricket-based protein bars.
However cultural conventions and norms are hard to overcome: Chapul, an early player in the protein bar space, exited in the summer of 2019, citing difficulties convincing Western consumers to purchase cricket-based products. The company is pursuing the insect farming business for agricultural use instead. Cricket-raising results in 100x lower greenhouse gas emissions than beef cow production, and crickets also have higher proportions of protein than beef or chicken. And because crickets require proportionally less feed than livestock animals, production is more efficient.
US startup All Things Bugs, is also seeking to develop a finely-milled cricket powder that can be supplemented as a base ingredient in recipes. San Francisco-based Bitty Foods, has a line of snack products that are made with insect powders. The company’s cricket chips use crickets exclusively from US farms specializing in insects for consumption. The hope is that Insect-based protein brands could eventually displace meat-based snacks by offering healthier and more sustainable options.
Methane-based protein sees early funding
Biotech companies are even exploring methods for engineering meat-like products from methane. While companies producing biotech foods are already creating methane-based animal feed, startups are now expressing interest in engineering methane-based protein fit for human consumption.
California-based Calysta last raised $45M in 2019, bringing its total disclosed funding to $138M. The startup manufactures its alternative protein product, which can replace traditional animal feed, by fermenting natural gas. It formed a joint venture with the China-based feed additive manufacturer Bluestar Adisseo in February 2020. India-based String Bio, another startup in the space, has raised funding from Future Food Asia, Ankur Capital, and others to commercialize its technology, which leverages methane to develop alternative proteins for animal feed.
While protein products developed by these companies are not currently fit for human consumption, methane-based proteins could help reduce the environmental impact of meat production, and eventually further fuel the meatless revolution by creating another food source.
Challenges of Alternatives to Meat
Powell admits that if any of the plant-based meat companies had “some kind of accident” or problem with their recipe that results in a “massive recall,” that could make customers afraid of eating these alternatives.
“This is a big ‘if’ … but if they were to have a big recall of product, then that might dent consumer confidence,” he said. “At some point, you’re going to get these events. That’s going to set the industry back a bit.”
Meanwhile Nick Fereday from Rabobank believes it is unlikely that plant-based meat will ever take over for its conventional counterpart. There aren’t any examples of that happening in the food business, he said. He said the sweetener market is a good example. There are many alternative sweeteners on the market — both artificial and natural. And they’re still just a small portion of the market, which is still dominated by sugar. There are some sweeteners that dominate single segments of food and beverage, like high fructose corn syrup in beverages, but sugar is still king.
What may slow down the growth is their relatively higher price in an economy where many people are losing their jobs due to the pandemic. Although companies say price parity is one of their goals, and Beyond Meat and Before the Butcher have edged close to price parity with meat in their new budget ranges, other branded competitors have a way to go.
Regulation is also starting to play a bigger role, as regulators explore cellular agriculture as a viable food source in the future and individual US states, particularly in meat-producing regions, respond to the economic forces represented by meatless trends. In March 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, DC released a report on the future of biotechnology developments and regulation, while the White House launched a review of how US agencies regulate agricultural biotechnology.
Legislation seeking to prevent plant-based meat products from being labeled as “meat” or “beef” is now being developed in around half the states in the US, with successful bills passing in several prolific meat-producing states. In March 2019, the FDA and USDA announced a framework to regulate cell-based meat, outlining a transparent path to market for cell-based meat companies. As of now, artificial meat regulation is still in the early stages. Regulatory responsibility in an animal-free ecosystem could extend across multiple bodies, as biotechnology for food overlaps with many regulatory systems. Alternatively, a single regulatory agency could be created in the future to deal with the unique challenges of artificial meat regulation.
While plant-based products and other protein sources are taking off, lab-grown meat, in particular, faces a few other obstacles.
First, fake meat often sounds icky. Many consumers face a psychological barrier towards eating lab-grown foods and may prefer the familiar taste of traditional meat products. While groups like Shojinmeat Project are looking to acclimate future consumers to cultured meat, this socialization will need to happen on a global scale.
Second, high-tech meat is expensive. Cost remains a largely prohibitive factor, with high-tech meat alternatives priced as luxury goods. One of the main reasons that lab-grown meat is so expensive is due to foetal bovine serum, or FBS, being prevalent in these products. FBS, which is extracted from cow foetuses, is a core and costly ingredient in lab-grown meat. However, startups are looking to eliminate FBS from the meatless equation in order to cut costs. Just has reported that it has developed a method to grow cell-cultured chicken without FBS, while Memphis Meats is validating methods to produce its meats without the ingredient.
Third, the question remains: can clean meat scale? Though many startups in the space claim that their products will revolutionize meat consumption, the question remains whether clean meat will provide a scalable method to feed the future - or whether it’s simply a new wave of molecular gastronomy. The aforementioned cost considerations are crucial in scaling these products for mainstream consumption.
Furthermore, will meatless products really be better for the environment? Despite claims that less meat consumption will reduce environmental impact, lab-based technologies come with their own high costs for electricity, heating, and other resources. The automation of meat production could have far-reaching job implications for the agriculture industry. The meat sector is the largest employer within US agriculture, and mainstream meatless consumption could create economic challenges that eliminate jobs across the meat production value chain. Meat producers, lobbyists, and other bodies have a great deal at risk when considering the effects of automation across the meat industry.
Where the meatless revolution is headed next
The race is on to reduce price points and increase scale. In the next few years, we can likely expect to see the cost of lab-grown meat decrease considerably. From there, it’s just a matter of which companies will get their products to market first and best position their products as worth the price. Continued advances in genetic engineering and plant-based innovation will enhance the taste, flavour, and healthiness of meatless products to incentivize consumption. These technologies will also continue to expand across largely untouched meat and seafood categories (e.g. pork, duck, and eel). We could see direct competitors to meat incumbent brands across virtually all frozen and prepared food categories.
Nine trends that are ensuring that plant-based foods will be the food of the future.
- Ingredient breakthroughs
When companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods say that their plant-based products taste like real meat, they’re not exaggerating. After years of experimentation, brands have developed convincing meat replacements with plant ingredients like soybean roots and pea protein. Impossible Foods gets its burger to “bleed” by adding an iron-containing molecule called haemoglobin, and the Beyond Burger relies on beets to create a similar outcome.
- Major investments
The most encouraging sign that plant-based meats are here to stay is how major meat producers are investing in plant-based alternatives. Multinational giants like Tyson, which is the world’s second-largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork, have invested in plant-based meat companies. And even consumer goods giants like Unilever are making bets. The conglomerate recently bought the plant-based meats company The Vegetarian Butcher. These investments have helped plant-based meat companies significantly reduce their overhead costs and expand their production. In addition, there are hundreds of different startups who are offering plant based dairy, eggs, and meats, some are really serious, raising capital and expanding their production and earning millions of dollars every year.
- Mainstream recognition
Just a few years ago it would have seemed preposterous for fast food chains to sell plant-based meats. But Big-name endorsements from big restaurant chains like Burger King, Starbucks and Taco Bell help to lend plant-based meats credibility. If Burger King is willing to let an Impossible Burger share the iconic “Whopper” title, then they must be good.
- Markets of scale
The vast majority of crops in the US go toward feeding animals that are then slaughtered for food. The same pattern plays out around the world, especially as emerging economies embrace Western diets that are high in meat. When we divert so much of our crops into animal feed, we drive up the price of food for everyone, especially people around the world who can afford food the least.
- Product Placement
While it might seem trivial, product placement has a big impact on sales. When supermarkets began carrying plant-based milks in the dairy section, for example, sales skyrocketed. As supermarkets begin to place plant-based meats in the general meat section, sales are expected to similarly increase.
- Consumer preference
The majority of people who eat plant-based meats are not vegans or vegetarians. Instead, they’re omnivores who want diversity in their diet. Most people really do want to reduce their meat consumption a little bit and replace it with more plants, and they want to do that with something that’s delicious and affordable and easy to cook. This seems to cut across age, location, income and education levels. Almost two-thirds of people in the US are reducing at least one type of meat.
The vast majority of people buy plant-based meats for health reasons. In recent years, a growing body of research has linked the consumption of red meat to problems such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Processed meat, in particular, has been found to be dangerous to human health. By incorporating plant-based meats into their diet, ordinary people are able to cut down on their weekly meat consumption, improving their overall health in the process.
The meat industry is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the world, according to the United Nations. On a calorie-to-calorie basis, beef contributes 17.7 times as much GHG into the atmosphere as tofu, 50 times as much GHG as beans, and nearly 180 times as much GHG as nuts. Meat production also leads to deforestation, land degradation, and water contamination, the UN adds. Shifting land away from meat production would also allow large swaths of the planet to recover from resource extraction. Currently, livestock require 80% of the world’s agricultural space. Dedicating some of this land to plant-based foods would reduce the amount of crop land required to feed the planet and also allow farmers to grow crops that regenerate landscapes.
- World hunger
As the plant-based meat industry grows, it could help the world avoid long-term food insecurity. Globally, 815 million people are undernourished and an additional 2 billion people are expected to join these ranks by 2050, according to the UN. As climate change diminishes agricultural output around the world, the UN encourages countries to make their food production systems more sustainable by growing more nutritious crops instead of investing in meat production.
As you can see, there are very good reasons to believe the powerful trend towards eating meat free is here to stay. However, you may also notice that most of the investable exposure to the trend is in the hard to reach unlisted startup space. This will change over time and we at Pynk will be monitoring and telling you about any attractive companies in this space which list on the equity markets. Meanwhile, next time I will brief you on a listed company, Agronomics, which I believe gives us as listed equity investors an attractive and diversified exposure to early stage startups exposed to these high growth trends.
Disclaimer: this information does not constitute any form of advice or recommendation by Pynk One Ltd. and is not intended to be relied upon by users in making (or refraining from making) any investment decisions. Appropriate independent advice should be obtained before making any such decision.