A world of animal-free animal products would be better for our carbon footprint and our rainforests, make us safe from drug-resistant bacteria and pink slime. Vegan meat is, improbably, a hot topic in Silicon Valley lately; Twitter’s co-founders recently made a large investment in a vegetable product that tastes impossibly close to real meat. While their investment whips chickeny goodness out of shredded plant proteins, a company called Modern Meadow is taking things a step wilder, culturing and then bioprinting ultralifelike meat and leather products directly from real animal cells. The company, which emerged from Singularity University’s incubator, today announced a six-figure seed investment from Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs, dedicated to supporting early stage science, putting lab-printed meat that much closer to your hungry mouth.
Chief scientist Gabor Forgacs (who appeared on Fast Company‘s 100 Most Creative People in Business list in 2010) founded a company called Organovo, a startup specializing in 3-D printed, bioengineered organs. As his son, Modern Meadow co-founder and CEO Andras Forgacs, explains, this new venture is, ahem, a natural outgrowth of that one. “The idea struck us that if we can make medical-grade tissues that are good enough for drug companies, good enough for patients, then certainly we can find other applications for tissue engineering.” Forgacs does seem to understand how terrifying that sounds, which is why his startup has been relatively press-shy until the announcement this morning, and also why they’re starting with wearable, not edible, products. Still, he argues that cell culturing for food is as old as, well, culture itself:
“Whether you’re brewing beer or making yogurt, you’re really doing cell culture,” he says. In this case, though, the process involves biopsying a living animal (a relatively harmless procedure), isolating the desired cells, growing large numbers of them, and preparing them into cell aggregates–spheres of tens of thousands of cells. These aggregates can then become the raw material for more industrial processes. In the case of complete organs, that process is something like 3-D printing. For calfskin–the product that Modern Meadow intends to turn out by the end of the year–it would resemble something more like regular printing or weaving. The end result will be a hairless, pre-tanned, soft, smooth, chemical- and waste-free material in any color or pattern imaginable–Komodo dragon skin purse, anyone?–ready for guilt-free accessorizing.