The main theme of this year’s New Harvest conference was bioreactors.
The standard process for cellular agriculture, also known as lab-grown meat or clean meat, is to sample some cells from the desired animal, culture them, assemble them on a scaffold, and grow the cells in industrial volumes. Similar processes have been developed to produce artificial insulin and rennet with the aid of engineered microbes.
The sampling and culturing of cells have been standard practice in research and biopharma for years. Previous conferences discussed the steps to take when the original cells are cows and pigs rather than human and cancer. This year those considerations were understood to be feasible. The next hurdle, as many hopeful start-up unicorns know, is scaling up. That is where bioreactors come in. The big question at this point in the industry is: how can we grow enough of these cells to make a difference in the market, at a price that is competitive, with sustainable and ethical materials?
Every New Harvest conference starts with the New Harvest Fellows presenting their research for the community. Santiago Campuzano from the University of Ottawa showed how his lab has been decellularizing celery to use as scaffolding for cell growth. Next Scott Allan of the University of Bath went over different types of bioreactors their pros and cons. Tufts researcher
Natalie Rubio brought a different perspective by discussing the potential of invertebrate cells for bio fabricated food.
Would people be willing to eat protein derived from bugs?
Additional sponsored research was displayed in the poster area.
After a coffee break, the presentations turned from the lab to the marketplace. Geraldine Paulus gave an overview of the history and mission of the Engine, a venture fund started by MIT to address tough problems with long solution timelines. While the Engine doesn’t currently have any cellular agriculture companies in their portfolio, the industry’s location at the intersection of medicine and agriculture makes it a natural fit for the Engine’s approach to investing. Deb Arceolo presented about her experiences creating transparency at the Hershey Company and what those lessons could mean for getting the public comfortable with lab-grown meat. Last year’s New Harvest Conference had similar presentations about lessons that could be learned from the roll-out of GMO foods, showing that the story is as important to success as the science.
After lunch, the next series of speakers focused on the engineering hurdles of cellular agriculture. Will Patrick, Culture Biosciences, brought the power of cloud computing to the next generation of automated, high-throughput bioreactors as service. Continuing the theme of automation,
Nick Legendre from New Age Meats presented an eye-opening talk on the parameters required for cultured meat production and how they can only truly be optimized in combination, not isolation. Automation and machine learning allow researchers to test many protocol variations in a short period of time. Nina Buffi from OSPIN shared an analysis of bioreactors from an economic perspective, comparing types of bioreactors and the business model associated with each one.
After another coffee break, it was time to turn the conversation to the particulars of culturing seafood. Lou Cooperhouse of BlueNalu gave an overview of the why and how of cellular aquaculture, followed by local Tim Sullivan from the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute talking about how his organization is bringing biotechnology to fisheries and Marlin Keith Cox of Seafood Analytics did a deep dive into the data that can be measured in muscle tissue.
That was a long day, so the conference turned more informal with an open mic, group photo, and happy hour.
The second day of the conference started bright and early with Meera Zassenhaus speaking briefly about Community Engagement at New Harvest. Since cellular agriculture is a new industry, laws are having a hard time keeping up with the science. Brian Sylvester, Special Counsel at Foley & Lardner LLP, Rohini Bansksota, Director Of Policy At Finless Foods, and Eric Schulze, VP of Product and Regulation at Memphis Meats, shared the stage to discuss the regulatory landscape, which has been especially active over the last year.
Another panel followed after coffee with speakers sharing their experiences with cellular agriculture around the globe. Podcast host Alex Shirazi presented an overview of cellular agriculture hotspots. Singapore was represented by Ka Yi Ling of Shiok Meats, which was in the news recently for their public tasting of dumplings with lab-grown shrimp meat. The Netherlands was represented by Jonathan Breemhaar, Lead Automation Engineer at Mosa Meats, creator of the famous hamburger that started the second wave of cellular agriculture (more on that later). Nick Beaumont from Heuros spoke about the cellular agriculture-related opportunities in Australia, and Shir Friedman, Head Of Communications At SuperMeat, shared that Israel is a particularly beneficial location in which to launch an alternative food company, of which it has more per capita than any other country in the world. Lisa Feria, CEO at Stray Dog Capital, moderated.
Another break, this time for lunch, brought together a third panel discussing careers in cellular agriculture. David Bowman from Mission Barns, Jun Axup from IndieBio, Justin Kolbeck from Wild Type, Kate Krueger from New Harvest and moderator Meera Zassenhaus shared their individual circuitous paths to their current roles and explained what types of skills and experiences cellular agriculture companies are hiring for. Surprisingly, it’s not all science and research. As cellular agriculture grows as an industry and gets closer to interacting with the public the way traditional food companies do, there is a growing need to people who can bridge the conversation between the lab, the production floor, and the business world.
The day ended with a turn to the social sciences. Garrett Broad of Fordham University shared lessons from the academic world of communications studies on how to build trust with the public. Step one: assume the relationship will be a dialogue, not just a one-way flow of information from the expert to the uninformed. Step two: take people’s concerns seriously.
The final presentation was with Neil Stephens from Brunel University London, who has been studying the cultured meat community since 2008. He has tracked the fascinating change in narrative from academic to start-ups, from in vitro meat to lab meat to clean meat to cellular agriculture. He shared that the unveiling of the Mosa Meat burger in 2013 was a game-changer in the community, solidifying the narrative around cellular agriculture as a sustainable, ethical technology aimed at meat-eaters.