Alternative Protein: The unbelievable rise of cell based cultured meat

Hosted by

Clare Nasir

Podcast manager

Guest Speakers

Dr Neta Lavon

Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Research and Development

Cultivating Conversations takes you on a tour of the cutting-edge technology and future trends that are making cell-based cultured whole cut beef a reality. It’s a talking point that continues to make headlines but has defied naysayers with falling production costs and a surge in investor interest. 

Aleph Farms is a world leader amongst a community of successful food tech companies in Israel. The company boasts a lot of firsts in the development and production cell-based cultured meat, including creating meat in space. Clare Nasir catches up with Dr Neta Lavon, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Aleph Farms. 

Their conversation is a fascinating insight into how technological advances in stem cell biology have now transitioned to food tech. Once referred to as Frankenstein food, cell-based beef has come a long way in an incredibly short time in terms of production time, cost and applications. Dr Lavon clearly guides us through the process of creating the whole cut steak, the science and methodologies, including the use of three-dimensional bioprinters. 

She also talks candidly about their greatest challenge – scalability, particularly framed around a sustainability remit of local production. 

Neta’s passion for her product is revealed in true colour when she described the time the president of Israel tasted their cell-based steak. There seem to be no bounds to the rise of this sector, hear it from one of the world’s leading scientists in this episode of Cultivating Conversations. 

What's Discussed

  • Using the knowledge of stem cell science to create whole cuts without killing cows .
  • Timeline from proof of concept to product.
  • A simple explainer of the production.
  • The role of three-dimensional bioprinting.
  • Peoples reaction to eating the entrecote including the Israeli president.
  • Why Israel is known as the STARTUP nation/food tech hub?
  • The rise of Israeli food-tech investments, including DiCaprio investing in Aleph Farms.
  • The importance of local production. 
  • Future plans for Aleph.
  • Making steaks in space.
  • The importance of a blend of cell-based and plant-based alternative protein to capture the market and make key sustainable progress in AgTech.
  • The role of the cow in cell-based production.

The Full Conversation

Clare [00:00:01] Hello and welcome to cultivating conversations with me, Clare Nasir, I'm a TV broadcaster, meteorologist and author and have teamed up with Chaseman Global to bring you a regular dose of inspired stories in the world of AgTech. 

As a leading partner to some of the world's most forward-thinking AgriTech companies, Chaseman Global work with rising stars and the best in the business. Those who instil change to improve efficiency, productivity and profitability. Every nation on this planet strives towards food security. Research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation suggests by 2050, we will need to be producing around 60% more food than we do today, providing that extra food with a traditional farming-as-usual approach places a heavy burden on natural resources and current production. 

Whilst there are ripe environments around the world for producing food locally, there are many regions where arable and livestock production is a challenge. The increasing threat of extreme weather impacts from climate change and supply chain issues that can buckle stocks further. It's no wonder some countries are embracing new food technologies. One place where there's been a meteoric rise in AgriTech and food tech enterprise is Israel. AIeph farms are based in Israel, but they're also world leaders in the development of cell-based, cultured meat. 

They can boast a lot of firsts. In 2018, they were the first to create a cultivated steak. In 2019, they succeeded in growing meat in space. In 2021, they successfully produced a rib-eye steak. These are exciting times, but it's one thing creating a prototype. Another scaling up to meet the needs of consumers. 

Today, we hear from Dr Neta Lavon Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of R&D at Aleph Farms. I spoke to her from the Aleph Labs, just outside Tel Aviv in Israel. 

Neta [00:02:04] 

My name is Neta Lavon and the CTO and Vice President of Aleph  Farms that is located in Israel, a food company aiming to produce food meat for everyone. 

Clare [00:02:18] 

Did you start in food tech or something completely different? Tell me about your academic background. 

Neta [00:02:23] 

So actually, I did a kind of a circle, you know, I started with food. I decided I wanted to be a food technologist. And then I started my bachelor's in chemistry and biochemistry of food in the faculty in Israel. And when I graduated, it was a little bit more than 20 years ago. I wouldn't tell you how much exactly I started looking for a job and I started visiting food plants and I saw the lab and I realised that there wasn't any research and innovation. It was mainly quality control, testing for microbiology, for safety or testing for nutritional values, but they didn't develop any new products. 

I decided that it wasn't appealing enough, and I decided to continue my studies and I went to study biotechnology. And that's how I was exposed to cell biology and stem cell biology. And I continue to do my Ph.D. working about stem cells. That was really very strong in Israel and was very exciting these days. Together with a Proposition 71 in California, for example, that gave a lot of money to stem cell research. And I explored these topics looking at stem cells with the aim of developing new therapies and extending diseases and developing therapies based on cells and taking my postdoc. And then I joined the company that developed such technologies. I've been eight years a company that my expertise was to take the technologies from the university, from the academia and develop them into industrial production. And I needed for therapy for ALS, and for eight years we were at the stages of approaching the FDA. We started discussions, we visited the FDA and we started producing the therapy for clinical trials. And then I got a phone call from a colleague of mine and he told me, 

“What do you think about taking stem cells into developing meat, into the developing food?” And in the beginning, I was very surprised. And I told him, her actually, I have to think about. This is a very disturbing. And that may be distracting. And I really realise that these are destructing technologies that will have a huge impact on our future because we are developing something that will stay for generation, will promise food security, will reduce the resources that we use of the environment in order to make sure that our children will have enough food, which is the basis for everything. And we also allow us to prevent diseases from happening because we can promise healthier and safer food. And that's how I did my circle. 

Clare [00:05:25] 

So your ultimate goal is to provide food for everybody. When did it start, when was that seed of inspiration from using your theory to create something where you could create a piece of meat? Basically, I mean, I can't fathom it. I can't really get my head around the science. So you're going to have to educate me here, Neta. So tell me, first of all, about your timeline from the concept to proof of concept to where we are now. 

Neta [00:05:57] 

So we have started working on establishing the company based on technologies that were developed in the Technion-Israeli Institute of Technology, and Professor Shulamit Levenberg. And she's the world's expert in tissue engineering, and she started developing this concept back in 2016. She's been working on developing tissues for therapy again. And then she had the student. It was vegan and came to her and told her - listen I want to create meat for me to eat. Let's take your technologies of how to make muscle, which is actually the steak that we eat, and let's do it with cells from cows. And that's how they started developing this concept. And when Aleph Farms was established, we further developed this concept. And actually, already in 2018, we have released our first proof of concept to the public, and we had the reporter that came here and took some photos and tasted the product. And that was our first public exposure back to December 2018. And since they're a year after we are released, actually the prototype, that would be the basic for commercial development that we are doing these days. And in January, we released another product that we are developing that is actually the entrecote that is combining different cell types together that are produced by 3D bioprinting. And that was the first entrecote in the world that was made by cells taking from cow without the need to grow the cows just to grow the cells without the need to slaughter a cow, of course. So that's the role that we did, and today we are building our pilot plant than to launch our product. Second half of next year. And that's how we would start exposing the product for everyone, for the public. 

Clare [00:07:50] It's incredible, really, your timeline is five years so far from something, which was an idea almost, although the science obviously was there already to a point where you're now creating a almost a production line. Can we backtrack a little bit? I would love to understand in the simplest terms how you take a cell from a cow and create a whole cut. Is it simple to explain that in a minute or a minute and a half. I mean, the ABC guide basically matter. That's what I'm looking for here. 

Neta [00:08:24] 

So what we're doing is this we are taking a biopsy, a group of cells from the cow, and we actually mimic the natural processes that are happening within the cow, but just outside of the cow. 

OK, so what does the cell need in order to grow? What does a cow need to in order to grow? She needs food, and she usually eats the food. It is being digested and it goes into her bloodstream and feeds the cells so the cells can grow. The cow can grow and mature. What we do is we take the cells, we've put them in a plate and in the small scale and then in bioreactor, a cultivator which is a big tank close and that is being circulated homogeneously all the time. We take these cells, we put them in a broth that has everything that gives the cell needs in order to grow. It needs glucose to have energy, vitamins, minerals, protein, fatty acids like we need, and we give these components to the cells to grow and it grows. We don't have to do anything. We have to incubate it in a temperature similar to the temperature of the body of the cow, because that's optimum for the cell. So we incubate it in the temperature of the cows body. We give it the nutrients and the cells grow, and that's it. And when we have enough cells, we want to create the tissue out of them. So we are actually embedding them on a scaffold, which is replacing the extracellular matrix, the collagen that we have in our body. The collagen is really the cement, that glues the cells to grow together because cells don't grow in suspension except for the blood cells. So cells need something to adhere to in order to grow. And that's what we do. We take these scaffold, we put the cells onto it and they create the tissue, and we combine several types of cells like we have in the meat that we have muscle cells. 

We have the deeper cells - the fat cells and we have the cell that's created collagen that we have in every meat cut. So that's it. That's the tissue. That's how we create the meat. We have to put some salt and pepper and it's ready. 

Clare [00:10:34] 

Wow Let me just add another question on to that 3D printing, which we've all seen in some shape or form. Is that an Add-On that's been something that you've developed since creating your first whole cut? 

Neta [00:10:49] 

Yes, the entrecote that we developed, we did with 3D bioprinting, and we are developing our pipeline as a second project and using printing allows us to create thick steaks that are marbled and actually designed to have this combination in its orientation or design between the different cell types, their proportions and their ratios between them. So we have this technology that was developed in the Technion. Again, we still work with the Technion team that they're experts in developing novel ideas and concepts, and we bring it to the company in order to make it into a commercial product. And that's our path for developing new products. 

Clare [00:11:33] 

The timing is key in developing something like this. This could not have been developed even five years earlier, would you say? 

Neta [00:11:43] 

The 3-D printing is a technology that wasn't developed for large skin production. That is the reason that we decided not to start with 3D bioprinting. We knew that we don't have it doesn't have still the capacity to do large scale production, and we decided to start with other techniques and then to give the team the chance - our next project to start working on it, doing bioprinting, it's not only printing the materials, it's also printing the cells with the material with the extracellular matrix is a complexity that still need not become commercial, even with tissue engineering for therapy. So that is why this is for us the second project. 

Clare [00:12:27] Have you tasted your product? 

Neta [00:12:29] 

I tasted it many times, and now, of course, the team here, we have thirty five people at the R&D team. A very big group and people are cell biologists, process engineers and the food technologists. The tour for them to analyse the quality of the product is really tasty. They do it a lot and we actually still are not allowed to release it for an outside tasting because we did not finalise the approval of the regulatory authorities, which we are doing and in Portland, and we work very carefully in order to get their check to make sure that the product is safe. And according to regulation. But until there, we have to taste it internally only and anticipate many times. And I enjoy it and I see the progress in the development and the improvement of the process. Each time I try it again and every every reaction that we got is great. We have given it to some reporters that came to visit us and that we also had the Israeli prime minister facing it. So it's very nice to get their reactions. It's no different from developing cell therapy. When I cell therapy, I couldn't give anyone to say sick people looked under the microscope and were amazed that still here it's an immediate feedback. You just eat it and you said, wow, it's. That's the reaction we get 

Clare [00:13:55] 

In some circles. Israel is known as the Start-Up Nation, and perhaps quite rightly so, as this country currently boasts 300 active food tech start-ups. However, some would argue the landscape here is maturing nicely. There are many players and organizations that make up the Israeli food tech sector. The fledgling businesses and entrepreneurs are supported by universities and a host of researchers who are very active in this space and fueled by a swathe of multinationals based in Israel, such as PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone and Coca-Cola, the industry is ripe with an underlying wealth of expertise and talent.  Locally, the main drive for this emerging food tech culture is the need to be self-sufficient in all areas of food and agriculture. The ambition may be home-grown, but the appetite is hungry for overseas markets.  In 2020, investments in Israeli food tech companies reached 148 million US dollars fast for the year to 2021, and by September the figure was already 300 million U.S. dollars. This, doubling in less than a year, marks the highest investment rise in the entire technology sector. Listing alternative proteins as the main engine of growth and positioning Israel as a key global player. It is certainly attracting the right kinds of attention, A-list celebrities such as Jay-Z, Natalie Portman and Oprah Winfrey are backing food tech with their own money. Most recently, actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio has joined this roll call, investing an undisclosed amount in Aleph Farms as part of the 105 million US dollars Series B funding round in July. And perhaps one reason why Neta and her team talk so confidently about the future. 

Clare [00:15:43] 

So when the Prime Minister of Israel tasted your meat? Did he have a massive smile on his face like you did when I just ask you the same question?

Neta [00:15:49] 

Yes. And what was surprising is that he didn't only tasted one bag, he kept eating it. And I was like, Wow, that's the biggest proof, you know? It said it was afternoon. I'm sure it wasn't how great it was really appetite. You know, it's saying we have the video I could share. 

Clare [00:16:10] 

Tell me what the hardest part of the product is to mimic when it comes to the steak? Is it the texture or is it the taste or is it the look? 

Neta [00:16:20] 

Our main challenge is related more to scalability and pricing. That's the challenges of cultivated meat, the technologies of building a tissue or developing the cells. We feel very much comfortable with them, and they were established with other territories and with other concepts and products. We have, of course, to tell them to the councils and to our processes, which are and which has the same requirements to food. But the main challenges with the cultivated meat is to establish large-scale production facilities and also to get the price of this growth media off this broth that feeds the cells to be in a reasonable cost. So the product, the final product will be like a commodity, like other food products. And here we need a lot of work in the four years since we started to understand what are all the components, how can we minimise them? How can we find sources that our cost the to add them to our growth media? And I should say that we were successful. We have a very clear path how to do this. We have collaborators that we do it with them, that that's their expertise. And accordingly, we were able to have our fundraising that early this year. And that really showed the proof of our investors that this path that we selected and that we have chosen is the right path to continue forward for large scale production. 

Clare  [00:17:53] 

So your unit cost of production obviously has fallen significantly since your prototype. Is it falling at a projected rate or greater than that or less than that? 

Neta [00:18:04] 

So we are going to reduce the cost in 90 percent, which is a dramatic reduction in cost, but our purpose and our plans and our path is to get into a price parity with the high end meat five years from now. And accordingly, that's how we tailor our processes and develop our product because we completely understand that pricing is essential and we have to be there in order to be purchased by the consumers. And that is our plan. And to getting to price parity. 

Clare [00:18:43] 

Do you think with the way technology is growing and accelerating, is there scope for it to be maybe made locally 

Neta [00:18:51] 

With cultivated meat, our idea is to have the production locally. The aim is to answer the sustainability needs of our world. The idea is that we don't have to grow it here and transfer it over across the sea to other locations like today happens and also brings some issues related to the supply chain, of course. So we are planning to have plants locally around the community that is going to purchase its meat to do a kind of a tech transfer. What we develop here and what we are doing now in our pilot plant to actually duplicate, replicate rather than have many, many duplicates of this in different territories of the world. And there are some countries that really don't have any other resources. For example, Singapore is a very good collaborator of us because they have their programme of 30 by 30. They would like to produce 30% of their food by 2030 there by themselves and not being established on importing from other places. They don't have enough land, so this technology really saves dramatically 95% cutting the land that is needed because we don't have to grow the cows, of course, and also saves 90% of the water that is required for the process. We don't have to breed cows for two years and give them water and feed and also cuts out a lot of the greenhouse gas emission. Again, because of the methane that is produced by the cow, we don't have cows. Of course, we have bioreactors that we have to heat, but it is much less dramatic reduction in the uses of energy and greenhouse gas reduction. 

So all these advantages of cultivated meat over conventional meat really brings the governments and our collaborators to advance this technology. We have collaborators in Japan, we have Mitsubishi, we have B-Raf, in Brazil, we have different locations that we already started discussion and also have contracts with already two years ago. And we are going to integrate into the supply chain that they already have and not, you know, building something from scratch in order to save resources in order to enhance bringing it into the market. So this is our, you know, with large expansion, their vision. We are a global company. We already have offices in Europe and the US. This is how we plan to move forward. 

Clare [00:21:36] 

Did you find that there was a tipping point when it came to investment from having a few people interested to… Everybody wants to invest. Everyone wants a piece of Aleph farms. 

Neta [00:21:47] 

When I told people that I'm leaving cell therapy into developing food products, people thought I was crazy and moving my VP position to somewhere else that was completely not secure. But after a year when the first results of Aleph Farms came out, they feel that it was so attractive. We got a lot of offers from investors to invest in the company. And so I can tell you both our experience and very happy to say that we have smart investors that are educated and they're coming from scientific disciplines, and they need thorough due diligence to understand the technology. And they have given us their word and their trust that this is the right path. 

Clare [00:22:37] 

How important is government to support this new technology and the development of something which is economically viable? 

Neta [00:22:47] 

It's a great question, I believe the governments are essential for this field. It's a new ecosystem, it’s different in different variables, so they should support the R&D in the academia and also for the companies that just started exploring the technologies or maybe tech transfer, because usually, these companies have a hard time, you know, getting the investments because they need these first two years to get the concept first. For example, in our case, the Israeli Innovation Authority invested in the company at first, together with the kitchen hub the Strauss Group and the Technion actually. And they gave the first money to start the concept. 

And this is one of the reasons that Israel is leading because we have this support. But they should also be supportive in establishing the regulatory environment and the resources to support testing these novel products because each country has to do its own regulation path. So they need good people to learn these new fields, and it's a lot of investment of time and effort. They also have to support their facilities for production. So thinking about subsidies, some governments give subsidies to their farmers through the cow growers. So in order to make the meat in a cost-effective manner for the consumers, so maybe the subsidies should be divided differently if we want to promote a more sustainable world, more sustainable options. So this is something that can be helpful in the first years, at least when the product wouldn't be cost-effective to everyone, at least. 

Also, the government started this support in Spain and also in the U.S.. The National Science Foundation supported research in Davis University about cultured meat. So it is happening dramatically, and I'm very glad to say that the good for the institute, which is a non-profit organisation, has very much strong support and push for this. Pushing forward these aims and with great success, and we hope that governments would continue this support and expand it. 

Clare [00:25:09] 

You obviously have a huge passion for your projects, and I can understand why. Why would you like to see it? What is your vision for your whole cut steak? 

Neta [00:25:20] 

My vision is that everyone that would like to purchase it in the supermarket can go to the supermarket. There will be this idea that selling cultivated meat from all different animals or all different shapes will be steaks, but also fish or chicken or whatever he wants to choose. Very similar to what we currently know about conventional, traditional meat. It will be an aisle of cultivated meat from different varieties and they can take the price would be reasonable for people purchasing and people would buy it at least once or twice a week. Combining also with plant-based because it also has other advantages. So we're not going to be the sole producer in the world. We aim to be the third biggest company meat company in the world. That is our vision, but we're not going to be alone. I believe this plant, based in other and novel technologies and novel products that have sustainability as part of their mission in this part of their process. There would be also offerings because that is our goal. Our goal is to create food in a sustainable manner and to have food security for everyone. 

Clare [00:26:37] 

As Neta described, 3D bioprinting has been hailed as an emerging technology with an unprecedented capacity to fabricate food products with intricate structures, reducing significantly material costs and energy use. Bioprinting came into its own in an incredibly novel way quite recently. The team at Aleph Farms conducted an experiment aboard the International Space Station. First time ever, lab grown meats has been created in space. 

Zero gravity is actually a friend of the 3D bioprinting process,  On Earth, as the cells are created, they fold downwards, so the printing format requires a layer by layer approach. However, in space, the cells remain suspended so the tissue can be printed from all sides simultaneously and also the maturing bio-printed organs and tissues in zero gravity proceeds at a much faster rate than on Earth. Now let's get back to the final part of our conversation with Dr. Neta Lavon.

Clare [00:27:39] 

Are animals in any way injured or harmed during this process?

Neta [00:27:45] 

So our process and we tailor-designed it. It wasn't easy, it's one of the more complicated ones. We do not harm or kill any animal in our process. So we take the cells from a subset that is not required to kill the animals. And more than that, our cells have an unlimited potential for growth, which means that with one biopsy that we take, we can create out of a bank of cells. We can freeze it and we can use it for very long term production for one cow. And this is very unique to other forms. The second thing that is unique to Aleph Farms is the fact that we do not do any genetic modifications in our process and not for the cells, not for other ingredients that are involved in the process of creating the final product. So this is a second point, and the third is, of course, our technology for creating the meat cut. We were the first and we are the leading in doing these steaks and not only masses of cells that are later can be shaped and formed into hamburgers or sausages and so on. We create this meat that this tissue by tissue engineering that is unique to Aleph Farms. So these are the main points for us 

Clare [00:29:09] 

Will Aleph farms be creating whole cuts in pork or lamb or chicken? Where do you go next? 

Speaker 2 [00:29:17] 

We now focused on bovine and we started with cows because of the huge, sustainable cost for the environment. That said, the cow has when we look, there is a factor that you probably know that is called feed conversion rate. So the feed conversion rate for cows is 25 to one, which means that we get one calories, but we have to feed the cow with 25 calories, which is a huge loss. OK. You have to mention 25 plates of pasta that you prepare and you throw 24 of them. Why is this the case? Because a cow, you grow a whole cow, but actually you only eat 30% of it. OK. And of course, there is this conversion rate for chicken, for example, it's nine to one. But definitely, cows are the main target to solving today on the top of the issues of ethical and moral that we have to kill these huge mammals. So we decided to start with cows. But what is amazing is that this is a platform we developed now, a platform that we can later. And that's in our pipeline, of course, that we are taking into other mammals at first, like sheep, like for porcine, for example. And then we can also go further beyond to fish and birds and so on. But we are focusing currently on mammals. We already have pipelines above bovine. And this is a platform. 

Clare [00:30:48] 

Dr. Neta Lavon, thank you so much for your time. You are an absolute inspiration, and I wish you luck with the next stage of developing this and I look forward to eating it and buying it in my local supermarket soon. 

Neta [00:31:00] 

Thank you very much for the invitation. It was a pleasure to talk to you. 

Clare [00:31:06] 

My sincere thanks to Dr. Neta Lavon CTO and VP R&D of Aleph Farms, for an inspiring conversation. 

Next time on Cultivating Conversations, we discuss future food tech market trends. We head to New York and an investor in plant-based meat start-ups and to London, where a market analyst reveals more on the potential future landscape of food production. Joining me in these conversations, Chaseman Global's Mark Cooper, based in Brisbane, he brings a fresh perspective on what's happening on the ground in Australia's agricultural heartland. We hope you've enjoyed the show. Please connect by commenting and subscribing. I'm Clare Nasir and you've been listening to cultivating conversations.