Andreessen Horowitz backs SCiFi Foods as it develops cell-cultivated, plant-based burger

SCiFi Foods, formerly Artemys Foods, is combining plant-based and cultivated meat technology to create its first burger product, and its mission just got a big venture capital boost.

The Bay Area–based food tech startup announced Wednesday a $22 million Series A round led by a16z. This brings the company’s total funding to $29 million since its inception in 2019 by co-founders Joshua March, CEO, and Kasia Gora, CTO. Prior to founding SCiFi, March co-founded and led Conversocial and iPlatform while Gora had pioneered a high-throughput approach to engineering cells while at Zymergen.

Creating food using plant-based proteins and cultivated meat, which is genuine animal meat made by cultivating animal cells, is really cooking right now. Alternative protein companies brought in $911 million in the first quarter of 2022, with cultivated meat companies accounting for $146 million of that, according to the Good Food Institute.

Other cultivated meat companies recently bit into some new funding. For example, Unicorn Bio took in $3.2 million for hardware to scale the cell-cultivation process, while UPSIDE Foods grabbed $400 million to get its chicken product ready for market. We also saw Mooji Meats and Micro Meat enter this space.

March believes that cultivated meat was going to be a winner in the food tech sector because of it being closer to the real taste and texture than plant-based options like those pioneered by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. However, back when he and Gora were initially looking at it, they realized that there would be some major cost challenges preventing cultivated meat from getting to price parity with traditional meat. So they set out to solve that problem.

Scale is a constant question mark when it comes to cultivated technology, and companies in the sector recognize that they would have to replace something like 1% of beef to make an impact.

In SCiFi’s case, March explained to me that the company is solving for that by using both of the technologies — plant-based and real cultivated beef cells — in its approach, which includes bioengineering and technologies, like CRISPR, to grow meat from animal cells at a large scale and more affordably. Using CRISPR, the company can make tiny changes to the cells so they shift their behavior to growing at a large scale.

“Taking that approach means we can use our cultivated cells to bring in fat from the proteins that create the flavorings, but we don’t need to worry about tissue engineering, 3D printing or scaffolding,” March added. “There’s a lot of exciting research on all of these novel technologies, but no one really knows how to scale them up yet. The second big part that is quite unique to us is that we’re really taking a very focused cell line engineering approach, which is at the core of what we’re doing and the primary reason why Andreessen invested in us.”

SCiFi’s first product will be a burger that is  “a really good product already and it tastes amazing,” according to March. The company is now focused on hitting some key milestones so that it can be ready to take the product through regulatory approval and start building a pilot biomanufacturing and fermentation plant by the end of the year. If all of that pans out, he expects to be selling the burger “in a couple of years’ time.”

The company raised a small seed in 2020, and since then has been working on the engineering of the cell line to take down the cost curve. March couldn’t go into specifics about exact numbers, but did say “we have made a pretty drastic reduction in the cost of producing ourselves at scale.”

With a platform and intellectual property in a good spot, March felt it was a good time to go after a Series A to invest further in R&D, hiring additional employees and marketing. The company recently moved into a 16,000-square-foot R&D facility near the East Bay.

The process to get the burger through the regulatory process will take a couple of years, March said. That includes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the core process and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will approve the facility and final labeling of the product.

“We’re going to be making many products over time, so we wanted an investor who believed in that mission, wanted to come and join us and support us for the long term,” he added. “Andreessen Horowitz really fit into that. One of the relatively unique things they have is a lot of experience in biology and synthetic biology, and also on building world changing consumer brands. It’s pretty exciting to be partnering with them.”

Vijay Pande, general partner at Andreessen and who led the investment, added via email that, “Many people, including Joshua and me, love a good burger, but want to be able to enjoy meat without contributing to climate change and related environmental and social consequences. The high-throughput mammalian cell line engineering platform SCiFi Foods has developed is enabling the development of game-changing products that, by combining plant-based and cultivated meat, overcome the unsustainable costs associated with 100% cultivated meat and the mediocre taste of most plant-based ‘meat.’ I believe SCiFi Foods is well positioned to become one of the defining brands of this generation while reducing the impact of conventional meat production on our planet.”

While it is going to be a while until we see SCiFi’s burger, the company continues to do research and speak with restaurants and grocery stores. March intends to get the product in restaurants first and will eventually do food service and some direct-to-consumer.

In addition to the investment, the company also announced that Myra Pasek, general counsel at agtech startup Iron Ox, is joining its board. Pasek previously held executive roles at Impossible Foods and Tesla.