In collaboration with F&A Next, Agfunder spoke with Mosa Meat’s CEO Maarten Bosch ahead of his speaking slot at F&A Next 2021 in May. AFN spoke about the company’s first burger, its evolution since, and how the company is charting its future in the currently murky regulatory environment that surrounds the lab-grown meat craze.
The idea that a hamburger grown in a lab would one day wind up on your plate in a restaurant is no longer a wild idea. Restaurants may not yet be printing new menus, but that burger is coming. Mosa Meat will see to that. The Maastricht, Netherlands-based company was among the first to make waves in the cultured meat space, showcasing a fully lab-grown burger in London in 2013. Now, it’s just one of scores of companies working in this segment of the food tech universe, whose spectrum of pipeline products includes everything from lab-grown tuna to chicken nuggets to full on steaks.
Fresh off of an $85 million Series B funding round that closed in February, Mosa Meat is a couple of years away yet from putting a consumer product on the market (or dining table). However, the company is already thinking down the road about what products come next and how to get consumers to buy in.
AFN: Let’s start with that first burger way back in 2013. That was a notoriously expensive hamburger, if we recall correctly?
Maarten Bosch: The number that is out there is €250,000, though the real number is a bit higher. It was very generously subsidized by Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. He had read about their work, gave [Mosa’s co-founders Peter Verstrate and Mark Post] a nice sum of money, with which they created the hamburger—actually, three hamburgers. One they tasted themselves. The second they presented in London, and that got quite some more attention. And the third one is now sealed in the Boerhaave museum in Leiden [Netherlands].
AFN: Mosa is now eight years along, with quite a bit more capital to support you. I expect the burgers you’re making now taste quite different from those prototype burgers.
There were three main challenges that can be linked to that first hamburger. First, I didn’t taste the first burger myself, but I’ve been told that it tasted a bit dry, because there was only muscle tissue being cultured back then. There was no fat. So that was one of the things that needed to be solved, but other than that it was meat—very lean meat.
Second is that there were animal-derived ingredients being used—fetal bovine serum—and that ingredient was not a part of the envisioned solution. So that needed to be taken out of the equation.
Third, the price—it was way too expensive.
So that’s what we’ve been working on. We’re now growing muscle and fat. We’re doing it in a completely plant-based growth media formulation—fetal bovine serum is completely out of the equation. And the cost is down tremendously. It’s still too expensive at this moment to bring to market, but we know why, and better yet, we have a clear plan to bring the cost down to acceptable levels in the next couple of years.
AFN: What is your definition of an acceptable level?
It’s still a very new product, so this translates to a more premium price setting. It would be very suitable for the higher-end restaurant channel. Not the super expensive ones but, let’s say €25 to €35.
AFN: So the idea is that the novelty factor will buoy your initial market.
Exactly. We are aware that the novelty aspect will [not last], but in the meantime, we’ll be scaling up our production and bringing down the cost, enabling a lower price. We aim to reach price parity [with conventional meat] within three to four years of launch. And after that, we can become cheaper than conventional means because our processes are more efficient than a cow.
The cow is not a very efficient animal if you look at how it converts nutrients to meat.
AFN: Well, cows also didn’t exactly design themselves to be consumed by humans, either. They did design themselves to be delicious, though, in our opinion.
It’s a very good product! I am my own target consumer group. Since I have learned about all of the problems, I eat a lot less meat, but [that’s why] I truly believe in what we do at Mosa: we are replacing meat with meat.
AFN: There are some known challenges in the production of lab-grown meat, though. How is Mosa balancing needs for specialized equipment—your bioreactors—against costs, or where and how you source your growth media. Are you doing all of this yourselves, or collaborating with others in the industry?
It’s a combination of things. This is really uncharted territory that we’ve stepped into. And we’ve accomplished creating a cultured meat hamburger, but that doesn’t fulfill our mission. Our mission is to create billions of them.
Some of the things we are doing [affect our] technology routes. We are choosing a non-GMO, full tissue product, which is not the easiest route, because some of the steps within our technology have never been done before at a large scale. But it leads to the most convincing product.
But cell duplication, for example—it’s called the “proliferation” phase—has been done, so we can just use off-the-shelf bioreactors that we adjust here and there. The same applies for growth media. We sometimes partner with companies, like Nutreco [in the Netherlands], to get the supply of the nutrients we want, and specifically designed the way we want them.
AFN: Will you be able to easily diversify your products beyond hamburgers in the future if you want to? Or does your process lock you into that product?
We’re focusing on hamburgers because [we need] a goal. It opens up a lot of opportunities, because we’re basically doing large-scale tissue creation, which can be used for other species, and it also puts us in a great position to take the next step: creating a steak. You need to know a lot about tissue formation before you can take that step.
Beef is also our product of choice, though, because of the environmental impact of beef.
AFN: Since your first burger was produced, so many companies have come into this space, developing all different types of products. Seafood. Chicken. Whole cut meats versus nuggets and burgers. How does Mosa differentiate itself?
I think there are 70 or 80 startups now—I’ve lost count. You know, we aren’t pure competitors. The real competition is conventional factory farming and animal agriculture. [Cultured meat startups] are all striving for a similar goal, and we’re also working together with a lot of them. For instance, so we’re setting up a trade association.
For differentiation, [one is] the species. We focus on beef [cells], which are [among] the most difficult cell types to work with. Second we do it in a completely non-GMO way. A lot of our colleagues and competitors genetically modify their cells, which is not a problem for consumers in may parts of the world, but it is in Europe and in China. That’s the reason we want to stay away from it—not because we are principally against genetic modification.
And we develop a full-tissue product.
AFN: How is that different from what other cultured-meat companies are doing?
Our technology consists of two phases: we take a cell biopsy from a living animal and we put that little group of cells in bioreactor, where it can proliferate until we have billions of cells. That’s often the stage where [other companies] stop. They harvest the cells, mix them with plant-based carriers, and translates into a sort of hybrid product.
The chicken nugget that was introduced in Singapore was a product like that—mostly plant-based material, in their case. That’s still an interesting way to go to market: it’s less expensive, and it’s also slightly easier. That step has to do with the second part of our process.
What makes us unique is that we proliferate the cells, and then we put them through what’s called the “differentiation phase.” That’s where the cells find each other and form what are called myotubes, and then these myotubes form tissue.
That’s where the magic happens, where the meat is created, and where the nutritional profile is created. That’s also the part that’s never been done at a large scale.
The majority of the other players either don’t do that [at all], or they use scaffolds. We are going for a pure meat product.
AFN: We would be remiss not to bring up the regulatory obstacles to cultured meat. Currently only Singapore has permitted the sale and consumption of any lab-grown meat products.
That’s of course one of the major obstacles, and it’s an interesting one because aside from Singapore, where there is now a proven process for bringing a product to market, only Europe has a defined process, called the Novel Food procedures. In all other parts of the world, governments or the regulatory approval bodies are kind of scratching their heads.
The approval in Singapore is significant because it will hopefully speed up the thinking in other parts of the world about how to get this type of product approved.
We are focusing on Europe and Singapore; they’re the clearest for how to get [to market]. Singapore is could be a relatively short approval process. In Europe, it’s about 18 months, if everything goes well. In order to apply, you have to have a product that’s already defined, which we have. You also need to specify exactly how you’re going to your products when you enter the market, and that is pretty tricky because, you know, we’re making meat, but we’re also scaling up our technology. In the next couple of years, when we’re getting industrial-scale, we’re going to make some alterations, so we cannot define the process exactly yet.
AFN: We’ve heard others in the industry comment that cultured meat has, for a long time, perpetually been a decade from market. And now that is clearly no longer the case, but still—this a long journey.
It’s long, but Singapore has shown us that stuff can go fast as well. And I hope there’s more of a sense of urgency that we [will] have to feed 10 billion people ad we cannot do that the way we’re producing meat now. I hope [cultured meat] will be seen as one of the big contributors to that solution.
From the [product] development respect, there is momentum going. Also on the consumer side. But we need more than that. We need governments to help.
View the F&A Next 2021 Program and Speaker Lineup