Aleph Farms first introduced steak in December, which the company bred in the lab. In the interview, the founder talks about the research and the market launch.
It takes three weeks for an edible piece of meat to grow from an inconspicuous cell culture. The Israeli company Aleph Farms has been working on this since the beginning of 2017. The twelve-member team is trying to produce artificial muscle mass similar to beef in a laboratory in Tel Aviv. Even a cook helps.
Founder and CEO Didier Toubia previously led two medtech companies – one of which has developed a procedure that helps with breast cancer treatment. His co-founder Shulamit Levenberg comes from stem cell research.
Not only the native Frenchman works on in vitro meat. The Dutch startup Mosa Meat served the first hamburger in the Petri dish in 2013. Other research teams are trying on chicken or fish but have not yet presented any products to the public.
In an interview, the CEO of Aleph Farms talks about how much capital his roasted steaks devour and when the meat will land on the plate.
Didier, how does the in vitro technology of Aleph Farms work?
The process is based on a natural process, as it occurs in the body of cattle. We take cells from a live, healthy cow without hurting them. From this we create a cell bank. The cells are then transferred to bioreactors, ie containers, in which the environment is designed exactly as if the cells were in the body of the animal. Accordingly, the cells behave as if they were in the cow and multiply.
And how does that turn into meat?
We have found a technique that allows different cell types to grow together: fat cells with cells from blood vessels, muscles and supporting cells. Meat is not just a pure cell mass as it occurs, for example, in boulettes. Meat has a complex texture, a 3D structure that makes up the texture and appearance. And that’s why we’re developing steaks and not burger patties. We grow the cells on a scaffold, arrange this matrix linearly so that the cells eventually grow together in a three-dimensional tissue. The nutrient medium in which the cells grow contains no serum, ie no animal components, but is a vegetable mass.
Aleph Farms presented the first prototypes of its steak in December. What’s next?
Now we are shifting our focus to the production process. The prototypes were produced in the laboratory. But when we go to the market, obviously we can not do that anymore. That’s why we build biofarms, big tanks with tanks. A bit like a brewery.
When should the first steaks come on the market?
We want to start building biofarms in the next two to three years. Then we can probably make a small, limited launch with two restaurants in the next three to four years. And then it will certainly take up to two more years to produce larger quantities.
So the steaks should first go to the restaurant?
Probably yes. And then in the trade.
How much will the meat cost?
The steaks we produce right now are relatively small and thin. We are working on enlarging them. Currently a steak costs around $ 50. If we shift production from the lab to the biofarms and scale it, costs will go down significantly. If Aleph Farms goes on the market, the price will be slightly higher than that of conventional meat. And in a few years, the prices will hopefully be the same.
Do the steaks from Aleph Farms have the same texture and flavor as real meat?
The texture is very similar. The taste also comes close to that of meat. The smell, if you fry the steak, is pretty good. But we still have a gap to fill and it needs another two years of development. What we have now is a prototype and not a finished commercial product.
The majority owner of Aleph Farms is the Strauss Group, an Israeli food manufacturer. Otherwise, VCs such as New Crop Capital and Straydog Capital are involved in the startup. Would you also allow meat producers such as Tyson Foods and Wiesenhof as an investor, as other in-vitro companies have done?
Sure, why not. For meat processors, in vitro meat is a great option: it is standardized, quality and price are stable and the food is not contaminated. Slaughterhouses or farmers, for example, see in Vitro meat as a threat. We believe that our products are an impetus for the industry to go back to traditional and sustainable methods. Both variants can coexist. I do not see any direct competition.
How much capital does Aleph Farms still need to go to market?
We are currently collecting money from US and Asian investors. And then we probably need another round of financing.
In other words, how much will your research have cost – from start to market entry?
Probably a double-digit million amount. In order to scale further and open up the global market, there is probably more on top.
Will Aleph Farms ever be in the black?
Naturally. Probably a few years after launch, in five to ten years.
How can I imagine your laboratory – clinically white, sterile and employees in smocks?
Our workplace is no different from other meat producers. The fact that our technology comes from medicine, which is also responsible for a higher level of cleanliness and safety. But if we eventually move into the biofarms, that will change too.
There are often discussions about whether or not in vitro meat is vegan. What is your opinion on this subject?
That’s a good question. First of all, we do not want to target the vegan market, but go to the meat market. On the other hand, vegans should be able to eat our meat. That’s why we also talk to vegan clubs to better understand their needs. And most of the time it just means that no animals should be injured. That’s why I believe that many vegans eat in vitro meat. But at the end of the day, it’s a personal decision anyway.