Highlights from New Harvest 2016: Experience Cellular Agriculture

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend New Harvest 2016: Experience Cellular Agriculture. Below are some of the things I found most interesting at the event.

Reasons for optimism regarding the development of cellular agriculture

Despite almost no advertising, New Harvest quickly sold out 200 tickets for the event, and though they were able to increase the number of available tickets to 300, they had to turn many people away. The conference featured a number of panels interspersed with networking opportunities and a prototype room where one could talk to researchers and companies.

After attending New Harvest’s October 2015 conference in Maastricht, I wrote, “My primary impression is that the field [of cultured meat] has a great amount of potential yet is nascent and very fragile.” I had a lot of worry that progress on cultured meat could stall out if any of the very few key players had to leave their work (namely, Drs. Mark Post and Uma Valeti and the scientists at Modern Meadow) and if New Harvest and others couldn’t help grow the community. Subsequently, news has come forth about two labs in the US that will conduct research into cultured meat, the first hosted by Dr. David Kaplan at Tufts — which is accepting MSc and PhD students funded by New Harvest — and the second hosted by Dr. Paul Mozdziak of NC State University, also receiving funding from New Harvest. Additionally, the University of Bath, where Dr. Marianne Ellis works, is now seeking applicants for a PhD to specifically work on cellular agriculture, again funded by New Harvest.

At this latest event, I also learned that it is highly likely that a very well funded plant-based food startup will move into the cultured meat development soon. I also met many individuals with relevant biomedical and biochemical backgrounds who are excited to get involved with companies and research.

The bottom line is that while cellular agriculture is still developing there’s a lot of reason for optimism given recent developments and increases in interest.

The biggest barriers to cultured meat being on your table are in scaling

According to an expert panel featuring Drs. Marianne Ellis, Mark Post, and Paul Mozdziak, figuring out the right growth media and determining how to go from 5L to 25,000L size bioreactors are the biggest barriers to scaling. Dr. Ellis said that growth media is the most expensive part of the production process and getting the ratio of C, N, H, and O wrong by 0.5 of a carbon atom in the growth mix can mean a substantially increased cost of production. Dr. Post said the biggest bioreactor used to date for culturing meat is 5L, and we’ll need to get to 25,000L to drive the cost down. Interestingly, Dr. Mozdziak said that NCSU has a bioreactor on campus that could potentially be used for this sort of research (i.e., it doesn’t necessarily have to happen in private biotech companies).

Dr. Mozdziak said that the NIH, USDA, and NSF are probably not going to be great funding sources for this sort of work because they are primarily interested in hypothesis driven research as opposed to technology development.

Dr. Post said he expects that cultured meat will develop on its own but that the work done by New Harvest may speed its development.

New Harvest made some exciting announcements

In addition to hosting this event, New Harvest made some fantastic announcements.

First, they are opening a research lab in Leiden, The Netherlands to pursue open and IP-free research on foundational aspects of cultured meat. Research Strategist Daan Luining, who previously worked in Mark Post’s lab, will run the lab.

Second, New Harvest is funding the first PhD student in cellular agriculture in the US at Tufts University starting this fall.

Third, New Harvest CEO Isha Datar will be a Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation. In addition to a substantial grant, the Shuttleworth Foundation will provide help to New Harvest in creating free and open research.

New Harvest continues to impress me with the quality and quantity of their work, which they execute on a relatively modest budget. I’m especially impressed by their dedication to promoting open research into foundational issues in cultured meat development so that this work can be used by anyone with an interest.

The Good Food Institute is looking good

The Good Food Institute has impressed me a lot with the quality of their hires, their ability to develop connections with companies, and especially their ability to get positive media attention for plant-based and cultured meat, dairy, and egg companies.

Previously, I was concerned that their promotion of private cultured meat ventures would encourage those individuals who would otherwise have done public research to work at private companies potentially locking up their ideas in unusable patents for decades if the companies failed and their intellectual property wasn’t put to further use. I’m less worried about this now for two reasons. First, the increasing number of qualified people interested in working in cellular agriculture (in part due to GFI’s efforts!) leads me to believe that it’s a very good idea to promote opportunities in both the public and private sectors, and, second, I was persuaded that if we want to get cellular agriculture products to market any time soon, the patent system and associated risks are things we simply have to accept.

While at the event, I heard from individuals at companies that have received assistance from GFI that GFI has been quite helpful in introducing them to potential employees and with marketing.

GFI is still young, but they’ve built out a very nice team since starting this year, and they seem extremely well positioned to help move animal product alternatives forward.

Miscellaneous learnings

  • Although they previously were working on steak chips, Modern Meadow CEO Andras Forgacs indicated that Modern Meadow will focus on the development of cultured leather. Their goal as I understand it is to provide superior (in terms of performance and quality — e.g., no scars), branded, and cultured raw hides to tanneries. This way they can take advantage of the pre-existing infrastructure and market for creating and selling leather goods. A big part of the reason they moved their office to New York several years ago was to be closer to the fashion industry, which will ultimately make use of their cultured leather. Forgacs said that there will be products on the market that incorporate Modern Meadow leather within two to three years.
  • Ripple’s dairy-free milk made from peas is set to appear in Target stores nationwide in less than a week!
  • Environmentalism, food availability, and animal rights are the main motivations I’ve heard for people’s interest in cellular agriculture. Outside of NASA’s involvement, I’d not heard of its potential to facilitate planetary exploration or colonization as a reason for interest until Dr. Mozdziak mentioned it at the conference.

Staying up with the latest in cellular agriculture

The above are only highlights. Everyone interested in staying up with the latest in cellular agriculture should follow New Harvest and The Good Food Institute on Facebook (and/or Instagram), should join the New Harvest Community on Facebook, and should subscribe to their email newsletters (NH, GFI).

Unfortunately, I was unable to connect at the conference with representatives of the SuperMeat project, an effort in Israel to produce cultured chicken. I’m not very sure of the maturity of the project, but it’s also something worth watching.