“Everyone talks about lab-grown steak as if it something that we could just have tomorrow and I firmly do not believe that is the case. Cellular agriculture is very exciting and important work, but we will not have a full range of products on shelves tomorrow. It will be exciting to see the products – and the field –evolve over time.”
Cellular agriculture is a field which looks at producing animal products from cell culture, rather than animals. This field builds on advances in biotechnology, and currently informs food science of tissue-based foods such as fish and meat, as well as products such as milk and eggs. US-based New Harvest (team pictured above) is helping to fund research in this area, and this investment comes at a time when it is badly needed due to the world’s growing population, which is set to reach 10 billion in around 35 years’ time.
Here, Bio Market Insights’ Liz Gyekye catches up with Kate Krueger, Research Director at New Harvest.
Liz Gyekye (LG): What’s the story behind New Harvest?
Kate Krueger (KK): New Harvest was born in 2004 and is a donor-funded research institute dedicated to the field of cellular agriculture, focusing on advances in scientific research efforts surrounding cultured animal products. The company also looks at the use of cell cultures for food production. This includes everything from protein technology for food production to lab-grown meat.
LG: What were you doing before you joined New Harvest?
KK: I have a background in protein biochemistry and cell biology, and completed my PhD in 2017. I have done a lot of work analysing protein structure and function. This is one of the reasons why I found about this space. Essentially, I started to get interested in making protein from food.
In the past, I worked for a milk protein company called Perfect Day Foods. This company was spun out of New Harvest. When an opportunity arose to join New Harvest, I was fortunate enough to join that team. I saw how translatable all the innovations from companies such as Perfect Day were to the whole space of cellular agriculture.
LG: What do you think that consumers think of cell-based meat?
KK: I think it depends on what type of consumer you look at. Different people look at lab-grown meat with different sets of preconceptions. Some people want to reduce their impact on the environment and are drawn to clean and green products, while others focus on ethical reasons for not eating meat and are concerned about the animal’s welfare. In addition, you also have some people that are interested in the texture of cell-based food and want to see similarities in what they eat in the future to conventional foods.
LG: Are these synthetic biology companies attracting interest from the investment community?
KK: We are seeing a lot of interest right now from venture capitalists (VCs) because they are very interested in investing in this space. Rather than focusing on companies right now, we are focused on the upstream R&D that is necessary for all of these companies to succeed. We see ourselves as the NSF of lab-grown meat research. We support innovations that focus on inexpensive cell-cultured meat formulations, scale-up potential, and structured meat creation. In a way you have cultured meat products, which are equivalent to 3.0 and 4.0 in the software world. However, we are currently focused on the 1.0’s and 2.0’s like non-structured products such as meatballs or burgers. All in all, New Harvest has the luxury and breadth of portfolio to think on a big timescale to help with these innovations.
LG: What challenges do you face?
KK: We face many challenges. One of them includes funding. This is because cellular agriculture as a discipline tends to fall squarely between the research funded by biomedical research and the research funded by agricultural funding. Consequently, both research sectors miss out and fail to get funding as separate entities.
In fact, very few organisations exist that can fund cellular agricultural research. One of our goals is to position ourselves and obtain government funding for this. Some governments outside the US have been open to this. For example, countries like Japan and the Netherlands have funded work in this area. In the US, most of this money tends to be from private VCs.
LG: What advice would you give to somebody starting up in this synthetic biology space?
KK: I would advise to get as much experience as you can. For example, you could get laboratory experience or do chemical engineering research, bioengineering research or molecular biology research. Getting those initial skills and getting your feet wet in any area is key and will give you the skills to help shape the synthetic biology field in the future.
LG: What do governments think about this space?
KK: I think that governments think that there is a lot of promise in this area. Last week, I went to speak to the US Government Accountability Office and they were very interested in the topic. The US Food and Drug Administration started to have meetings on this area from last summer. And, last autumn, the United Stated Department of Agriculture also joined the conversation. So, the US agencies are interested. I think that the conversation has already started. However, we still do not have a clear angle on how that funding might be allocated. It’s still very early days.
LG: How do you see lab-grown meat panning out in the short term?
KK: Everyone talks about lab-grown steak as if it something that we could just have tomorrow and I firmly do not believe that is the case. Cellular agriculture is very exciting and important work, but not all the products will be on shelves tomorrow. There are a lot of technical hurdles that we need to solve before products start coming to market. Before we get to the lab-grown stage of steak, a lot of work needs to be done.
LG: What is your favourite sustainability product?
KK: I do like the products that are made using enzymes instead of chemicals which are used in a variety of healthcare products.
Curie Co. is one company that is working on biological solutions that have been solved in the past by chemistry. I think companies like that are showing a lot of promise to shape our markets in ways that are sustainable, cleaner, greener and longer lasting. I am very excited about the promise of organisations like that.
Kate Krueger, Research Director New Harvest, is a confirmed speaker at SynBio Markets (Berlin, 18-19 November 2019).
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