Billionaires and big ag are joining venture investors to fund lab-grown meat

Eighty-five years ago, Winston Churchill wrote an article for Popular Mechanics that predicted humans would soon be growing their meat rather than cultivating animals for it.

Now, with $17 million in fresh financing from a slew of new investors, including the billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson, the big agriculture company Cargill and the venture capital firm DFJ, Memphis Meats is hoping to create an entirely new industry around what it calls “clean meat.”

“Instead of using animals as pieces of technology to convert plants into proteins to make things that we like to eat, drink and wear, we can just use biology to make those things directly,” said Seth Bannon, a co-founder of the upstart venture firm Fifty Years and an early investor in Memphis Meats.

The company has already successfully made synthesized beef, chicken and duck, according to Memphis Meats co-founder and chief executive Uma Valeti. Now the trick is to get the company to grow their meat at scale.

“We envision this to be a production facility where people can walk through and see where the meat is growing, where it is being harvested and where it is being cooked. You don’t get to visit feed lots or visit slaughterhouses,” Valeti tells me.

Valeti imagines a production facility that looks more like a craft brewery than a slaughterhouse. It also would represent the first major innovation in the meat industry in the 10,000 years since humans first began breeding livestock.

In a 2002 article for The New York Times Magazine, journalist Michael Pollan described how cows are slaughtered. 

The cows are funneled into a chute single-file. Once there, they are walked over a metal bar, and, as the floor declines, the cows are suspended over a false floor on the bar and then taken on a conveyor belt to pass in front of a slaughterhouse employee called a “stunner.”

The stunner’s job is to shoot a seven-inch steel bolt, roughly the width of a pencil, between the eyes of the drugged and incapacitated cow.

Then the dead animal is moved from the conveyor belt to a trolley overhead and carried to the bleeding area, where its throat is cut. Roughly 392 cows are slaughtered per hour at a typical slaughterhouse (like the one in Kansas that Pollan described).

This is the culmination of human achievement in meat processing so far (don’t even get me started on chickens).

Photo courtesy of the www.usda.gov. USDA Multimedia by Lance Cheung.

By contrast, here’s a rough sketch of how Memphis Meats cuts its chops. The company’s scientists identify cells that they want to scale up production on — selecting them based on the recommendations of experts. Those cells are cultivated with a blend of sugar, amino acids, fats and water, and within three to six weeks the meat is harvested.

“It’s a much shorter process with many many orders of magnitude of fewer layers of logistics than traditional means.”

The problem is scaling up production. That’s what the new money the company has raised is for and why they brought in Cargill (and up to three other undisclosed corporate investors) as a partner.

“Our focus is to increase the scale of production and lower the cost. That is where this round of funding is going to accelerate us tremendously,” says Valeti.

Right now, Memphis Meats can produce enough meat to feed a family of four-to-eight comfortably and have a big meal, according to Valeti. “We are doing small-scale production for testing and development,” he said. “Not every cell makes the cut. We work with so many different varieties of cells that are in the meat people are eating. We want to test large numbers of cells in small quantities.”

Already the company can make pretty much any kind of mammalian meat that people would want to eat (and some they may not). What’s next is to be able to start targeting things like flavor profiles and consistencies to make the tastiest meat possible.

It’s one of the the things that attracted Cargill as an investor. “We are committed to growing our traditional protein business and investing in innovative new proteins to ultimately provide a complete basket of goods to our customers,” says Sonya McCullum Roberts, president of growth ventures, Cargill Protein, in a statement. “Memphis Meats has the potential to provide our customers and consumers with expanded protein choices and is aligned with our mission to nourish the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way.”

And all without the violence of the slaughterhouse.

Photo courtesy of the USDA.

“In many ways we call this the second domestication,” says Valeti. “Man domesticated animals to grow livestock, we’re domesticating cells to grow meat.”

The benefits of lab-grown meat extend far beyond a more humane way to make palatable proteins for human consumption.

“Interestingly, meat is about a trillion-dollar business and will be doubling as the middle class grows in emerging markets,” says Steve Jurvetson, a founding partner of DFJ and who’s now serving as a director on the Memphis Meats board.

That doubling has massive — and potentially catastrophic — implications for humanity.

“Meat produced through animal agriculture is terrible for the environment, raises global health concerns, is cruel to animals and is failing to feed the world,” says Bannon.

Raising animals contributes more to greenhouse emissions than all cars, trucks, boats and planes combined — and as meat consumption doubles, emissions are expected to increase by another 30 percent by 2050, according to a study by the United Nations.

Animal agriculture also contributes to water scarcity and groundwater pollution. The 8 billion livestock animals raised in the U.S. use half of the country’s water, according to some studies. And because more than half of the crops raised in the U.S. are used for animal feed, pollution from the agriculture industry that affects the water supply can be tied pretty directly to animal agriculture.

As Bannon says, “It’s not often you find a trillion-dollar industry that’s as broken as conventional meat is.”

Studies show that clean meat could potentially be produced with 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, 45 percent less energy, 99 percent less land use and 96 percent less water use than meat made through animal agriculture.

Indeed, Jurvetson — whose track record includes Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity and other wildly successful companies not founded by Elon Musk — views Memphis Meats as a technology that’s potentially as transformative for the meat industry as Tesla was for cars.

“What it does is catalyze an entire industry,” he said of the Memphis Meats deal. Indeed, Memphis Meats already has at least one direct competitor in Mosa Meat.  And there are companies like Beyond Meat that are developing plant-based alternatives.

However, the big idea for Memphis Meats is definitively and totally about creating new ways to make meat — not a substitute. “The cool thing is, it was never in an animal that had to be raised and slaughtered for it,” says Valeti.

Certainly that promise attracted the other big investors that are now backing the company. They include venture firms like Atomico, one of Europe’s leading investment firms and a notable backer of moonshot companies like the flying car manufacturer Lilium Aviation, and the billionaires Gates and Branson.

In addition, a cornucopia of new and existing angel investors and early-stage funds committed capital to the round. They include: New Crop Capital, SOSV, Fifty Years, KBW Ventures, Inevitable Ventures, Suzy and Jack Welch, Kyle Vogt and Kimbal Musk. The company has now raised $22 million.

“I’m thrilled to have invested in Memphis Meats,” Branson told Bloomberg News. “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”

This is also an area where new technologies won’t necessarily mean the eradication of existing jobs, according to Valeti. While the company is loaded with PhDs and genetic engineers who are trying to make the meat meet all requirements for taste and texture, eventually, if the process is to be successful, it’ll need to be replicable by folks who don’t wear lab coats.

That means a string of production facilities could soon dot the Midwest in places where slaughterhouses used to be. It’s also the fulfillment of Churchill’s vision from 85 years ago:

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