Global livestock contributes 14.5% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. If we are to have any chance of feeding a growing population while ensuring that there is still a planet worth living on, our food systems must be fundamentally transformed, not to say revolutionized.
Part of this transformation is taking place in the laboratory, with cell biology taking center stage. With global meat consumption showing no signs of slowing down (on the contrary), cellular agriculture could be one of the keys to reducing animal emissions.
UK-based cultured meat startup Uncommon announced today that it has raised $30 million in Series A funding. The round was led by Balderton and Lowercarbon, but also angel investors in the form of Sam Altman (of OpenAI) and his brother Max.
Patent pending RNA technologies
Founded in 2018 and based in Cambridge, Uncommon uses RNA technology to grow bacon and pork belly from pig cells. If RNA sounds familiar, it’s probably because of the mRNA vaccines being developed to fight COVID-19. RNA stands for ribonucleic acid, a molecule that contains the instructions or recipe that tells cells to use their natural machinery to make a protein.
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“As the only cultured meat utilizing RNA technologies, we believe we have a competitive advantage that could help us become the largest protein company in the world,” said Benjamina Bollag, founder and CEO of Uncommon.
The cultured meat startup has now collected a total of around 35 million euros, including a £1m (€1.16m) Innovate UK grant. The latest round will target further reductions in commodity costs, the regulatory application process and scaling production at a pilot manufacturing facility at Cambridge Technopark. In addition, the company announces that it will double its team in the next 18 months.
Will cultured meat prevail where plant-based alternatives seem to have failed?
Investors who backed the initial push toward plant-based meat alternatives haven’t had much joy in recent years. But if the failure to capitalize on the early enthusiasm for vegan meat substitutes proved anything, it’s this: people won’t stop eating meat, even if the future of the planet depends on it.
Although plant-based alternatives have greatly improved the taste and texture, they cannot fully mimic real meat. Lab-grown meat doesn’t have this problem because it’s real meat.
Cells are removed from an otherwise intact animal and then cultured in a laboratory setting. Uncommon converts the individual cells into induced pluripotent stem cells in a process called “reprogramming.” won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012.
The costs associated with the technology have so far prevented commercialization (and that doesn’t say anything about the regulatory hurdles that still need to be overcome). But companies in the industry claim that scaling production will bring costs down to the point where, in a few years, products will be priced comparable to regular meat. In fact, Uncommon claims to have a 5% share of the global pork market by 2035.
Investment in cell farming in the UK is booming
Analysts differ in their estimates, but the cellular farming market could be worth hundreds of billions by 2040; An attractive proposition for investors willing to play for the long term and potentially do something good for the planet. Global, The cultured meat industry increased US$869m (€806m) in venture capital funding in 2022, up from US$1.3bn (€1.2bn) in 2021. In the UK however investments increased by 400%.
While most people have come to know him as the CEO who brought ChatGPT to the world, Sam Altman is an avid startup investor. He has supported over 100 companies over the years, including several biotech startups, for example Elon Musk’s Neuralink.
Securing the food supply
CCultured meat could be one of our best bets in reducing the slaughter of 200 million animals a day and curbing the huge emissions and overuse of antibiotics associated with land use and factory farming. What’s moreit can contribute to food security.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the first country to approve cultured meat for human consumption – Singapore in December 2020 – imports 90% of its food. The USA also approved the first cultured meat product (chicken) in November 2022.
The EU could be in for some strife, however, as the Italian government recently backed a bill that would ban lab-grown and other synthetic meats in the name of cultural food heritage. Though it’s the country’s 68th government in 76 years, things may still change as the technology matures commercially.