For years, a small group of scientists in the U.S. and Europe have quietly been working on in-vitro meat. This meat isn’t taken from living, breathing animals; it’s grown in labs from stem cells in an extremely expensive process that just last month resulted in the first public in-vitro burger taste test.
The ingestion of the $325,000 lab-grown burger, funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, signaled that the technology is still in the very early stages–testers thought it tasted bland, and in any case, it’s far too expensive to land on store shelves soon. Dr. Mark Post, one of the leading in-vitro meat researchers, believes it will be at least a decade before lab-grown meat can be commercialized.
Nonetheless, a group of six recent graduates from Singularity University’s graduate studies program–a 10 week program in Silicon Valley that asks participants to develop technologies that can impact 1 billion people in a decade–are entering the fray with a company that focuses on one specific (but vital) in-vitro meat challenge: developing better cell scaffolding, which is necessary to create 3-D meat.
The Lifestock team consists of a veterinarian, an industrial designer, the CEO of an investment firm, a biomedical engineer, a biotechnologist, and a business development guy–a motley crew, but one that has most of the chops to start an in-vitro meat company. Mike Klodnicki, the biotechnologist, began working on in-vitro meat technology before arriving at Singularity.
While at the graduate studies program, the team focused mainly on learning more about the in-vitro meat field–the challenges that need to be overcome, and the way people are responding to the technology. “Because in-vitro meat is having a bit of public discourse, there are a lot of issues around the product–we’ve had conversations with regulators, consumer groups, and special interest groups,” says Adam Little, the veterinarian on the team. “We got as far as we could in the technical vertical given the tight timeframes, lab constraints, and technical resources.”
Scaffolding is a key piece of the in-vitro meat production process. Once animal stem cells have multiplied, they’re attached to a spongey, nutrient-rich scaffold (ideally something that’s edible so it doesn’t need to be removed at the end). The scaffold is stretched periodically. Think of it kind of like an exercise machine for the cells, which ideally emerge from the process larger and protein-rich. Lifestock’s aim is to generate novel 3-D scaffolding designs that are efficient and produce cells that are “dense and robust,” according to Little.
The next steps are finding non-animal media to use for nutrients–the burger eaten at the public cook-off was made using nutrients from animal serum–and looking at how to work across cell lines (working with a cattle cell line, for example, is a different process than working with a poultry one).
At this stage, Lifestock doesn’t see itself as a competitor to other organizations that are already working on in-vitro meat, like Modern Meadow (which has its West Coast home just minutes away from Singularity University at the NASA Ames Research Center) and the Netherlands research group. “We don’t have to be the guys to knock down every single challenge,” says Little. “We want to position ourselves so that our work is compatible with work other groups are doing.”
Over the next four months, the Singularity group plans to secure all the resources needed for scaffold testing–everything from lab space and bioprinters to getting grants and seed investments. “At this stage, everyone is still onboard. But when you leave Singularity, your productivity as a team drops. We’re finding out how to move the process forward,” says Little.