Cellular Agriculture was spun out of University of Bath in 2016 as the UK’s first startup in the cultured meat space, but its ambitions go far beyond a lab-grown burger.

The world population, currently approaching $7.8bn people, is estimated to increase to almost $9.2bn by 2035, break through $10bn by 2060 and edge towards $11bn by 2100, according to the United Nations’ World Population Prospectus 2019.

The good news is that this means a slowdown is expected. The bad news is that the growth is not expected to happen at the same rate everywhere. Africa will be the continent to face phenomenal challenges: it is expected to add some 3 billion people to its current population of 1.3 billion.

These are projections, of course, but they throw up a wide range of socio-political, economic and demographic challenges globally and for Africa in particular. One of the most significant challenges will be how to feed everyone.

The World Bank estimated in 2011 that sub-Saharan Africa has as much as 200 million hectares of land suitable for agriculture that is not currently being farmed. That is nearly half of the world’s total arable land, but the vast majority of it is concentrated in a few countries – including Sudan, where corruption, political instability and haphazard policies have so far meant not much land is actually being farmed – and leaves much of the continent without suitable options to grow food. A possible solution? Lab-grown meat.

The idea, as futuristic as it may sound, is not new. Winston Churchill published an article in science magazine Popular Mechanics in 1932 titled Fifty Years Hence in which he wrote that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

But the person seen as the godfather of the industry is Willem Van Eelen, whose interest in cultured meat came from his experiences as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp in Indonesia during World War II, when he suffered from hunger and gained a sense of moral responsibility to prevent unnecessary animal suffering. Van Eelen’s work eventually led to the first lab-grown burger in 2013.

That first burger was funded by Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of technology conglomerate Alphabet. Once large sums of philanthropic money started pouring in, the idea quickly went from a proof of concept to an industry – and the publicity around that first burger helped spark an interest in Silicon Valley and further afield.

From cancer to chicken nuggets

Illtud Dunsford, co-founder and chief executive of Cellular Agriculture, a spinout of University of Bath, is one of the driving forces behind cultured meat. His company’s ambition is “to feed a growing population,” he told Global University Venturing.

If you haven’t yet heard of the spinout, it’s because Cellular Agriculture isn’t interested in launching an expensive consumer product just to have something on the market. Instead, the spinout is playing the long game and developing the underlying technology that lab-grown meat developers will eventually require.

Dunsford said: “The reason why we’re doing this is population growth and food poverty. The key challenge for us is to get the technology to the scale where we can do that. It doesn’t have to be purely through large-scale factories and how we currently think of food production. It also means novel applications on a smaller scale.”

The spinout builds on the tissue engineering expertise of co-founder Marianne Ellis, senior lecturer in chemical engineering and head of department. Ellis already has a more mature spinout, Cellesce, which has developed a process to grow organoids – small versions of organs – and specifically tumours to test cancer drugs on a more realistic model than a flat layer of cells. Cellesce’s technology automates the generation of organoids – previously a difficult, manual process – and reduces batch-to-batch variability.

If the leap from tumours to burgers seems just a bit too far, Ellis pointed out that Cellesce meant she already knew how to take tissue engineering to a commercial place. And in fact, the leap wasn’t all that far.

Ellis has been fascinated by the space since her PhD, which specifically focused on bone tissue engineering and how to “repair bones by growing cells and making a material called a scaffold,” she explained.

“The scaffold is needed because cells need to attach to something to grow. Collagen is probably the material that most people have heard of,” Ellis said. The material could be something other than collagen, she added, and the spinout had not yet figured out which material was the best from a carbon footprint-perspective, for example, or whether a nationally abundant resource such as grass would be suitable.

The scaffold structure, called hollow fibre membrane, was “biodegradable and would, once in contact with water, degrade”. Ellis clarified: “Hollow fibres have been around for a long time,” having originally been developed in the 1960s for water purification.

Cellular Agriculture figured out how to use the hollow fibre membranes in a tubular container called a bioreactor, which, in theory, offered the highest cell density. Ellis described the technology as “a bundle of drinking straws thinner than a millimetre in diameter and porous – a design that replicates blood vessel structure.

“As the blood goes through the capillary, what the cells need will pass across the walls of the capillary to the cells on the outside and any waste material comes back into the blood vessels. This system, which was essentially my PhD thesis, is called pseudo-vascularisation, because it is vascularisation but they’re not real blood vessels. By doing that, you get a lot of cells in a small space.”

Illtud Dunsford and Marianne Ellis

Current tissue engineering technology largely relies on stirred-tank reactors – a bucket-like container with an impeller and a stirrer where cells are on full particles rather than a hollow fibre. Stirred-tank reactors are cheap and can be purchased off the shelf, but they take up a lot of space.

Space has never been an issue for stirred-tank reactors, because they have been used for applications such as cell therapy and regenerative medicine. But now that the systems are being used to grow meat in a lab to feed billions of people, that scale is quickly becoming an issue.

Scott Allan, one of the PhD students supervised by Ellis and Dunsford, and a research fellow with cellular agriculture research institute New Harvest, specified: “Stirred-tank reactors are typically operated in batch: you put all the cells and the media in, close it up and it stirs it all.”

The problem was that “everything is contained,” Allan said. “All the by-products, such as lactate, stay in there and some point, they reach a concentration that is too high for the cells to stay alive in. Whereas in our system, we remove the waste as it is produced.”

Cellular Agriculture’s system had its challenges, too, Ellis admitted. “They are more complicated to set up and they are harder to process, but it’s a balance then of the efficiencies with the space and the media.”

Dunsford added: “These are engineering considerations of scale, which is very different in terms of funding. We are not looking at the early market, which is the easiest because you could just buy stirred-tank reactors on eBay.”

Ellis agreed: “One of the things we need to do to achieve price parity with cheaper cuts of meat is to grow as many cells in a small a space as possible using as few raw materials as possible.”

The challenge and leap in technology was comparable to going from computers that took up entire floors and required a whole team to operate to having a smartphone that was vastly more powerful. Ellis continued: “We are talking probably 100 to 200 times more space efficient, and that also translates into labour efficiency and the amount of people that you need to set up, look after them and take down the systems. It is not just space gains; it is a lot of additional gains.”

The efficiency gain was equivalent to producing 300 kilograms using Cellular Agriculture’s technology at the same size that the stirred-tank reactor produced only 10 kilograms, Allan said.

Such a task might sound aspirational, but Ellis pointed out that “it is not impossible, fortunately. We work with input from biologists to figure out what to replicate through the physical environment that we design or through adding supplements.

“It’s a different challenge to organoids. Some aspects are easier, some harder. Arguably the hardest problem is producing something low-cost when everything that has happened before in tissue engineering has been for very high-value products. Medical applications don’t have to cost $1 per unit – although we will get there eventually: just look at penicillin.”

A considerable amount of work was about managing expectations, Ellis added, because “people think lab-grown meat is going to be next to bags of Quorn in a few years, but we’re probably talking more than five years.”

As substantial as Ellis’ expertise is in tissue engineering, as important is Dunsford’s knowledge of the food industry. Dunsford’s family can trace their agricultural history back more than three centuries and after he first pursued a career in the creative industries, he went back to the farm and launched specialty meat processing firm Charcutier in 2011. The company became a supplier to luxury department store Fortnum & Mason, opened a stall in London’s famous Borough Market and in 2016 won the BBC Food and Farming Award for Best Food Producer in the UK.

But it was the Nuffield Farming Scholarship that led Dunsford to the Symposium for Cultured Meat at Maastricht University, where he met Ellis and they decided to get into business together.

Three years without raising substantial equity financing in a space that has the potential to have a phenomenal impact might raise eyebrows, but Dunsford explained: “We’re very realistic in how much research needs to be done and so we’re taking a much more traditional view, especially – even though it’s a small amount – having had investment from the likes of Innovate UK.

“We are still looking for those types of funding streams rather than necessarily looking for big chunks of equity. Some of the pioneers have already given so much away in their companies that it really puts pressure on them to find an exit now. Whereas for us, there’s empirical science that needs to be done to establish this as an industry.”

Ellis added: “We’ve seen Just has launched their, albeit quite expensive, chicken nuggets and Mosa Meat, about a year ago, was saying it would be five years until they would have something on the market. Mosa Meat is very sound in terms of its technical development. It is a massive company but it maintained links with Maastricht University –it’s a spinout –  so five years is a fair timeline.”

Filling the gap

Cellular Agriculture’s patient approach isn’t just about conducting more fundamental research. The spinout’s system is the second-generation technology that the likes of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods will need eventually because current processes are not suitable for mass production – a reality that Impossible Foods has already struggled with for its plant-based approach and that has led it to partner meat processing company OSI.

Dunsford explained: “The investment structure is actually an opportunity for us because those early companies have a race to market. They’re trying to capture an opportunity; therefore, they’re having to concentrate on first-generation technology.

“We’re not focused on the final food product; we are looking at the efficiency of this technology. It puts us in a different place and we’re not having to chase that same goal. We are the technology that fills a gap once they need to get to scale.”

Ellis admitted: “We have spent a long time having conversations with investors to make sure that they understand the technology, what we can do and what we want to do. We are not promising them that there is going to be a product on the market in 18 months.”

A key challenge, Ellis said, was that “as soon as you involve biology, it’s a whole other ballgame because biology doesn’t behave. There is a big risk in the field: we can predict and hypothesise but biology complicates it so much more.”

For all the talk of population growth and food poverty, both Dunsford and Ellis are also acutely aware of another threat to human society: the climate crisis.

Ellis said: “This is a way to diversify protein production. We are not trying to say this is the only protein source that people should eat.

“Everybody in food needs to be looking at their practices to find sustainable methods that can feed everybody. These two goals are not necessarily going to match, but they need to, so starting from day one we need to be looking at what has a low carbon footprint and can produce a lot of food for everybody.”

Changing farmers’ mindsets

As laudable as fighting food poverty and the climate crisis are, there is an elephant in the room when it comes to lab-grown meat: the livelihood of farmers. The topic is, unsurprisingly, close to Dunsford’s heart but he confirmed that he was not looking at livestock agriculture as “something that’s inherently bad and that we need to disrupt.”

He continued: “It is about having a holistic approach to producing protein. We are evolving agritech. Dissolving someone’s livelihood is not the point. It’s about putting food in people’s mouths.”

That’s not to say it is an easy conversation – the opposite, in fact. Dunsford explained: “Farming is more than a job. It’s generally a form of succession and often you don’t make that choice. I was fortunate that I worked outside of the family farm and then went back, when I worked directly with consumers ­– that gave me a very different outlook on farming and I’m able to take the personal out of it.

“Agriculture as we know it globally is going to change. In a European context, especially in the British context post-Brexit but also after subsidy changes, there will be massive changes. Farmers have to be realistic about what they have as a resource, rather than seeing something that’s changing the way in which they currently produce food. It’s not necessarily a direct threat to them and their livelihood: it is evolution.

“If farmers decide to dig in their heels, then agriculture as it stands, and rural communities, will go the same way that the coal and the steel industry have gone in the UK. If they choose to look at their resources and what they could produce, there are huge opportunities. It’s purely to do with mindset, but communicating that is very difficult because, initially, it’s seen as a threat and people naturally are defensive. It will take a few leaders to adapt before a huge swathe of the community starts changing.”

Farmers needed to realise they weren’t beef producers or sheep producers, but food producers, Dunsford argued. “Farmers are entrepreneurs, people who have huge resilience and work extremely hard. They’re extremely well placed to change those businesses, but they need to want to be able to change them.”

Ellis added: “We see that cultured meat is an opportunity: there is one line of the industry where you take cells from your herd or flock. You can have a high-end meat production and the cultured meat will essentially be the cheap cut. You’ll get more value from every animal.”

And it wasn’t just the animals that presented an opportunity, Dunsford explained, because the land was also invaluable. He said: “Traditionally, cattle would be eating grass and produce meat. If you retain the cell from the livestock, that cell still needs nutrients to grow. It’s as-yet undefined what that nutrient solution will be, but it will most likely come from plants. You still need the farmer to produce those plants. Even if you have a traditional system, you might be able to eradicate the majority of the cows, but you still need to produce a crop. That could be grass –there are people looking at how to make that edible to humans.”

Today’s special: your favourite celebrity

There is another aspect of lab-grown meat often overlooked, because much of the focus is on industrial scale.

Dunsford said: “Sometime in the future we may have home-based systems. Again, this is a revenue stream for farmers: the consumer might want meat from a specific animal from a certain farm. It’s the same concept as Nespresso: you put your capsule in and you get a particular cut from a particular animal. It becomes very science fiction, but these are ideas we have already considered for the past 50 years. Consider smartphones in the context of the communicators from Star Trek – it is not actually that far away.”

And speaking of Star Trek, Dunsford added that his spinout’s technology would also have implications for space exploration. Sending humans beyond the moon might seem like a distant dream currently but figuring out how to feed these astronauts was a fundamental part of the equation.

Back on earth, cultural sensitivity was another aspect of lab-grown meat worth considering, Ellis said. “Cultured meat that is made in one country will look very different as an end product, but the process itself will also differ by country.

“In the UK, and other places where you have good agriculture and land for animals to graze, taking cells as well as selling the meat is likely to be the best way forward. But there are places where you can’t farm because of the climate or population density. There, you can either get cells from animals or develop cell lines that are engineered to grow forever.

“There are regulatory and ethical questions around that but, in theory, you could produce cultured meat from them so that protein is produced locally. You’ll have to import nutrients to feed the cells, so you will end up with national or global economies. It also means you can take into account the preferences of local taste and traditions.”

You could also take into account wild concepts, Dunsford added, such as a meat crisp, with the cells grown on the scaffold of a spinach leaf. Even wilder, Dunsford said, was an exhibition in Amsterdam where artists had created “celebrity cubes – cells that had been extract from celebrities and made into a little block of meat, so you could eat personalities such as Kim Kardashian.

“If you take it to that level, in our consumer society, would people actually be really interested in eating their favourite celebrity? It also allows us to consider species that are near extinction and, currently, are being poached. There’s a place then to produce food that contributes towards securing biodiversity.”

Scott Allan looking at a hollow fibre membrane bioreactor
Scott Allan looks at a hollow fibre membrane container

An inspirational kidney dialysis machine

Part of the filtration system from a kidney dialysis machine (top) re-developed into a small hollow fibre membrane bioreactor (bottom right)

There are a lot of considerations at play to realise the dream of a globally established cultured meat industry, but a lot of that work is actually done on a small scale. Allan said: “It is a lot simpler at the lab-scale to conduct all the preliminary experiments and then move those findings to a larger device, because you have defined all the fundamentals. You solve all the problems.”

Dunsford added: “Our bioreactor could be longer, it could be thinner, it could be fatter. Part of the work is trying to find the sweet spot: when we reach a specific size, it might actually be far more efficient to have multiples at that scale rather than one massive device.

“We have to consider that as well in terms of the application and where that system is placed, whether it’s in an urban, rural or industrial area. Something small-scale could potentially sit within your home. But something like the large column is only going to fit in a factory.”

Then there was the challenge of transporting reactors to where they needed to go. Would it fit in a shipping container, or could it be turned into a modular system?

The shape of the container being developed by Cellular Agriculture was inspired by part of a kidney dialysis machine. That type of ingenuity needed to be applied across the board. Dunsford said: “We don’t really need to limit ourselves to what we currently do because the challenge is so great that as soon as we start putting hurdles in our in our way, that’s the wrong approach.

“We are not looking at what foods we can produce, we are looking at how to produce cells at scale. From that point onwards, we can look at which cell is the most efficient. One might be considerably easier from a media formulation and a cost perspective, and that would be the first one to exploit.

“Then, when it comes to new food product development, you look for the one with the fewest barriers. We are not saying we will make a burger, because it could be chicken nuggets, it could be foie gras, it could be paté, it could be anything. It’s looking at the path of least resistance for growth.”

This opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Foods such as foie gras are highly unethical products to consume even if you are not a vegetarian, but growing them in a lab would remove any concerns about animal cruelty.

The road ahead

Cellular Agriculture's bioreactor
Cellular Agriculture’s prototype large-scale bioreactor

It makes sense why Cellular Agriculture has so far relied on funding streams such as those provided by Innovate UK – even though it might baffle any venture capital investor why this spinout is not raising hundreds of millions of dollars.

Dunsford said: “If you think of our large model of the bioreactor, the Silicon Valley model would have been to throw $5m at it to prove that we can build it at a big scale. But it would be hugely inefficient because none of the lessons that Allan is learning at the moment on a very small scale would have been learned.

“It is a very different approach of scaling engineering work. We are very British in that sensibility, doing the iterations of research upfront, and because of that it is not necessarily bootstrapped but it is efficient in the way that money is used.”

That is an interesting position within the national context, where public policy is to generate more unicorns. Yet, turning Cellular Agriculture into a unicorn at this stage is demonstrably not the right way forward.

Dunsford pondered: “There might be unicorns in this industry, and those early investors might make a lot of money, but at some point, somebody’s going to lose a lot of cash or a company will be hugely devalued.”

He continued: “The difference in our approach is that it is not just food applications that could come out of this. This could bring the cost of some biomedical or regenerative medical applications down considerably as well. It really is quite far reaching.

“It’s interesting: the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries are based on small volumes with very high margins and the food industry is the absolute opposite. There are so many intersections here in terms of different technologies and outlooks, and these two industries are meeting at the moment and it will be interesting to see what path it all takes.”

Learning lessons early on a small scale might sound rational, but it had not always been the approach taken by the food industry, Dunsford said: “Some of the things we have done to make agriculture more efficient have created problems, such as microbial resistance. And apart from creating superbugs, you also put the animal in a setting that is not natural.”

Far be it for Dunsford to deny the need for early companies, however. “We need them to create a market, we need them in terms of regulation and legislation. We need them to be invested in the market.”

His attitude was not entirely selfless, he admitted. “They may well be the first generation of our customers. A lot of these companies face pressure to retain every part of intellectual property in house, so they are researching across all these different bottlenecks.

“But it’s not just having them as customers, it is an ecosystem play. Enabling technologies will potentially lead to new companies that provide cells and media, and companies like ourselves that provide scaffolds and technology.”

There is a caveat: these early companies can lead to false expectations. Plant-based meat is a runaway success – though its singular need for peas still leads to monocultures and that isn’t good news for the planet in the long-term – but that scale is not  possible with cultured meat today because the technology isn’t there yet.

“But”, said Dunsford, “once second- generation companies like us start appearing, we will enable scale because then there’s access to ingredients, to machinery and manufacturing that doesn’t exist now.”

Dunsford concluded: “We need a much more holistic approach where we use a little bit of everything, and that mitigates its effect on the environment. In order for us to be responsible, we need to consider what the impact is.

“If you are purely a financially driven company that wants to make a certain amount of product, that’s very different. The reasons why we have looked at this is that you can solve these key challenges that relate to climate change and food poverty, and those are the two factors we have to always keep in mind in terms of what we are developing.”

It is a noble goal, but one that will take more money to realise. And that means Cellular Agriculture is gearing up for a seed round while staying true to its mantra that traditional venture capital is still not the road to go down on at this point. Instead, the spinout will seek  £500,000 ($645,000) through equity crowdfunding platform Koodoo. The money will go towards building and proving bench-scale technology and delivering a first pilot by the end of 2021.

The round values Cellular Agriculture at $14.2m, meaning the spinout will refrain from artificially inflating its standing. Keep an eye out on Global University Venturing to learn when the funding round launches.