Cell-based agriculture creates products from cell cultures as opposed to whole plants or animals. The process sees a sample of cells taken from a live animal and put into a bioreactor. Inside the tank, the cells are fed a growth medium - a nutrient-rich soup - that enables them to grow and divide.
In this way, trillions of cells can be produced from a small sample. Once enough cells are produced, they are turned into developed muscle and fat cells through a process called 'differentiation'. Standard food processing technologies are then used to form the final product – meat.
Interest in the sector has sky-rocketed, not least due to the mounting realisation that the current system of animal agriculture cannot feed the growing world population sustainably. However, the nascent industry faces some significant hurdles as it works to move from the lab to the supermarket.
Not least among these is the difficulty of producing cultured meat at a scale necessary to achieve price parity with traditional meat.
“Some of the major hurdles faced by the cultured meat industry are: scalability, cost of production and expanding the cells in serum-free media,” Leo Groenewegen, co-founder and CEO of CellulARevolution, told FoodNavigator.
“According to our estimates we are seeing especially great challenges in scalability. We have done some calculations and if cultured meat is really taking off we would need to produce approximately 10^20 cells per annum. This equal either all the stars in the observative universe or all the grains of sand we have on planet earth!”
CellulaREvolution has developed two products in answer to these issues.
First, a synthetic peptide coating that allows for cell culturing in serum-free conditions. "The major benefits of this coating are the possibility to eliminate expensive, controversial and unstable animal-derived serum from the culturing process, leading to a more stable and predictable culturing outcome and cost reductions," according to the company.
The second product is a new approach to how to culture cells that could represent something of a step-change in the cultured meat industry's ability to produce at scale.
Cutting costs with 'continuous culturing'
CellulaREvolution, a spin-off from Newcastle University founded by Groenewegen alongside Martina Miotto and Che Connon, has developed a process based on the novel concept of a continuous cell culturing system. This, the company says, delivers a higher yield, smaller footprint and lower input requirements than traditional batch technologies.
Groenewegen explained: “Our technology, as opposed to current technologies, allows for a move from a batch cell culturing system to a continuous one. Continuous bioreactors - as opposed to batch production - have cells growing, proliferating and detaching/harvesting continuously resulting in a much higher yield over time whilst requiring less space and fewer media inputs.”
Preliminary simulations suggest that over a 30-day period CellulARevolution’s approach can produce twice the number of cells in a six times smaller bioreactor compared to a batch system, although there is some variation between type of batch system, cells used and other variables.
The continuous system also reduces the amount of growth medium – one of the biggest input expenses currently. “Batch bioreactors need to feed all the cells all of the time, continuous bioreactors only needs to feed a few cells at any one time, thus lower media volumes are required at any single point in time,” the food tech founder explained.
This, Groenewegen continued, leads to ‘lower production costs per cell’, ultimately cutting the cost to produce cultured meat.
‘Ground-breaking solution’ a ‘real gamechanger’ for cultured meat
CellulaREvoluton has raised £1m from a set of strategic investors including CPT Capital, Stephan Schmidt, Orange Light Ventures, and funds managed by Northstar Ventures, the North East Innovation Fund supported by the European Regional Development Fund and the newly launched Northern Accelerator Seed Investment Fund (NASIF).
Alex Buchan, Investment Director at Northstar Ventures, stressed that he is excited by the potential on offer from this ‘ground-breaking, scalable solution’.
“They are developing a technology which could be fundamental to the economics of production, and a real game changer," he said.
Most notable is the commitment made by CPT Capital, an expert investor in the alternative protein space. CPT Capital were early investors cultivated meat producers including Memphis Meats, Aleph Farms and Blue Nalu.
“CPT Capital are genuinely excited to be able to support CellulaREvolution in this financing round. The work that they are doing is of critical importance in establishing cultivated meat as a realistic, viable and attractive alternative to factory farming in meeting the world’s growing demand for food,” the investment vehicle said in a statement.
To Groenewegen, the successful investment round was a vote of confidence in CellulaREvolution’s technology. “The investment is a clear sign that investors both understand and believe the technological advantage our future products will have over others in this rapidly expanding market. We are now ready and equipped to accelerate the development of our products and make a true innovative impact on the way cells are grown.”
Expansion plans: Moving from prototype to MVP
The investment will allow CellulaREvolution to accelerate its business journey, including further product development and commercialisation efforts.
“We as a company are able to put more resources towards the development of our products e.g. it allows for us to move from our current prototype to actual MVP faster,” Groenewegen told us.
The company plans to supply cultured meat companies with its bioreactors and continuous growth chambers. The bioreactors are a capital investment for most companies and Groenewegen expects future commercial arrangements will have two components: direct purchase and maintenance & service agreements. CellulaREvolution is also exploring other avenues, such as lease agreements.
The start-up hopes that it won’t be long until it strikes its first sale. “Currently we have several ongoing collaborations with cultured meat companies where we are jointly testing their specific cell lines/types with our technology. Positive results have been shown thus far and we are keen to move some of these collaborations to a sale,” Groenewegen noted.
In addition to offering technology for cellular agriculture, CellulaREvolution has identified potential applications within the medical and pharmaceutical industries, especially when looking at the production of cell-based therapies, blood products or viral vectors.