In what could be a starting gun for the commercialization of the cell-based meat business, upstart cultivated meat company Higher Steaks said it has managed to produce samples of its first products — bacon strips and pork belly made in a lab from cellular material.
With the revelation, Higher Steaks, a bootstrapped Cambridge, U.K.-based company, leapfrogs into a competitive position with a number of far larger companies that have raised far more capital.
“There’s still a lot of work until it’s commercial,” said Higher Steaks chief executive Benjamina Bollag, “but the revelation of a pork belly product that’s made from 50% cultivated cells and a bacon product which contains 70% meat grown from a cell material in a laboratory is something of a milestone for the industry.”
The remaining ingredients in Higher Steaks bacon and pork belly are a mixture of plant base, proteins, fats and starches to bind the cellular material together. To achieve this first step on its road to commercialization, Higher Steaks tapped the expertise of an undisclosed chef to formulate the meat into an approximation of the pork belly and bacon.
At this stage, the pilot was more to show what Higher Steaks can do rather than what the company will do, said Bollag.
“In the future it will be scaffolding,” said Bollag. “It’s more showing what our meat can do and what we’re working on. In the future it will be with scaffolding.”
A number of companies, including Tantti Laboratories, Matrix Meats and Prellis Biologics, make the kind of biomaterial nano-scale scaffolding that could be used as a frame on which to grow structures equivalent to the fibrous textures of muscle.
The commercial viability of products from companies like Higher Steaks, Memphis Meats, Aleph Farms, Meatable, Integriculture, Mosa Meat and Supermeat depends on more than just companies like Tantti and Matrix, but also on the ability of Thermo Fisher, Future Fields and Merck to bring down the cost of the cell cultures that are required to grow the animal cells.
In all, some 30 cell-based meat startups have launched globally since 2014, and they’re all looking for a slice of the $1.4 trillion meat market.
Meanwhile, demand for pork continues to rise even as supplies have been decimated by an outbreak of African Swine Fever that could have killed as much as 40% of China’s population of pigs in 2019.
“Our mission is to provide meat that is healthy and sustainable without the consumer making any sacrifices on taste,” said Bollag in a statement. “The production of the first ever cultivated bacon and pork belly is proof that new techniques can help meet overwhelming demand for pork products globally.”
Given the highly capitalized competitors that Higher Steaks faces off against, the company is looking for industry partners to help commercialize its technology.
To improve its competitive position, Higher Steaks recently hired Dr. James Clark, the former chief technology officer of PredictImmune.
“I was always quite intrigued by cultured meat production, a mix of both science and food production. In 2013 I watched the first cultured meat burger from Mark Post costing £250,000, cooked on the BBC,” said Clark. “I was approached about joining Higher Steaks earlier this year and was attracted to joining primarily by the science along with the ambition and energy of the Higher Steaks founder Benjamina Bollag. I believe Higher Steaks is a company with a technology to be disruptive in the cultured meat area and at my career stage I was looking for a challenge.”
Brought in to scale the cultivated meat process at Higher Steaks, Clark has led the development of biotech and pharma products at early-stage and publicly traded companies.
“The addition of Dr. James Clark to the team gives Higher Steaks a significant advantage,” said Dr. Ruth Helen Faram, head of R&D. “Cultivated pork belly and bacon have never been demonstrated before and Higher Steaks is the first to develop a prototype containing over 70% cultivated pork muscle, without the use of bovine serum.”
Consumers shouldn’t expect to see Higher Steaks’ pork belly on store shelves or in restaurants anytime soon, Bollag cautioned. “We’re still in the thousands of pounds per kilogram.”
The company does expect to have a larger tasting event later this year.