Memphis Meats, a new startup in the San Francisco Bay Area, isn’t your typical meat purveyor. It doesn’t have any connections to ranchers, factory farms, or slaughterhouses. All it has is a small lab. It was in that lab that biologists just birthed a meatball. Think of it like an immaculate conception of animal protein—real meat without the animal slaughter.
The small company, founded a few months ago and now closing a seed funding round of $2 million, is the latest to trying to cultivate an entirely new form of animal agriculture—one that doesn’t pollute the climate, doesn’t require antibiotics, land, or pesticides, and might even be better for human health.
"Our goal is that 50 years from now, people will look back at the idea of killing animals for food as laughable," says co-founder Uma Valeti, who is a cardiologist by training.
Valeti first became interested in the idea of lab-grown meat when, as a heart doctor, he would see the first-hand effects of America’s meat-heavy diet on its cardiovascular health. He wondered: "What if we could grow meat to be protein packed and lean, and only have the fats in there that are beneficial for us?" Stem cell biology, he knew, had advanced so that scientists were growing human tissues in labs. Why not cow, pig, and poultry tissue, too?
"Culturing" meat involves taking the stem cells of a given animal, multiplying them in a petri dish containing nutrients (or—one day—maybe in a huge meat brewery vats), and growing them into meaty muscle tissues that people might want to eat.
A small handful of other companies and organizations, such as Mosa Meat in Europe, Modern Meadow in New York, and the Modern Agricultural Foundation in Israel, are also doing similar early-stage work. In 2013, with the backing of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Mosa Meat founder Mark Post held a taste test of the world’s first cultured hamburger.
By then, Valeti had spent years connecting with other researchers and food system reformers who were also talking about these ideas. More recently he concluded that, like Post, it was time to start a company: "This is not really about getting more papers or grants or publications," he says. "The right place for an effort like this is in the commercial sector."
Along with co-founders Nicholas Genovese, a stem cell biologist who grew up on a family farm, and Will Clem, a tissue engineer whose family owns a chain a BBQ joints, Valeti moved to San Francisco to start Memphis Meats a few months ago. The team's aim is to bring a product to market within the next five years, which is about the same timeline that Mosa Meat hopes to deliver a market-ready cultured hamburger.
Before today’s happy carnivores are all eating guilt-free meatballs, two big things must happen first. Costs must come down, and production must be scaled up—like most very new technologies, ideally, the two will go hand-in-hand. The prototype meatball cost $40 dollars per gram to produce, says Valeti, which would work out to about $1,100 for a one-ounce meatball. Already, the team has a "pathway" to go down to $10 per gram, and Valeti says $5 per gram is the next milestone. Ultimately, he thinks lab-grown meat will need to be a $0.02 a gram to be a mass market product. (That’s a more reasonable 50 cents a meatball.)
With their new funding, Memphis Meats is moving to larger lab space in the East Bay. The goal will be to make meat that can first be sold at higher-end stores like Whole Foods, next at average U.S. supermarkets, and eventually even in developing countries where the consumption of meat is growing quickly.
Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute and a Memphis Meats investor with his firm New Crop Capital, thinks that cultured meat is an answer to some "really big questions" in the modern livestock agriculture system. "That’s a system," he says, "that needs to be disrupted."