‘People used to look at me funny… you've no idea how different it is now’: Meatable’s Daan Luining on why he’s bullish on cultured meat

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/gorodenkoff
Image: Getty/gorodenkoff

Related tags: cultured meat, cell-based meat, cultivated meat, Clean meat, lab-grown, Meatable

The CTO tells FoodNavigator why the higher proliferation capacity of pluripotent stem cells is key to enabling large scale production and why he’s devising ‘exercise plans’ for cells.

The world's first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten at a London news conference in 2013. Led by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, scientists took stem cells from a cow and turned them into strips of muscle. These were combined to make a patty, which, agreed the food critics who ate it, did a pretty good job at replicating the real thing.

One of the brains behind the burger was Daan Luining, then a researcher at Maastricht University.

A lot has changed in the near decade since, he tells FoodNavigator. “I’ve seen interest in this sector explode into mainstream excitement,​” the enthusiastic Dutchman revealed. 

The industry has since grown to more than 60 companies across six continents, estimates the Good Food Institute (GFI), backed by over $450 million in investments, each aiming to produce cultivated meat products. Dozens more companies have formed to create technology solutions along the value chain.

Luining went on to co-found Meatable in 2018, where he is also the CTO, and which has since raised total funding of $60 million. The company makes cultured meat in mince form. Starting with a cell taken from a cow or pig, it replicates the natural process of fat and muscle growth to produce "real and guilt-free meat​".

The ambitious start-up plans to launch a cost competitive product in supermarkets in Singapore – the only country yet to permit the sale of cell-cultured meat products – by 2025 followed, regulatory hurdles aside, by the US and Europe.

“When I was first talking about this people looked at me funny. I had to be wary of the pitchforks sometimes,”​ he joked. “You've no idea how different it is now. Some people are still sceptical but once you start explaining to them how it works and why we're doing it there's an ‘aha moment’ and they say, ‘maybe I will try it’. It's always the same pattern.”

Meatable claims cell-based, or lab-grown, cultured or cultivated meat, offers a solution for those end consumers concerned about the environmental, health and ethical problems associated with industrial livestock production.

Luining is keen to avoid the doom-mongering though. Consumer choice, he stresses, will be central to its appeal. He envisages – much like in the blossoming plant milk category – a scenario where shoppers can chop and choose between a wide array of options, be it standard, plant-based or cultured meat.

Daan Luining, right, with Meatable Co-Founder and CEO Krijn de Nood, left. 

Scalability bottlenecks

There are, however, question marks amid the hype and uncertainties about how cultured meat would be produced at scale​. Meatable is confident it can achieve its goals mainly thanks to the type of cells it gets from cows and pigs. Putting it very simply, cultivated meat is made by getting cells from an animal and growing them into a final product in a bioreactor. Whilst in the bioreactor, the cells are fed a culture medium – "like a super-strength Gatorade"​ as Luining puts it – containing basic nutrients such as amino acids, glucose, vitamins, and inorganic salts, and supplemented with proteins and other growth factors. There also needs to be a scaffolding structure inside the bioreactor for the cells to form into the different parts of meat: skeletal muscle, fat, and connective tissues etc. The process typically takes 2-8 weeks, according to the GFI.

Cultivated meat players are typically taking 45 days to make a product at an efficiency rate of 20-30%, Luining says. Meatable boldly claims it can achieve 100% efficiency in muscle cells in less than two weeks. How? Up to now, the industry has tended to use muscle stem cells. These have their limits. A muscle stem cell can only ever proliferate to create muscle, for example, and a fat stem cell can only be fat.

Meatable uses pluripotent stem cells, which can proliferate indefinitely, then differentiate into multiple cell types such as muscle and fat. They also divide up to 2.5 times faster than non-pluripotent cells. “They don't run out of steam,”​ Luining stated. These facts therefore make pluripotent stem cells more favourable for large scale production.

So why hasn’t everyone been using them? “They are difficult to control,”​ he explained. Meatable, however, claims to have developed the knowledge and unique patented technology allowing it to better manage the cells and dictate their growth.

There are other benefits. Pluripotent cells don’t need to be fed the controversial growth media foetal bovine serum. FBS is obtained from the necks of baby cows in slaughterhouses. You can see the problem. Whilst most cultured meat companies have committed to use animal-free growth media, it’s significant that the first and only approved cultivated meat product in Singapore did use it, although its manufacturer Eat Just since committed to use entirely plant-based ingredients for future products. Luining believes, incidentally, there will not be a commercial product on the market that was made using FBS.

Pluripotent cells can also be obtained via less invasive methods. Muscle cells are typically sourced from a small piece of tissue taken from a live animal. Pluripotent cells can be gotten from a cheek swab or blood draw. Meatable gets its cells from animals' clipped umbilical cords after birth.

‘We don't want this to be a gimmick’

Regulation is obviously another bottleneck. Meatable is in "constant and open conversation"​ with regulatory bodies in the UK and Europe. It is also investing in education, with Luining touring universities to preach the gospel of cultured meat and headhunt potential new recruits.

“There are three things we need to do to accomplish,”​ he observed. “Scale, taste and cost. We need to hit all three of them.”​ He added: “We don't want to be niche. We don't want this to be a gimmick. That's why we have pluripotent cells and that's why we have unique technology and that's why we think we can achieve our goals.”

Meatable has devised as ‘exercise plans’ for cells as they feed and grow to replicate the load experienced by animals. Image: Getty/baona

‘The holy grail of this field…’

Meatable has a longer-term plan to create whole muscle cuts. These, after all, make up the largest chunk of standard meat sales. They are also universal, while mince products tend to follow geo-specific tastes: gyoza in Asia, sausage varieties across different parts of Europe, for example.

The company is exploring different scaffold materials in order make whole muscle tissue, Luining revealed. Again, pluripotent cells help. “Since we have the unique combination of the pluripotent cells with the breakthrough differation method in cell biology we can make the best muscle cells, faster. I think we're one of the only people who has a chance of making whole cuts because our process is so efficient.”

Achieving whole muscle cuts is the “holy grail of this field”​, he said. It’s also his current favourite project, he told us. The different muscle cuts of an animal are determined by the load that they experience over a lifetime in combination with fibres, connective tissues and fat cells. Luining has therefore devised what he describes as ‘exercise plans’ for the cells as they feed and grow. These involve, much like a body builder might use Electrical Muscle Stimulation to build muscle, applying them with electrical stimulation to replicate the load experienced by an animal in a real life. Does a ‘strong and fast’, or ‘or short and long’ stimulation better yield the fibre formation and protein content of a whole cut? Hopefully all will be revealed.

‘We want to be something people incorporate into everyday diets’

Whole cuts are obviously something being worked on by players in the plant-based meat alternatives sector. Which begs the question: is cultured meat best placed to disrupt the standard meat market, or meat alternatives?

All will have their place, he responded. “Cultivated meat, plant-based meat, even insects and algae: all need to become available to give people more choice. You need to give people alternatives, it's as simple as that and I want it to be something people incorporate into their everyday diet.

“I love meat. It tastes delicious. In normal amounts it's healthy. But I know the damage intensive meat production does to the planet so I would love to have alternative options. I just want more choice than I have right now.”

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