Shaking up the menu: We’re cultivating the world’s most popular meat to make pork tastier, cleaner, and closer to home. — Part 1
We’re Uncommon, the artist collection formerly known as Higher Steaks. I founded this company a few years ago to address some of the biggest health issues the world is facing by offering meat-eaters around the world cultured proteins that are better, not alternative. Our mission hasn’t changed and we still report for duty in Cambridge, UK, but our name isn’t the only thing about us that has evolved.
Namely, our team has blossomed from a small and mighty crew struggling to fit in a cramped lab space into an extended cast of 50 scientists, engineers, and operators. We are united by a searing motivation to upgrade our food system so the meat we eat is not only flavourful, nutritious, but also impervious to disease, disruption and other shocks that routinely break today’s strained supply chains. If we sound like your kind of people, read on.
Our technology has progressed. Our company is built on a foundation of Nobel Prize-winning science: induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). iPSCs allow us to turn any animal cell sampled just once through a non-invasive biopsy back into its pluripotent state. That is to say, a “starter” state from which point the cells can multiply into any cell type. We’re not the first people to try culturing meat with iPSCs. What makes our approach different is that our team has pioneered an RNA-powered strategy to cultivate meat with zero genetic engineering or pricey growth media. There is a lot of hype in our industry, but I feel confident that our team’s work on RNA is a masterstroke.
Culturing meat is not exactly straightforward. We and many of our fellow-travelers are working to grow steaks, chops, and patties without animals. We have to improve upon thousands of years of directed evolution and human cultivation to produce food in a bioreactor that is straight up better than the version with snouts and hooves. For others working with iPSC or other pluripotent stem cells, the two primary approaches have been to:
- Use growth factors and small molecules to tell the “starter” cells to transform themselves. This takes weeks (typically 4–6 weeks to see signs of mature muscle). Furthermore these small molecules are often toxic and would add a huge layer of complexity because they need to be safely removed from the product.
- Genetically editing or modifying those “starter” cells: this approach can lead to great results but is subject to lengthy, undefined regulatory processes and in most markets is straight out banned. Some approaches also require broad-spectrum antibiotics such as doxycycline which went against our mission to remove antibiotics completely. Genetically modified animal protein also poses a serious consumer acceptance risk. In fact that would possibly exclude us from 93% of the pork market and we don’t think it’s necessary to fight that battle.
The traditional methods, which do not utilise pluripotent cells or gene editing, face challenges in terms of scalability or quality.
Faced with these options, we had no option but to innovate if we were going to bring to market a product that meets people’s expectations on price and taste. That brings me back to our team’s masterstroke. Back in 2019, we started digging into messenger RNA or mRNA (before most knew about it!). mRNA is a magical part of nature! In the field of biomimicry, if made and delivered correctly, it will “teach” a cell to do something without needing to modify the genome, for example teaching the cells to turn into fat or muscle.
The entire field of RNA is still fairly new, but it’s no exaggeration that in 2019 when we began designing applications for cultivated meat we were etching on a blank slate. We had no choice but to take a first-principles approach. It didn’t make life easy, but it led to unique discoveries with broad applications in the broader field of biotechnology.
On top of a pile of novel science and a team of kickass scientists, engineers, and foodies, we’ve also raised $37M from some of the world’s leading climate and technology investors to start churning out bacon, pork belly, and an expanding menu of world-changing mass-market products. We’re honoured to work with Balderton, Lowercarbon Capital, RedAlpine, Sam Altman (Open AI founder) and Max Altman (through Apollo Projects), Planthesis (Miray Zaki and Sebastiano Castiglioni) as well as other incredible investors, advisors and the UK government through a $1.2M Innovate UK grant.
We have plenty of reasons to believe that the use of RNA technology is the right way to deliver on what consumers want and scale cultivated meat production without the hassle, cost, and risk of the options that exist today. If we’re right about this then our Uncommon method, will be the best way to make cultivated meat to feed the planet.
If you, like our Uncommoners, enjoy understanding the rationale behind things, this is where we delve into why our science is exceptional! (or jump to the part where you come in right at the end)
A winning strategy
If we’re right about the use of RNA, then we’re really f***ing right!
- The possibilities of what we can do are endless:
It’s not just mRNA, we’re exploring the whole gamut of potential with RNA technology such as self-amplifying RNA (saRNA). We’re applying it throughout the process: from how we guide our cells to become pluripotent, to improving the flavour of our muscle. This gives us a competitive advantage throughout the entire process!
2. We believe our approach will be the fastest to achieve price parity with conventional meat.
By using RNA, we can move down the cost curve faster than our competition and without gene editing thanks to:
a. Our ability to target muscle and fat regulators directly, reducing the quantity of raw materials we need.
b. Our ground breaking technology to deliver RNA molecules at hundreds of thousandths of the cost of traditional delivery methods, further reducing the quantity of raw materials needed.
c. We will also ride the lowering cost curve of RNAs as the therapeutics industry looks to supply larger quantities at more affordable prices.
As a result, we have successfully reduced our costs by multiple orders of magnitude over the last three years.
3. Our approach allows us to scale faster and be widely available all around the globe:
a. Our production methods mimic physiological systems and are based on natural cell signalling pathways. They are also totally free from gene editing, allowing us to operate anywhere in the world with low regulatory burdens.
b. The cells we use have nearly unlimited expansion capacity. This makes manufacturing easier. Our cell line can maintain the same until we decide to change it: this negates the need for new regulatory approval during the manufacturing process.
c. Our forward programming process takes us from pluripotent stem cells to mature muscle markers and multi-nucleation in 3 days, about 10–17X faster than traditional methods and faster than we’ve seen even with gene editing.
d. We utilise small quantities. Our RNA requirements are already readily available at the necessary scale, unlike growth factors. As a result, we depend less on innovations in the supply chain.
4. Our approach is safe:
Unlike some of our competitors, we don’t use antibiotic activation (or other antibiotics), toxic small molecules or animal products. Components we use are either already in the food supply chain or inherently temporary meaning it isn’t active in the final product.
5. Our approach can deliver on taste, nutrition and texture:
Our approach allows us to create any cell type (muscle, fat but also connective tissue, liver and others) and has significantly more variability compared to other non genetic engineering approaches. We’re just getting started when it comes to working on targets that can improve taste and texture even further.
There are also two other key components that really help us to make the company successful:
1. Our approach is adaptable:
a. Given that the main muscle regulators are similar across species, and we have the capacity to directly target those, we can easily adapt from species to species. Meaning Uncommon pork is just the beginning!
b. One of our key advantages lies in our nucleic acid delivery method, a creative solution that is a fit for our industry vs therapeutics. Should regulations one day ease to allow for more freedom around gene editing, and consumer acceptance grows; there is incredible potential to use our technology, including our delivery method, in integrative ways that will expand our competitive advantage.
2. Our approach is defensible:
There is a huge amount of white space given the novelty of our approach. Some of the areas we work on are so new that we patented not just in cultivated meat, but in therapeutics as well. We’ve gone broad with our 4 filed patents and reinforced them with closely held trade secrets!
As we continue to scale, we need your help. We have: a team of creative tastemakers, cutting edge innovation, and outstanding investors. But we need more. To get mass adoption and to revolutionalise the food chain, we need more Uncommon talent, advisors, investors and partners. If our mission resonates with you, and the chance to work at the cutting edge of innovation and science is your calling, get in touch!
Part 2 — A Touch of Magic: where science meets creativity
Coming soon! Stay tuned!