Higher Steaks CEO and co-founder, Benjamina Bollag, said when she first learnt of cell-based meat, the experience was “mindblowing” – specifically regarding its potential to improve public health and sustainability.
However, Bollag was also aware that no firm, to date, has managed to advance its products to market. “I could see that no one has yet managed to commercialise it, and I saw a few things that could be improved,” she told FoodNavigator.
The start-up launched one year ago with Bollag, co-founder and CSO Dr. Stephanie Wallis, and scientific director David Hay. “We spent a lot of time looking at what was going on in the field, what other [competitors] were doing, and what could be improved to commercialise faster.
“We came up with our current solution, which we are still working on, but hope will lead us to large scale commercialisation.”
This ‘solution’ is what sets Higher Steaks apart within the sector, according to the CEO. Firstly, the start-up is one of very few players working with cell-based pork as its first meat, and secondly, the company is leaning more on engineering principles, rather than pure biology, to get there.
“In our case, we are working with a type of cell called induced pluripotent stem cells. You take these cells from any part of the body, and the most non-invasive way to do so is by using a small skin patch or a blood sample,” Bollag explained.
In fact, a single blood sample could allow for indefinite production of many meat products. In Higher Steaks’ case, the harvested cells are brought back to the embryonic stage, fed with protein, vitamins and sugars, and grown into different types of tissue – such as muscle or fat.
While still in research and development, Higher Steaks aims to first develop cell-based sausages, before making cultured bacon, and eventually, pork chops. “We estimate that we will get to market in three to five years, including the 1.5 years of regulatory processes,” Bollag revealed.
Whether Higher Steaks will be the first cell-based player to reach market is too early to say, but the CEO did state she believes there is room for a number of players to grow the space. “A lot of companies are still in the running, and I don’t think it will be a market where one winner takes it all.
“There will be quite a few successes and different ways of getting there. But we strongly believe that our technology will be one of the ways.”
Health and sustainability
From a health perspective, Higher Steak’s cell-based pork could have widespread benefits, according to Bollag. Cell-based meats can dramatically reduce the amount of foodborne disease, for example, and the meat is antibiotic-free. “The fact that we are doing it without antibiotics, and reduce the amount of foodborne diseases, is already going to massively impact people.”
Beyond these obvious health advantages, cell-based meat producers can also modify fats in meat, to boost the content of healthier fats, and reduce its less healthy counterparts. Manufacturers could also add supplements to improve consumer health.
All of these elements, however, are dependent on consumer demand, explained Bollag. “You can make bacon fat-free, but is that actually what the consumer wants?” she asked.
From an environmental perspective, when produced at scale, cell-based meat has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions, as well as land and water usage.
The start-up has plans to undertake a lifecycle assessment, which will analyse, in detail, each raw material in the final product. “The assessment will look at where it comes from, what is its water footprint, land footprint, CO2 footprint. Once we do this, we will be able to determine if our processes are environmentally friendly, and if some could be improved.”
Meat for flexitarians
Demand for conventional meat alternatives is on the rise, particularly within the plant-based space. According to a recent study conducted by UK supermarket retailer Waitrose, one in five UK adults say they are following flexitarian diets or reducing the amount of meat they eat.
These respondents make up Higher Steaks’ target market. We hope to sell to “shoppers who eat meat, but are trying to reduce it”, said Bollag. “Alternatively, the product could be for people who eat plant-based, but don’t want to do so every day.”
And this is backed up survey conducted by Higher Steaks itself. According to the results, 52.33% of respondents said they would switch from conventional meat to Higher Steak’s alternative, with just 20.93% saying they would rather eat plant-based.